Tucson — Within my first hour at Tanque Verde Ranch, I spotted a bright red male northern cardinal, singing melodiously, in a mesquite tree.
Half an hour later, I saw hummingbirds buzzing around a feeder hanging outside the ranch's nature center. Later during my two-day stay, I added a Gila woodpecker, barn swallows and goldfinches to my bird list.
You'd think I was staying at a bird preserve instead of a ranch about 25 miles northeast of Tucson's airport. Horses are the main feature at Tanque Verde Ranch, set on 640 acres abutting Saguaro National Park in southern Arizona. The diverse avian life and other flora and fauna -- along with hiking, biking, tennis and swimming -- were sidelights to horseback riding but just as engrossing to this neophyte equestrian.
I left my family behind and flew to this Sonoran Desert outpost on a Saturday last month for a crash course in Western-style horseback riding, hoping at the same time to save some money off high-season rates. Tanque Verde discounts its 74 rooms from May 1 to Sept. 30, when temperatures soar.
The price includes meals and most activities, including riding, but not spa treatments, alcoholic drinks or bottled water. But even with $150 shaved off, my weekend cost was substantial. With nightly prices starting at $290 double, it's a better deal for two.
During my stay, there were several families, about half a dozen from England and elsewhere in Europe, taking advantage of lower prices and enduring warmer weather.
The ranch had plenty of places to escape the relentless sun. I could have lounged in the inviting but largely unused living room, with its comfortable couches, large-screen TV, current books and grand piano. There were the wood benches under the ramada, my favorite place to catch breezes and read. And two pools, one indoor and one outdoor, several whirlpools and La Sonora Spa, which opened in April. The latter offered pricey treatments, including massages and pedicures, from $75 to $175.
I hadn't done anything to deserve pampering yet, so I set off for my first riding lesson at the corral. (I already had signed waivers, which warned me that riding could be dangerous.)
I met Mike Lee, a patient, soft-spoken wrangler who saddled me on a gelding, one of the ranch's 150 horses.
Mike showed me the basics: how to sit (roll my hips forward and relax my body from the hips down), how to get my horse to walk (make a soft clucking sound with my tongue and press my heels into his sides) and, most crucial, how to get him to stop (pull back on the reins).
"Every horse has a cadence," Mike told me, and a good rider can match her balance with her horse's gait.
After a few more pointers, I was ready to try my moves on a trail, so Mike led me and a family of four from Scotland on a walking ride. We rode through classic Western scenery, populated by saguaros that dwarfed me.
The desert was surprisingly green. Prickly pear cactuses bore purple fruit. Stalks of ocotillos were feathered in tiny round leaves and flaming tips. Mesquite trees were heavy with seed.
Usually, I'm drawn to the desert in summer like a lizard to sunlight. But on this ride, a hot flash would have been preferable. You're probably thinking, "Oh come on, it's tolerable because it's a dry desert heat." Desert, yes. Dry, no. During my stay, the humidity averaged 57%. I drank copious amounts of water, bottled and from the tap.
It was humid because of southern Arizona's "monsoons," which last from July through September and are characterized by evening rainstorms accompanied by thunder and lightning. It's another of Tanque Verde's natural side shows.
Storm clouds dogged our footsteps early Saturday evening on the short hike through Saguaro National Park led by Virginia Van der Veer, the ranch's hiking director, and her husband, Tom.
On our hike, they taught me more about Sonoran life. Saguaros start sprouting arms when they are 50 to 75 years old. I learned to identify jojoba bushes growing wild trailside. Virginia coaxed me into trying some seeds. "They taste like almonds but bitter," she said, peeling back the pod. And they did.
Tom pointed out the fuzzy corpse of a tarantula, which he wrapped gingerly in a handkerchief to take back to the ranch's nature center.
Back at the ranch, the storm hit as I ministered to my muscles, sore from the ride, by imbibing a prickly pear cactus margarita at the ranch's Doghouse Saloon. Malevolent clouds gathered over the peaks, a hot wind whipped trees and dust, and daggers of lightning arced to the earth.
I was riveted by the unearthly show, but I'd have missed dinner, served 6:30 to 8 p.m., if I had stayed to watch. So I left for the dining room, trailed by the hot, compost-like odor of raindrops on dirt.
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