Each February, I find myself in the Tucson desert atop a sweaty 1,000-pound horse, his hoofs pounding through the rocky wash at a steady gallop. I lean back, keep the heels of my boots down in the stirrups and try to roll my hips to stay in rhythm with the horse, and thereby in the saddle. The speed of the loping horses, the shimmering sun, the dust in my eyes and the dramatic beauty of Saguaro National Park and the Rincon Mountains give me an exhilarating rush of pure, adrenaline-fired joy.
Occasionally, though, I fall out of sync with my horse or I think about the jack rabbits or rattlesnakes that could dart out of the brush, cause my horse to shy and throw me into the cactuses or under his metal shoes, and I grit my teeth in terror.
Soon, hands shoot up in front of me like prairie dogs — a silent signal from one rider to the next. My horse recognizes the cue even before I do. My body lurches forward as he slows to a walk. I am breathless, thrilled . . . and relieved to have stayed astride my horse for another lope.
I'm ready for lunch!
Since 1950, members of my family have convened among the cactuses, cowboys and cowgirls to ride through the desert, learn lasso tricks and trip through Western dance lessons at dude ranches in Tucson. Four generations of Lasers and Shlenskys have found that a ranch in the Arizona desert offers the ideal mix of respite, natural beauty and activities for all ages to make this quick family getaway a tradition we just can't kick.
A tradition is born
The ritual began when my mom, Evely Laser, then 8, tested positive for tuberculosis. At that time, the standard medical treatment was a move to a warm, dry climate. Rather than uproot the whole family from Chicago, my grandparents sent my mom to the Brandes School in Tucson. When her family came to visit the boarding school, they all stayed at the Double U Ranch (R.I.P.).
Lonely at first, my mom soon fell in love with horseback riding and formed an emotional connection to the mountains, dotted with saguaro cactuses, that glowed pink at dusk. Her illness abated but her love of horses and the desert did not. Our family's dude ranch tradition was born.
When I was growing up, my family spent every winter break in Tucson at the Double U, now the Canyon Ranch. Some of my sweetest memories were learning to ride there with my brother Lincoln and sister Sheba, and forming a roving pack with other kids who also vacationed there each year. My sister and I never missed a ride, developed crushes on the strong, silent wranglers — where are you now, Randy? — guzzled cold Coca-Colas in glass bottles straight from the 25-cent dispenser when our throats got dry and played pool in the Lodge for packs of grape Bubble Yum.
At the Double U, the kids were on loose reins; the same is true for the Tanque Verde Ranch, where my family has been vacationing for the past 30-plus years.
These days, only half of the family still rides horses, so why do we return year after year to a dude ranch known for its outstanding horse program? The ranch is the one place we have found where all 13 of us — ranging from 3 to 75 — can do what we want then gather three times a day around a long wooden table in the dining room to swap stories about the latest rider to get bucked off, exchange gossip about the one wrangler who ran off with the other's wife or just do a crossword together over coffee.
Plenty to keep one busy
Tanque Verde has changed with the times to offer a broader range of activities. After breakfast, while some of us might take the advanced horseback ride, a few of us might set out on a hilly hike through rock and saguaro formations or take a guided mountain bike ride, while others might hit balls on the tennis courts with longtime tennis pro Daryl, who has been there since my children, now 18 and 20, hit their first ball. Meanwhile, the little ones eagerly trot down to the kids' program to do arts and crafts, and learn to ride.
After lunch, the hardcore riders return to the stables to jockey for their favorite horses, while others might take a riding lesson, compete in a mini rodeo, read by the pool or visit the spa. (Actually, I don't believe any of us ever has, although we hear it's lovely.)
After a long day of activity and a refreshing shower or dip in the pool and soak in the hot tub, we amble down to the Dog House saloon for a pre-dinner Prickly Pear or Hellfire Margarita.
The Dog House is so inviting that it's hard to break away to sit for another large meal. But like Tanque Verde's seasoned trail horses, I've learned to follow the tail in front of me and settle into the next feeding before walking beneath the vivid, starry sky back to our adobe-style room for bed.
The basic pattern of a day at the ranch is so predictable and satisfying because the essence of the ranch has not changed. On any night, we could be transported to the same dining-room table back in the '80s or '90s and hardly notice a difference. (In fact, head waiter Arturo has been serving us iced tea and lemonade there for 25 years.) However, there is one evolution we appreciate. Now, in addition to the juicy prime rib and cheesy enchiladas at dinner, the dining room offers pecan-crusted trout, grilled tofu, and vegan quinoa salads to meet our evolving dietary preferences.
During this year's visit, I was on a strict gluten-free diet for health reasons, and was resigned to forgoing my beloved blueberry pancakes. Shockingly, the ranch not only had gluten-free pancakes upon request, but they were nearly as golden brown and fluffy as the original buttermilk flapjacks we have enjoyed for decades. And there are few better ways to start a day than buttery pancakes, crispy bacon, and zesty chili-laced ranch eggs, all cooked atop an outdoor griddle at the Old Homestead in the hills as the sun climbs above the mountain ridge.
Like family camp or a cruise, the ranch distributes a schedule of activities each week, which mostly remains consistent. Saturday night is always the Chuckwagon Cookout down at the Cottonwood Grove. We sit around crackling campfires eating barbecue steak, burgers and baked beans while cowboy crooner Tom Chambers sings favorites like "Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" and "Rawhide." Even the wild desert javelina (a.k.a. peccary) stand in the shadows of the campfires to hear Tom. (Although, it's possible they are more interested in discarded hot dogs or half-eaten chicken legs.)
Back to a simpler time
Sure, the cookout is a little kitschy, but it's also a low-tech reminder of a simpler time, something our children can love every bit as much as we did when we were their ages. When Tom sings "Desperado," my sister and I sway together as we drift into our intersecting memories, built over a lifetime of ranch visits.
Each year, my husband, Andrew, and I vow that we are going to leave the ranch for a day and take advantage of the area's wonders, such as Sabino Canyon and the Seven Falls hiking trail. Most years, we've been unable to pry ourselves away. This year, we finally went to the impressive Desert Museum, which is more like a desert zoo, aquarium, aviary and cactus-demonstration garden in one, and stopped for lunch in Old Tucson.
While the drive to the other side of town through the Tucson Mountains was stunning, and it was fun to stroll through a section of downtown teeming with restaurants, shops, bars and the historical Hotel Congress, we couldn't wait to get back to the ranch in time to hit the Dog House and reunite with the clan. Next year, I think we'll stay put and surrender to another glorious, long (but always too short) weekend at the Tanque Verde.
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Tanque Verde Ranch
14301 East Speedway
Tanque Verde Ranch is a guest ranch located on 60,000 acres of Tucson desert adjacent to the Rincon Mountains, Saguaro National Park and Coronado National Forest. Rooms from $129 (double occupancy, bed-and-breakfast). All-inclusive lodging, meals and activities packages from $409 (double occupancy).
Hub Restaurant and Ice Creamery
266 Congress St.
Casual eatery in historic downtown with something for everyone including an impressive array of mac and cheese and pot pies, innovative ice cream flavors and a playful cocktail menu. Entrees start at $10.
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
2021 N. Kinney Rd.
The 98-acre desert museum is a combination zoo, botanical garden, natural history museum and aquarium with 230 animal species and 1200 types of plants including a vast cactus collection. October-February: 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. daily; March-September: 7:30 a.m.-5 p.m. daily; June-August: Sunday-Friday 7:30 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday 7:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Admission $20.50; $8 children 3-12, children under 3 free.