The Old West still lives at dude ranches sprinkled through the saguaro-studded deserts of Arizona.
Actually, they’re known as “guest ranches” these days and are magnets for Europeans who hanker for a dusty taste of the cowboy life, strong cowboy coffee, and getting astride a horse.
I found tourists from England, Ireland, Germany, Scandinavia, and thereabouts on a recent visit to horse country at the White Stallion Ranch and Tanque Verde Ranch, both near Tucson.
The High Chaparral TV series (1967-1971) is still being shown in Europe, spurring interest to see the country where it was filmed.
“I’m not disappointed,” said Ann Reid of Stratford-on-Avon, daintily digging into scrambled eggs while on a breakfast ride at the White Stallion.
Even one of the wranglers, Laura, hails from London. The White Stallion is a former cattle ranch that’s been welcoming guests since 1965. Like many of the ranches, it’s family owned. The White Stallion, with 45 rooms and 3,000 acres, is run by the True family.
White Stallion is very ranchy, but you stay in air-conditioned cottages with all the modern conveniences — except telephones and television. It’s common for guest ranches to omit TVs on philosophical grounds that their visitors, especially children, should experience the outdoors instead of the wide world of the boob tube. White Stallion still has a cattle herd, but as one wrangler explained to me, they’re “pets,” used for team-penning by guests, not meant for the table.
The ranch boasts three solar arrays, supplying up to 40 percent of its power.
The first morning, we headed out on a breakfast ride, through the cholla-cactus desert to a corral where ravens circled and some riders spotted a jackrabbit as big as a good-sized dog. Wranglers poured powerful coffee from huge blue porcelain pots and spooned out spicy scrambled eggs, thick flapjacks, and biscuits. We helped ourselves to orange juice and sat in the shade as the day warmed.
My mount was fine until a giant horsefly landed on its rump and began stinging. I hung on during the bucking until Laura smacked the fly off. I’ve been on many a horse over the years at guest ranches and normally — with rare exceptions — found them docile and responsive, used to greenhorn riders of all ages and sizes.
Horses, for all their size, have interesting, complex psyches worthy of your attention even if you’re only aboard for a ride or two. They have acute hearing and eyesight and are alert to goings-on while on the trail due to the fact that they’ve been prey animals for thousands of years.
Some horses in the corral are pals, others just the opposite.
While White Stallion is very much a horse ranch, many others are really resorts, offering golf and spas, like Santa Barbara County’s high-end Alisal Ranch. The Circle Bar B Ranch up the coast from Santa Barbara offers horse rides up the mountain, modern guest rooms, a pool, and an excellent dinner theater.
One of the West’s oldest and most famous dude ranches is Tanque Verde, just east of Tucson. It dates to 1868, when Emilio Carrillo bought the land. Tanque Verde, meaning “green pool,” refers to a seasonal river and water source used by the Pima Indians.
Most of the wranglers we met during our brief stay there were college-age women, who not only showed a high degree of horse sense but a friendly manner toward riders of all skills. Some of the cowpokes I’ve run into could use their people skills.
As a high-end guest ranch, Tanque Verde offers a huge program, from riding lessons, hikes in Saguaro National Park, cooking classes, and advanced horsemanship to a famous kids’ program. Twice a week there are breakfast rides and evening barbecues at the Cottonwood Grove, featuring cowboy songs. It offers TV and Internet service and is owned by the Cote family.