I'd been dipping through guidebooks and Web sites looking for a Western guest ranch that seemed reasonably "authentic" yet comfortable to a suburban family that had accumulated very little time in the saddle. All signs seemed to point to Arizona's Wickenburg Inn. Located about 70 miles outside Phoenix, it was described as low-key, forgiving of untrained riders, located in the midst of open desert landscapes and comfortable in a daily-maid-service way. Maybe just the place for our spring vacation. So I called.
"Mf Gfnz Wickenburg Inn," the operator answered. I was only momentarily confused by the obscured greeting. The operator was unusually gracious and patient. Although the rates had gone up (considerably) since the guidebooks were written, I began to think that we'd found our spot. She mentioned that "Mr. Griffin," who I assumed to be the proprietor, had just invested in a nicer swimming pool and had upgraded the restaurant. She assured me that families with kids would predominate during the weeks in question. She put a brochure in the mail.
Which is how I eventually discovered that the property was now Merv Griffin's Wickenburg Inn, and that the Mr. Griffin she referred to was not some leather-skinned Arizona bidnessman but none other than Merv Griffin, the genial talk show host, executive producer of, among other cash-cow game shows, "Jeopardy!" and "Wheel of Fortune" and, more quietly and recently, owner-operator-investor in a number of casinos and hotels.
I was instantly alarmed that this might not make such a good "family" place after all. I imagined a marble lobby full of Remington knockoffs, a line of cowgirl dancers, a bar filled with pink-faced swells from L.A. doing deals by cell phone.
"Oh, no, Mr. Griffin has kept things very much appropriate for families," the reservation- ist assured me when I called back. "I've been here 14 years and it's still the same place. But it's kept up a little better now, and we have the new pool. A lot of the wranglers have been here all along. And a lot of the horses, too."
I found enough comfort in her voice--she used the word "wrangler" with an ease that suggested it was simply what they called the horse guys, not a Marketing Concept--that I booked the trip. Truth told, after I hung up I got a minor kick out of the thought. We were no longer just heading on our first family trip into the West to commune with horses and cacti.
We'd be guesting with Merv.
One problem with being a guest at a Merv Griffin property--Griffin Hotels operates six places, including the swank Beverly Hills Hotel in L.A. and its most recent acquisition, St. Clerans Manor House in County Galway, Ireland--is that I kept imagining myself as a guest not of Merv's hotel, but of his talk show. I accept this as a bizarre mental aberration, an artifact of a childhood spent sitting too close to the TV. But, well, there it was, a persistent, imaginary video clip playing through my mind.
Merv: So I understand you just got back from my Arizona ranch!
That's right, Merv.
Merv: So what did you think?
You're not going to believe this, Merv, but our family stayed in Casita 335!
Yes, we did, we stayed in the very casita you stay in when you visit! They told us they were putting us in "Mr. Griffin's favorite" when we checked in. I figured they said that to everybody, so I asked the guy who drove the golf cart full of our luggage to our casita, and he said, "Oh yeah, that's where Mr. Griffin likes to stay, all right."
Merv: You were in 335? My 335! That's incredible! Don't you just love it? That little spiral staircase going up to the roof deck? That king-size bed?
But I've got to tell you, Merv, my boys just couldn't get over the fact that we were staying in your unit. When we walked they kept saying things like "Look, there's Merv Griffin's bed! And there's Merv Griffin's fireplace! And here's Merv Griffin's books!"
Merv: Oh, kids say the darnedest things!
And when Jordan, who's just 6, disappeared into the bathroom the first time, he announced that he was using "Merv Griffin's toilet!" [Hooting audience laughter/cut to commercial break.]
Merv Griffin is not the first person to try to make a go of it in this remote chunk of central Arizona's Sonoran Desert.
One of the earliest Anglo explorers to record his thoughts about the area, a certain Daniel Conner, proclaimed it "the roughest country to be composed of ordinary hills and mountains that I had yet seen in all my Rocky Mountain experiences," and promptly moved on. Due to lack of water, the region's Yavapai Indians never settled very long or deeply anywhere nearby. This area of the desert was not occupied more formally until the 1860s, after gold was struck near the ancient, dormant volcano that even today punctuates Wickenburg's dusty horizon like a thumb. Like most isolated Western gold strikes, this one attracted an assortment of California washouts, Mexican dreamers and mining-camp hangers-on. But the mine was never consistently profitable enough to support anything beyond a marginal, transient community. Lack of water was a constant problem. A few ranchers seeking cheap land eventually bought some property, and beginning in the 1920s, several parcels became "dude ranches," hosting evacuees from Tucson or L.A. seeking relief from the city summers. In the 1940s Wickenburg called itself the Dude Ranch Capital of the World and boasted seven guest ranches. Today it has six--including Merv's, which was constructed as a "tennis ranch" in 1973. A highway project that diverted cross-state traffic well south of Wickenburg pretty much secured the town's place at the margins of Arizona life.
Today, while contemporary Arizona is studded with major vacation destinations, verdant retirement oases and remarkable natural features, Wickenburg remains largely isolated. The Grand Canyon's South Rim? That'd be about five hours away. The Petrified Forest? Far eastern corner of the state, maybe six, seven hours. Sedona? Fewer than 100 miles as the hawk flies, but, well, from Wickenburg? Um, let's see: You've got to cross the Weaver Range to start with, then the Bradshaw Range and then . . .
Learning this came as an unexpected relief. It's very easy, especially on a family trip, to fall prey to the dread "attractionitis": the itchy obligation to "do" the "major" destinations, as if a vacation or national landmark were just another onerous item on the to-do list. By going to a ranch outside Wickenburg, we'd be visiting a place in the desert just about as close to nowhere as you can get and still have indoor plumbing and a restaurant that's up to code. We'd be spending a week playing and riding and poking around an essentially nameless chunk of desert that, pretty much since the beginning of time, human beings have chosen not to settle on.
Zsa-Zsa [sitting on guest couch]: So Dahling, how did you like Merv's new restaurant and the swimming pool?
Well the food at Griff's was a lot better than we feared--big portions of healthy, reasonably rustic Southwestern stuff. Griff's Taco Salad was one of my favorites, and that "local" trout with the peppery sauce was really good. The kids ate burgers. But Merv, I gotta ask: The only river for miles around is dust for 10 months a year. In fact, I rode a horse through the dry river bed several times. So how can you call those trout "local"?
Merv: Ah, um, I'll have to get back to you on that. So isn't that new pool something?
My kids loved it! That little waterfall, and the hot tubs, and the little sand area by the shallow end. . . . Great way to cool down after a morning horse ride or hike. And you clearly sank a few bucks into the pool furniture.
Merv: Don't you just love those wranglers?
They were great guys, Merv. I have to admit, I don't know any "real" cowboys or cowgirls to compare them to, but these folks seemed like the genuine article. They had real windburn and skin that looked tougher than the cowhide saddles we rode on. They know those horses, each one by name and temperament. They were friendly and relaxed and seemed to enjoy their work, even with the kids who cried or demanded the same horse as yesterday or whatever. But whenever I asked any of them whether you rode, Merv, they just kind of smiled and said, "Well, sometimes." In fact, when I asked the lady at the front counter--where they have that framed photo of you on the horse, all dressed up like some fop gaucho who just won PowerBall, staring off at the horizon--whether the horse in the picture was your personal favorite, she just said, "Well, they got him up on that one once." But then she quickly said how nice you were and how everybody liked you when you came to visit.
Under the Wickenburg Inn's all-inclusive deal, guests can do two rides a day. Beginners are limited to trail rides; to qualify as an intermediate or advanced rider you must pass a test requiring you to gallop with some dignity and fuss your horse confidently around the riding ring (my wife, Pam, who was born in farm country and who knows horses pretty well but doesn't ride much now, failed). Later in the week I took a riding class with a cowgal who bore a distracting resemblance to Sela Ward. I mastered only a butt-slapping half-gallop that left me well short of intermediate status.
In the vivid desert abundance surrounding the ranch, even trail rides provided a quiet thrill. The paths climbed low hills, descended into dry gullies and took us across the shin-deep sand of Martinez Wash, which every once in a while becomes a river for a few hours. Merv's land is surrounded by Bureau of Land Management property, upon which neighboring ranchers graze their cattle. This created the effect of riding our horses through a single-species zoo, with silent brown cows dozing in the thin shade of creosote bushes and gnarled mesquite trees. Some hillsides bristled with enormous saguaro cacti, the kind that look like they have arms sending semaphore signals to each other about how hot it is.
One of my most surprising discoveries was how functional "western fashion" is. With a majority of my lifetime sightings of Stetsons, kerchiefs and western boots occurring in country-western bars portrayed on TV or in movies, I'd always dismissed the fashion as an affectation or a preposterous anachronism. But as the wranglers regularly demonstrated, each item serves a purpose. Unlike the succession of baseball caps I wore--whose brims, I learned, presume the sun stays in a relatively fixed position--a Stetson sheilds your eyes, face and neck without regard to where the sun happens to be at the moment. Probably half of the visitors bought Stetsons at Merv's gift shop, and not just as souvenirs.
Then there's the western boot, whose pointed toe and stacked wooden heel keep your foot solidly in the middle of the stirrup. Plus the heel turbo-charges your git-up kick in a way that my gel-filled, aerodynamic mall-walker Reeboks simply couldn't. And even those preposterous kerchiefs have a purpose beyond their occasional use, in some urban circles, as indicators of sexual orientation. The scarves (one was given to each guest at check-in) protect the back of your neck from sun, or can be turned around and worn over your mouth to screen dust. I recall vividly one morning ride when dust devils began spinning around and the wranglers gave a "kerchiefs up" command and we all put our scarves on so they covered our noses and mouths. We looked like a bunch of office-park desperados out to burgle a Honda dealership.
Merv: So how'd you'd like all of the other activities? You know, a "high-quality entertainment experience" is what I like to bring to all my hotels.
I was really glad you kept up the nature museum and the naturalist on the payroll, Merv. One morning hike took us onto a low mountaintop, and the naturalist took great pains to show us how abundant life is out in the desert. Our group stayed on the path--the naturalist told us she'd never seen a rattler on one, and that seemed like reason enough for me--and we stopped at all the different plants and rock formations and whatnot and smelled or felt them. The kids got a kick out of seeing all those roadrunners around the resort, and chasing them to see how fast the birds could run. I loved seeing the little condos the desert wrens carve into the saguaros; the brown holes make the cacti look diseased, but the naturalist told us they're really a sign of a thriving ecosystem.
Merv: But how about the entertainment?
Well, the local Hopi who demonstrated their tribal dances that night around the campfire didn't seem too excited to be there, to tell you the truth. And the singing cowboy in the black hat sang like he knew all the words a little too well. I suspect families are a tough crowd to work. Anyway, the highlight of that night was when, after all of us guests had ridden horses or hay wagons out to the campfire, the wranglers rounded up all the horses and ran them past us in an incredible stampede. My boys were right there, standing along the path, and couldn't stop talking about how they felt the ground shake when the horses roared past. I can still see one horse's huge crazy eye as it came running just a couple of yards from where we were standing. That may be the closest I'll ever get to anything remotely like the running of the bulls.
Merv: How about that Arizona sky? Ya talk about a show!
You can see the Milky Way with the naked eye! And that night you had the astronomer out by the pool, with all those telescopes set up aimed at different things? Pam and Caleb had gone back to the casita early, and Jordan and I were out by ourselves looking through all the telescopes. I actually saw the Crab nebula, the first time I've ever set eyes on any of those multicolor things that look so neat in books.
Merv: We really like providing that kind of entertainment for families. That's something little Justin will remember for a long time.
That's Jordan, Merv. But in fact, after he'd looked through the last set-up telescope and we were walking back together up the hill toward the casitas, holding hands, he said, "You know, Dad, I've seen that same thing before." And I said, "Oh yeah?" And I figured he was talking about a planetarium or a movie. But he said, "Yeah, I saw the same thing when I was in Mommy's belly."
Merv: Awww . . . [The audience joins him, and the guest blushes.]
We spent most of our week chez Merv riding and swimming and hiking and taking in little nature seminars. But one afternoon Caleb and I headed out to visit the abandoned Vulture Gold Mine, the operation responsible for Wickenburg's existence. It is, remarkably, precisely what it says: an abandoned gold mine. Not restored, not preserved, not presented like a museum, but simply walked away from in 1942 and left for the elements to deal with. Today a caretaker couple lives in a modest house at the front of the property, collecting an admission fee that permits people to poke around the defunct, and admirably unsafe, industrial campus. The afternoon we visited, the woman who took our money pressed a chunk of gold amalgam--the semi-refined mineral product that miners extract from gold-bearing ore--into Caleb's palm to show him what the real thing looks like. It was the size of a pistachio nut; he pronounced it "really heavy." In the front yard, in the bright sun, dinner was cooking in a primitive solar oven that would have done Ted Kaczynski proud. Composed of mirrors arranged around a rack beneath a glass shelf, the contraption had a thermometer showing the internal temperature to be around 325 degrees. Under the glass sat a meat pie reeking of hot pepper.
Caleb and I spent an hour or so touring the grounds. There were nearly-filled-in tunnels, one of which was marked with a sign claiming the bodies of seven crooks still lay underneath, where a collapse had trapped them. There were some dry and ramshackle outbuildings and funky old machines that, in their day, had pumped water, crushed rock, housed workers and heated gold-filled ore to melting. Both Caleb and I were sweating like steam-fitters after a short while, nearly giddy and incoherent in the pounding heat. For relief, we poured water from our bottles over our heads.
Merv: Well, I'm glad you guys enjoyed it. You know, I like to say I provide people with a "true Western experience" at the Wickenburg Inn.
Well, Merv, you've got a great, comfortable place out there, and we had a lot of fun. I'd recommend your inn to practically any family that can afford it. It ranks as one of our family's favorite trips. In fact, I think people who are just breezing through Phoenix--which, as you know, feels a lot more modern, mostly in the worst sense of that word, than most places in the Southwest--would get a big kick out of spending a couple of days at your ranch.
But Merv, you gotta come clean. It's not "a true Western experience." I hate when vacation people talk about "authenticity" and "real experiences." [Merv shifts in his chair, eyes someone offstage.]
Fact is, the Wickenburg Inn is as much about the "true Western experience" as Disney World is an authentic portrayal of rodent life. That old gold mine? It's dead, Merv! That old lady with the solar oven and the cages with a rattlesnake and a dead tarantula? All just props! The only way to get gold out of this land these days is to sell little bits of what it used to be to people from the coasts carrying plastic cards with magnetic strips! You're the new gold miner, Merv, and tourists are the ore! [Merv gestures at security personnel, who are amassing offstage.]
I'm from the East, Merv, but even from the little I know, a "true Western experience" would have a lot less to do with Griff's Taco Salad and more to do with those guys in the wooden shacks by the highway with their "DRIED BEEF" signs. Or all that funky politics behind the decision to send river water downstate to irrigate golf courses in Phoenix. Or maybe something about how the Hopi people could really use some help developing livelihoods that aren't based on sentiment or exploitation! [Security staff have begun to swarm the stage.]
Merv, you put on a great show at the Wickenburg Inn! But don't confuse a good show with the real thing, okay? Take that "authentic Western experience" baloney out of your brochures! You don't need it! The true West is out there, but it ain't in Casita 335! It's out there along those nameless roads strung with barbed wire, riding in those big old dusty Ford trucks with gun racks in the back! It's that awesome empty desert that's full of the sort of life you don't even know exists until you step on a rock and it sinks its fangs right into your boot! It's the big open sky where you can still hear coyotes at sunset and you can hike the mountains for days without seeing a soul! It's that poor sweet waitress at Griff's who said she loves the land around Wickenburg but can't find any job other than waitressing, so she might have to move to Phoenix to take an office job to raise her kid! . . .
[The audience, convinced the unfolding scene is tightly scripted and part of the show, begins to applaud while the guest is escorted off the stage.] The "real West," Merv? The Real West? Turn off the air conditioning!
Merv [winks at the camera, shakes his head, laughs]: Wow! I'd say that guy can use a good vacation! [laughter] We'll be right back with Dr. Joyce Brothers. [More applause. Cut to commercial for Carnival Cruises.]
Merv Griffin's Wickenburg Inn, 1-800-942-5362. Rates range from $110 to $210 per night for rooms in the main lodge, to $210-$395 per day for two people in a one-bedroom casita, to $420-$730 per day for four adults in a two-bedroom casita. (The variation is largely seasonal.) Children 6 and older stay with their parents for $85 per day; 5 and under stay free (but can't go on most rides). A children's program is available for an extra daily charge. All rates include three meals daily at Griff's Restaurant, two horse rides per day (except Sunday) and most other activities and entertainment. (Extra charges apply for for non-meal beverages, art and craft materials and special riding activities or instruction.)
For more information on visiting the Wickenburg area, call the Wickenburg Chamber of Commerce at 520-684-5479 or the Desert Caballeros Western Museum, a superb example of a small western regional museum, at 520-684-2272.
Information on Merv Griffin Hotels is available at http://www. merv.com.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
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