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Along for the Ride
Trails From an Arizona Dude Ranch

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.

Originally out of Boulder, Colo., Happy is a lifelong cowboy who worked at a dozen ranches in Arizona and Mexico, sometimes moonlighting as a location scout for movie companies. "All my life I could keep moving because there was always a new range to ride," he said, as if he were quoting a script for one of those movies, while our horses stepped gingerly down a rocky path toward a deep, lonely meadow where a grove of cottonwoods tossed an inviting field of shade over sun-blasted rocks. "Down here, this is some of the last really empty country left in southern Arizona."

He wasn't kidding about the empty part. Day after day, on rides up mountain trails, past abandoned mine camps and Apache redoubts, on trots over hard-sand paths and on thundering gallops through fields where the grass was so high our stirrups brushed it like scythes, we never saw another person till we came back through the ranch gates.

We rode every chance we had. With so few guests around, we had Happy to ourselves on every ride, and at length he grew accustomed to us. On the steep trails and rocky switchbacks, we bonded into an unlikely trio, all awed into long silences by a breathtaking nexus of geography, history and nature under a dazzling desert sun that painted the landscape with broad strokes of light that changed colors from morning till late afternoon.

Grapevine has about 70 horses, mostly well-trained quarter-horses, the work horses of the 20th-century West--strong, sure-footed, calm and bred for bursts of speed over short distances. There are a few Thoroughbreds and Arabs in the herd, which is also used for the working cattle-ranch end of the business.

The ride schedule is varied and flexible. Daily, there are three-hour trail rides into the mountains and canyons and two-hour loping rides, which include gallops. All-day rides into the mountains are also scheduled when demand calls for it. Twice a week, horses and riders are loaded into trailers to head off across the valley for full-day journeys in two stunning locales in the Chiricahua Mountains: Chiricahua National Monument, another stronghold for the Apaches, with fantastic rock spires and breathtaking trails; and the crumbling ruins of Fort Bowie, built by the Army in the 1860s as a bulwark against Apache raids on settlers and wagon trains bound west to Tucson, Tombstone or beyond along the southern route to California, through the infamous Apache Pass.

Aside from the landscape, there is not much that could be considered rustic about Grapevine Canyon. It's a small luxury ranch popular with Europeans, primarily from Germany, Britain and France, who ride and are fascinated by (and often quite well-informed about) the cowboy-and-Indian American West. In the summer months, half the guests are from Europe.

The proprietors are Gerry and Eve Searle. Gerry, the shy one, is a horseman, rancher and regionally known cowboy artist who used to work as a stunt man in western films. Eve is also an accomplished horsewoman, but she's the talkative one--an engaging, cultured Czech expatriate who arrived in Arizona by way of India and Mexico and met her husband at a cattle roundup near the Mexican border. They bought Grapevine Canyon 20 years ago as a working cattle ranch and started taking in guests soon afterward.

For hikers, there are numerous well-marked paths into the hills and along the edge of the canyons. There is also a library and a small shop with an excellent selection of books describing the history of the tumultuous era in southern Arizona between the Civil War and the turn of the century, from the boom and bust of the mines to the tragic Indian wars that ended in 1886 with the surrender of Geronimo, the dissident chief who was so intransigent against the Army troops that his guerrilla tactics in the mountains are still discussed by military strategists.

In a place like Grapevine Canyon, geography is history. On horseback, riding for hours along the soaring, sun-scorched canyons, you can see the world as it was viewed through the eyes of the Chiricahua Apaches, among the most warlike of the southwest tribes. Their universe was centered on splendid mountains and the vast unbroken valley. From the high rocks, you get a sharp and sudden appreciation of the sheer visual impact of intrusion. More than 100 years ago, wagons that made it through the Apache Pass would come out westward into that unforgiving valley and stay in sight, kicking up dust and smoke, for two days.

We had dismounted for lunch and tied up the horses on a high plateau overlooking Cochise Stronghold. The horses were glad for the rest, though I thought I caught mine glaring unhappily at the steep trail that lay ahead for the last climb to the ridge. Happy passed around the boxed lunches the cook had prepared before we set out. We stood squinting into the east across the valley lit up like a stage from mountain range to mountain range.

"You can sort of see from up here what got the Apaches' attention," Happy said.

Joe Sharkey is a New Jersey writer and novelist.

DETAILS: Grapevine Canyon Ranch

Grapevine Canyon Ranch (800-245-9202 or 520-826- 3185, www.gcranch.com) charges $140 per person daily, based on double occupancy, for a casita (sitting room and bedroom) and $120 for a cabin, June through August; from September through December, rates are $180 and $160, respectively. Prices include all horseback riding and three daily meals. Soft drinks, beer, wine and wine coolers are available for a fee.

All rooms are air conditioned, with heat for cool nights. Accommodations include coffeepots, refrigerators, hair dryers, pool towels and bathrobes. For larger parties, there is also a lodge building with a variety of rooms. Children under 12 cannot be accommodated.

Most rooms do not have telephones or television, though these can be found in the clubhouse. Bring a cell phone if you need to stay in touch--but don't take it along on a ride.

GETTING THERE: The ranch is located near Pearce, Ariz., about 85 miles southeast of the Tucson airport. Round-trip air fare from the Washington area to Tucson starts at $430, with restrictions. The ranch will pick up guests at the airport for $160 round trip, plus tax, per vanload.

WEATHER: This is high desert terrain, though at 5,000 feet, summer temperatures rarely exceed the mid-nineties. Don't forget sunburn protection and sunglasses.

RIDING: All levels of riders are welcome, from beginners to advanced. Riding is with Western saddles and tack. Even accomplished English-style riders who haven't ridden Western style usually find it helpful to take a group-riding lesson to become familiar with differences in reigning and seat. Private riding lessons are also available.

On Tuesday and Thursdays, riders can accompany a working cowboy and help round up stray cattle.

WHAT ELSE TO DO: The ranch has an outdoor pool, hot tub, clubhouse, gift shop and small library. There are also numerous walking trails and an 18-hole golf course about seven miles from the ranch.

Sightseeing trips, popular in the hot afternoons, include a 45-minute journey to Tombstone, the once-bawdy, now touristy 19th-century cowboy boom town and site of the legendary 1881 Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and Boothill Graveyard. Bisbee, a popular tourist spot with many specialty shops about 30 miles south near the Mexican border, was once a bustling center for Old West miners. The Copper Queen Mine Tour (520-432-2071) offers mine-car rides into an underground copper mine.

--Joe Sharkey

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