Arizona made the cowboy famous. The term had been rousting around the Wild West since 1870-ish, mostly synonymous with the more pejorative ‘rustler’ tag.
But a decade or so later the Copper State took accidental ownership of brand cowboy when it became the hideout of the notorious Cochise County Cowboys.
A loose association of hoodlums, robbers and stick-’em-ups comprising gnarly, cinematic characters such as Phineas Clanton, Johnny Ringo, Pony Diehl and Curly Bill Brocius, the Cochise mob stole cattle and horses from ranches, held up stagecoaches and relieved terrified passengers of their valuables at gunpoint.
Saddle tour: Learning how to ride Western style past giant cacti on the desert trails feels like being in a movie
Their crime spree made them infamous across America and they are widely acknowledged as the world’s first organised crime gang.
Effectively wiped out at the historic gunfight at the O.K. Corral at Tombstone, Arizona (a skirmish estimated to have lasted just 30 seconds but stretched out to a two-hour drama starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas in the 1957 movie), the cowboys would be later re-cast by America and Hollywood as the good guys. But back then they were very much the baddies.
I’m getting my history lesson and a crash course in cowboy horsemanship at the Arizona Cowboy College, a few miles’ drive from downtown Scottsdale — ‘The West’s Most Western Town’.
My dirt floor professor is Rocco Wachman — a slow movin’, spurs-jangling dude with a bow-legged gait, a droopy moustache and hands that know how to work a pair of castrating irons.
Rocco’s straight-shooting syllabus is very much focused on safety and respect around the potentially dangerous horses; the cowboy as a positive, respectful, ridin’, ropin’ and wranglin’ role model.
This is my first time in a cowboy hat since childhood, my first time ever riding Western style rather than ‘English’ (my equestrian skillset evidently less Billy the Kid and more Billy Crystal in the old City Slickers movie).
A horse rider with a lasso. Proper cowboys ride ‘Western style’ with just one hand on the reins
But Rocco, who has taught at the college for three decades, remains a firm but patient teacher. I saddle up and poke dried mud out of my piebald’s shoes before a tentative trot around the yard. Straight back. Hat held high. One hand — forward and low — on the reins, the other resting easy on the pommel.
Rocco is explaining about the time he was up in the red rocks of The Superstitions mountain range, east of Scottsdale. Having lost his way in the wilderness during a fierce snow storm, he fell unconscious while still in his stirrups, leaving his horse to bring him home.
Unresponsive and showing signs of hypothermia, Rocco’s life was saved by the dedication and tenacity of his loyal steed.
With my horse under control, a warm temperature, the air dry and windless, I am mesmerised. Arizona is a beautiful, big country with fluffy white clouds cotton-wool-balling the blue, widescreen sky. Sage brush desert, red mountains and lowing, longhorn cattle as far as I can see. Just the sound of hooves and breeze. No danger of any comic book adventures for this cowboy.
Exercise high: The spectacular Arizona hills are the perfect place to go for a jog
Next day, I am in the passenger cockpit of a noisy, khaki-coloured Hummer H1 vehicle, as used by the U.S. troops in the Gulf. We are clattering our way to the Bulldog Canyon trail for an off- road adventure in the shadows of The Superstitions.
Sonoran Apache legend claims that the entrance to the underworld lies somewhere around here. Other myths tell of an abandoned gold mine full of treasure.
Giant saguaro — magnificent, multi-limbed, flowering cacti — are everywhere, regularly growing to 50 ft high (the record being 78 ft) and some estimated to be more than 200 years old. A mature saguaro can store a ton of water within its bulging trunk.
Architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who built his Taliesin West home and school on a remote site 13 miles north of Scottsdale in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains, was so enamoured with the saguaro that he referenced it in many of his own commercial designs.
From its completion in 1937 until his death in 1959, Taliesin West — ‘a look over the rim of the world’ — was Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter retreat. To entice friends from Hollywood he built a screening room and small concert hall for piano recitals. Weekend guests included artist Georgia O’Keeffe, actress Elizabeth Taylor and rock legend Jimi Hendrix.
Rodeo dive: Taking a dip at Sanctuary Camelback Mountain hotel, pictured, where Jay Z and Beyonce spent their honeymoon
Scottsdale, or more accurately Paradise Valley where I am staying, has long been a celebrity magnet. These days it’s home to actors Dick Van Dyke and Emma Stone. Jay Z and Beyonce spent their honeymoon at the Sanctuary Camelback Mountain resort.
Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Bob Hope used to come here for the golf. James Cagney, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Marilyn Monroe would be holed up at the mid-century modern Valley Ho hotel, while John Wayne and James Coburn (along with Sammy Davis Jr and Burt Reynolds) preferred the recently renovated and super deluxe Mountain Shadows Resort.
Still, a cowboy can tire of four-star luxury and manicured putting greens, and pretty soon I found myself wanting to hang out with steer-handlers rather that people steering golf cart handles. So, I headed into Scottsdale’s Old Town.
Through the swing doors for a beer at Jennifer Aniston’s favourite cowboy saloon the Rusty Spur, then a slow dance to the house band at the Handlebar J. followed by dinner at chef Charleen Badman’s award-winning FnB restaurant — where I was the only client in cowboy boots.
Now it was time for my debut at the rodeo. The Buffalo Chip Saloon, in the small town of Cave Creek, is just 30 miles from ritzy Scottsdale, but with 100 times more hogs and heifers.
Celebrity draw: The recently renovated and super deluxe Mountain Shadows Resort, a favourite of John Wayne and James Coburn
Its most famous former resident was Sonny Barger, founder of the notorious Oakland chapter of the Hells Angels.
I loved it. A vast, open-plan venue with massive Dodge 4×4 trucks parked out front and a mini, bull-riding rodeo at the back.
I sat on the rodeo bleachers with the Cave Creek cowboys, singing along to Dolly Parton records, buying cold bottled beer off a barrow wheeled around by a blonde girl in denim, Daisy Duke cut-offs and cowboy boots, whooping loudly every time an angry bull unloaded its mount.
Since 1947, Scottsdale has been using the tagline ‘The West’s Most Western Town’ in tourist advertising, officially trademarking it back in 2007, but the people of Cave Creek believe that Scottsdale has got too big for its cowboy boots.
‘Scottsdale,’ claimed Cave Creek’s mayor Vincent Francia, ‘is all hat and no cattle.’
‘We’re not living in the 1870s any more, with hitched horses, but we have a great Western flare,’ countered Scottsdale mayor Jim Lane.
‘We’ve got the hospitality and spirit of the West. We’re not doing pig races and quick draw contests on the street but that’s not what makes a Western town.’
But Francia was quick on the draw again. ‘We still live the Western lifestyle. At Cave Creek, we still have horses hitched up (fyi, you can get arrested for being drunk in charge of a horse here) and a cowboy culture that’s alive and well. Scottsdale once was a Western town but it has evolved into something else. Where we hitch horses, they park Porsches.’
IN THE SADDLE… AND OUT OF IT
Big guns in Hollywood: Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas in Gungfight At The O.K Corral
WEST IS BEST
Proper cowboys, like in the classic movie Gunfight At The O.K. Corral, ride with a Western saddle, rather than English. It’s heavier, with a better distribution of weight and less chance of falling off.
Wear a casual shirt, jeans, cowboy boots and a stetson (swap for protective headgear if you haven’t ridden).
SUNSHINE AND REIN
To ride, you will be applying ‘Western’ reins, which means riding one-handed, leaving the other free to work the lasso or open gates.
STEER WE GO
Steering is done by twisting your hips. A ‘whoa’ or a ‘ho’ are commands to stop, a tongue click will make your horse trot.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s former winter home and school of architecture, Taliesen West, opened in 1937. It’s due to close at the end of May, so it’s your last chance to tour it (franklloydwright.org).
If you would like to explore on foot, the McDowell Sonoran Preserve is ideal for a hike, with more than 200 miles of desert trails, cacti forests and diverse wildlife. Try the Gateway trailhead, a 4.5-mile loop with some really spectacular panoramic views (mcdowellsonoran.org)
SCOTTSDALE WINE TRAIL
Surrounded by some of Arizona’s major wine-growing regions, it is the perfect spot to try the local grape. On the Scottsdale Wine Trail, stop for a tipple at five tasting rooms (scottsdalewinetrail.com).
CONTEMPORARY ART MUSEUM
At Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, Squidsoup’s Murmuration digital light installations swirls like starlings through the gallery (smoca.org).