by Jill Novotny, Photos by George Kamper
I live in Brooklyn, New York, and ran the New York City Marathon the day before flying to visit Tanque Verde ranch in Tucson, Arizona.
The marathon is a unique experience. It summarizes the intensity of New York and life here: overwhelming, energizing, diverse, crowded, and highly competitive. It’s intense enough to walk the streets on a normal day; to run them with crowds of thousands is an amazing experience.
A day later, when I stepped off the plane in Arizona and hobbled down the steps to baggage claim, I was met by Jeff, who welcomed me warmly and began a fascinating lecture describing the culture, history, environment, and vegetation of the area and that lasted the 40-minute shuttle-van ride. Because it was dark, he pulled over to shine the headlights on various plants and trees.
I arrived at the ranch later than the others, and it seemed quieter and darker than any place I could remember. I was definitely not in New York City anymore.
Tanque Verde is the nation’s largest working dude ranch. It is nestled among the Rincon Mountains of Arizona and bordered on two sides by Saguaro National Park. The ranch spans 640 acres dotted with ponds and crisscrossed by a huge network of trails. There are currently about 150 horses that are herded into corrals each morning and saddled up for guests to ride.
In the last 175 years, the ranch has been an important landmark for the area. It changed owners only three times. The first owner, Don Emilio Carrillo, bought the ranch in 1856, just after the land was transferred to the U.S. from Mexico. In 1904, it was raided by bandits, and Carrillo was hung from a beam in what is the card room at the ranch today. Cattleman Jim Converse bought the ranch from Carrillo’s son and built the present day ramada in the 1920s to welcome eastern visitors. During a bar-room brawl, Converse accidentally shot a Mexican cowboy. His troubles with the law led him to sell the ranch to Brownie Cote. Brownie’s son Bob and his wife, Rita, are around the ranch nearly every day and are well-known to ranch guests.
I awoke the next morning as the sun rose on the chilly desert and joined George Kamper, EQ’s photography director, for a hearty breakfast before our first ride. We entered a door marked Wranglers Room, and I felt nostalgic for the summer camps of my childhood. We were assigned horses that would be ours for the rest of the trip. I mounted my horse, Red, a rather lazy, steady fellow with an unhurried manner.
We set out to a ring, where we English riders learned the Western way to hold the reins and practiced trotting around. When each of us had satisfied the ride leader, we took an easy trail ride through narrow, sandy trails. It looked like the riding at the ranch would be simple group trail rides, slow and relaxing.
It wasn’t until later in the ride that I first caught wind of a “lope test.” The phrase was repeated in whispers, until I finally asked one of the other riders about it. She had been coming to the ranch since she was a child and spoke of the tradition with reverence. The lope test, she explained, is the highest level of riding offered at the ranch. Each rider is asked to perform several maneuvers, including a lope, the Western version of a canter.
TIME FOR THE SPA
When I dismounted, my marathon-weary legs had gone from rubbery and sore to wooden and aching, so I decided to pass on the planned hiking trip for something more therapeutic. An outdoor yoga class sounded perfect. Much like the rest of the ranch, the class was unpretentious but excellent. After an hour of stretching and breathing deeply at the foot of the dramatic Saguaro Hills, I was ready to mount up again.
Next on the itinerary was the sunset ride. The landscape opened up, the shrubs turned to sparse cacti, and huge, rocky mountains spread out ahead of us. I sat back into the wide, Western saddle and allowed Red to take me up the slight incline to the foot of the hill. “Is anyone afraid of heights?” yelled our guide. Smiling, I expected her to be joking about a hill or an overlook. Instead, we scrambled up and down banks and ledges that I would never have attempted on my Warmblood back home. I was impressed. This was not your average trail ride. I tried my best to stay out of Red’s way as he adeptly pulled me up and over rocks and around each cactus and ditch.
I caught glances of wildlife like hares and cactus wrens and remembered what a friend from the Southwest had told me: “If it doesn’t bite, scratch, or sting, then it’s not from Arizona.”
As the blue moonlight pushed the last redness to the edges of the sky and darkness arrived, the group’s chatting stopped, replaced with silence. Was everyone else feeling my sense of adventure that bordered on nervousness?
Thirty-five minutes later, we returned to the stable under a bright full moon. As soon as our feet were back on the ground, we made for the Dog House Saloon, the ranch’s on-site bar. The simple, square room was alive with conversation. I ordered their signature homemade Prickly Pear Margarita, and we all chatted excitedly about the day’s adventures.
THE LOPE TEST
The next morning, we headed out early for the lope test. I wobbled to the stable like a cartoon cowboy, unable to bend my saddle-sore legs. I feared that the combination of my useless legs and my lazy horse might spell failure in my test. As we lined up on the stable porch, we were told that we were not going to ride the horses we had been riding so far for the test. Murmurs of dissatisfaction spread over the group, but I was glad. There is nothing like a steady and trustworthy horse, but in my condition I was quite ready for one with pep in his step.
I mounted the unfamiliar Uno and joined the lineup as we crossed the paddock. The gates swung wildly in the wind, and the hay was picked up and thrown around as if by invisible vandals. I could already feel my horse’s hind end bouncing restlessly as I asked him to halt. I squinted, cowboy style, as my face was coated with a thick layer of dust, and volunteered to go first.
At my first motion, my horse leapt into the lope. I spent the four or five strides along the length of the ring learning to steer with one hand and finding my balance in my long stirrups. “And brake!” shouted the wrangler through the wind, and I sat into a halt.
Amazingly, I was one of two riders to pass the lope test, and the only one to continue on for a lope ride, which was much like the other trail rides but at a fast gait. Because it was only me and the wrangler, it was easy to settle into a pace and enjoy the ride.
Along the way, a few pieces of trash had gathered along the trail, obviously a result of the extreme wind. The rugged cowboy easily jumped off his horse and picked up each piece of trash. I decided then that I loved this place. We picked up a lope down the sandy trails of Saguaro National Park. It was one of the most delightful experiences I can remember on horseback.
That night, we walked a path to the cottonwood grove, a stunningly picturesque corner of the ranch where a weekly barbecue dinner is held. A guitar player strummed country tunes next to the bar, where we ordered local beers and filled our plates with hearty food right off the huge grill.
By the morning of our last day, the routine was already familiar. We arrived at the stables ready for our morning ride and wistfully snapped photos of the warm desert we would be leaving in just a few hours.
Our ride took us through a whole new terrain, sandy and open, and ended at an old homestead, where we found an old covered wagon with a sign that read “Bob’s Famous Old West Pancakes.” Famous Bob filled our plates with blueberry pancakes, eggs, and bacon.
The picnic tables, covered in checkered tablecloths, were filled by guests of all ages. I overheard a conversation between a family from Brooklyn visiting for a second time and a couple who had returned to the ranch for each of the 33 years they had been married.
WARMTH IS LUXURY
The uniqueness of Tanque Verde made the experience a luxury. But instead of a luxury resort, it was more like a family gathering—comfortable and unceremonious. Above all, it was a strikingly warm place, which no doubt accounts for the huge percentage of returning clientele. It is a place that feels familiar the instant you arrive. The rich green lawns and waterfall by the pool are opulent and beautiful, but luxury is not the aim. Tanque Verde is a high-end resort built on authenticity, history, and warmth.
As I exited the airplane and walked slowly down the corridors into the terminal at LaGuardia Airport, I looked down at my dusty cowboy boots and considered speeding up my steps to the usual New York City pace. But my saddle-sore legs would simply not allow it, and I walked on at my own relaxed speed. I could pick up city-slicking again tomorrow. Visit www.tanqueverderanch.com to learn more.
Read the story in the Spring 2015 issue.