Along for the Ride

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By Joe Sharkey
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 11, 2000

At twilight, the moon came up so big and fat it looked like a cartoon hanging over the Chiricahua Mountains. But as the cool desert night lengthened, the moon constricted, shrinking into the massive black sky.

As it happened, we had come to the Grapevine Canyon, a dude ranch in the high desert of southeast Arizona near the town of Pearce, on the night of a full lunar eclipse. A small group of us--the three guests in residence, a few ranch hands and the proprietors--was having coffee in front of a big fire while cowboy Danny St. Clair, boots propped on the stone hearth, played guitar and sang. He was on "Red River Valley" when my wife and I ducked outside to watch the Earth's shadow smudge the face of the moon like a thumbprint. As the moonlight dimmed, the landscape darkened and the coyotes set up a fearful yapping in the foothills.

After a while the celestial moment passed, and we went back to enjoy a more typical desert evening by the fire. Annie Rentschler, the horse trainer, recounted slipping belly-down into a pile of cow manure while roping a calf. Danny told how a squall of beer bottles flew at the stage when he and his band played at a rowdy cowboy saloon in Tucson. Fred Pitz, the handyman, mentioned that it had been so dry all winter that packs of javelinas--mean critters with sharp tusks like wild boars--were down from the hills, rooting in his garbage. Proprietor Eve Searle, meanwhile, fretted about how much weight her beloved cow Clementine has put on, muttering that the cow is now a truly bovine 1,400 pounds because it "eats anything, like a damned goat." When Eve went out into the kitchen for more coffee, one of the wranglers told how he and a couple of the boys took a chalk marker and drew lines all over Clementine like the ones on those butcher-shop charts that divide a side of beef into various cuts of steak and roast.

"But we decided we didn't want to test Eve's sense of humor that much," he confided, "so we hosed the cow off before she seen it."

Danny played some more, and in an hour or so we drifted off to our cabin to get some rest. Funny thing is, now that the eclipse was over, nobody mentioned that awesome restored sky and the way the desert valley shone with moonlight for 40 miles to the foot of the Chiricahua.

In Grapevine Canyon, a scene like that is a given.

My wife, Nancy, and I are avid riders, and for several years we've been regular visitors to a well-known dude ranch in southern Arizona--Tanque Verde, a resort ranch in the foothills east of Tucson along the border of the Saguaro National Park. But this January, planning our most recent trip, I coveted a place to ride a bit farther out in the wilds of Arizona, ideally in the empty southeast section of the state where the fearsome Chiricahua Apache Indians once thundered across the landscape on their fast ponies. I hit the Internet, and the result of my search was Grapevine Canyon, a ranch whose Web site (www.gcranch.com) opens with cowboy music and a series of well-designed pages that describe a ranch set in a canyon at the foot of the Dragoon Mountains, about 85 miles southeast of Tucson and thus a good distance from the urban sprawl of that city. I booked it immediately.

Turned out fine, as they say on a ranch. We were there for the riding as much as the scenery, so we were eager to hit the trails our first morning. Like all meals at Grapevine Canyon, breakfast is taken at communal tables in the main ranch house--hearty food (sausage, eggs, pancakes, bacon, fruit and cereal) served on mess-hall trays. The ranch never has more than 30 guests, but when we arrived during the winter lull, there was only one other guest on hand.

For our first morning, we chose a three-hour ride to get acquainted with our horses and surroundings. We went down to the corral and met our guide, a tall man with a Gabby Hayes beard and a hat that looked like it might have survived the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (which took place in Tombstone, just 25 miles across the hills, as it happens). He showed us on our horses, a palomino named Tequila for my wife and a bay named General for me. After a brief trot and quick lope around the arena, an exercise designed for the wrangler to size us up as riders and for riders to size up the horses, we set off into the high country on a warm, sunny day.

The wrangler's name was Happy. His horse's name was Sunny.

"I wonder if he has a kid named Breezy," I whispered to my wife as we ambled across a long, rocky ridge high along a forbidding canyon of sheer pink granite walls. This was Cochise Stronghold, a rugged natural fortress where the legendary Chiricahua Apache chief, Cochise, would often hole up with his warriors after out-riding the cavalry pursuing them across the high Sonoran desert valley.

In time we learned that J.B. "Happy" Stetler has two daughters--neither named Breezy, it turned out--one a prominent horse trainer in Washington state, the other an executive with an orthopedic devices company in Phoenix. "One gave me a good horse; the other gave me wrist braces to use after I fell from it," as Happy put it once he finally got to talking.


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© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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