We had decided on the road trip through California. While catching up with admin that I really should have completed during the day, Jenni spends several evenings mapping routes, researching the pros and cons of taking a convertible versus an RV, and deciding what we should or shouldn’t include along the way. But the more progress she makes, the less enthused I feel about the whole idea. Fortunately, just as Jenni is consulting me on the finer details prior to making bookings, I’m able to put my doubts into words.
I explain that living in Florida means making significant car journeys to do pretty much anything. Back in England, I walked the kids to school and ambled into town to pick things up as and when we needed them, so we spent maybe a couple of hours a week in the car. Here it’s more like 15. What’s more, experience suggests that the average Wonder of the World (natural or man-made) only distracts the kids from their desire for electronic entertainment for about half an hour, tops. That might be a sad indictment of kids today – okay, my parenting – that’s crying out to be challenged, but we’re trying to organize a fun vacation here, not make gruelingly transformative reality TV.
Activities are what we need. Things we haven’t done before, things we wouldn’t have done if we’d stayed in England, and things we might carry on doing if we like them. A photo of Jenni’s thousand-mile stare might have been appropriate at this point but, being the empathetic type, I think better of whipping out the camera.
To cut a long story short (new brief / new browser tab / new search), our destination is now Tanque Verde, a 60,000 acre ‘dude ranch’ just east of Tucson, Arizona. It’s centered on horseback riding, which none of us have done before, and we’re booked in for eight days. Other onsite activities such as hiking, mountain biking, fishing and tennis are also on offer. Even though it’s the largest and one of the best reviewed ranches in North America, our choice still elicits a now customary look of disbelief from our American friends. This time it’s because nobody goes to the Arizona desert in July, on account of the temperatures soaring above 100°F. But we do, dammit, because it’s already over 90°F in Florida and it’ll be a dry heat, which will make all the difference. In any case, we’ve gone and booked it now.
Image credit: Matt Ottosen
Our casita has a stunning view of the Sonoran desert, making up for the lack of television. Well, that’s what I tell my skeptical children on the first day, anyway. The subject never arises again though, because the early starts and daily program exhaust us to the point where we’re ready to retire as soon as we return to our lodgings each evening.
Riding is so tiring because, like most creatures, horses are as lazy as they can get away with being. They know when they have an inexperienced rider on their back and are literally unmoved by how much has been spent on the Stetson and cowboy boots. When a wrangler yells at me to kick my horse ‘like it’s a red-headed stepchild’ to distract it from eating some dried-out shrubbery, I dread to think what it’s going to take to actually get the beast to walk, trot or lope in accordance with my rapidly buckling will.
More out of frustration than anything, I do summon up the courage to kick the bejesus out of my steed and things get much easier very quickly. The basics of western-style riding are straightforward, and everything I’m taught to do I can remember seeing in some cowboy movie or other, which somehow makes the whole experience that much more satisfying. The rest of the family take to riding as well as I do, though the flapping pink boots of a four-year old must surely be irrelevant to the obedience of Carla’s horse, which is merely responding to the verbal cues of a nearby wrangler, right? Yes, that must be it.
Once I get the hang of it I’m deftly steering my four-legged friend ‘Buckshot’ around the cacti, some of which have grown enormous through hundreds of years of growth. I look down on the occasional rattlesnake and jackrabbit, up at the scattered eagles gliding on thermals in a cloudless sky, or off at the stately Rincon Mountains in the distance, and I find myself taking in the whole sensory experience as completely as I can, knowing that it’s one I’ll want to recall vividly.
As well as gaining hands-on practical experience, we’re also taught a great deal by the wranglers by way of instruction and observation on the trail, or explanation and demonstration back in the corral at sunset.
And then there’s the fishing…
This isn’t our first attempt at fishing, but it’s by far our most successful. Assisted by a lake teeming with bluegill sunfish, Stanley is proud of his 13 catches inside an hour, and I’m equally proud of my outstanding bravery in squeezing each of his flippity quarry long enough to unhook it and throw it back in.
One of the advantages of coming here in low season is that there’s no waiting for anything, such as food, drink, horses etc. and there’s always space in the group activities. Jenni & I decide to have a go on mountain bikes. The kids are too young for this and so they’re off on horses while we’re taken out with another couple by Mike, our instructor, for a gentle introduction to the sport. I enjoy it so much I sign up for another session the following day, while Jenni opts to read a good book instead.
This time I’m the only one to show up. Great…one-on-one training! We start where we left off yesterday, move on to a pump track and proceed to some increasingly challenging ‘dips’, all of which I accomplish with aplomb. Then Mike stops at the edge (‘precipice’ might be a better word) of what they call ‘CB Hill’. He stresses that it’s optional; we could just turn back. He goes on to explain how to tackle it and asks if I ‘want to go for it’. ‘Sure’ I reply, unthinkingly. Before I can change my answer, Mike launches himself over the edge, hurtling down and then up the sides of this mini-ravine before vanishing over the next ridge where he is presumably waiting for me.
I stare into this rocky, sandy, cactussy abyss for a full two minutes, getting all ‘you only regret the things you don’t do’ on my own ass. Not for the first time, I go on to prove this to be a dangerous fallacy. Look what it did to me:
On the way back Mike tells me that the ‘CB’ stands for ‘collarbone’ and refers to the most common type of injury sustained there. He’s also known people to break other bones and one person even knocked himself unconscious. Thank goodness he hadn’t told me any of this beforehand, or I might have thought better of it and missed out. This is why we signed all those waivers at check-in.
Despite the mishap, our time here has been one of the best family vacations we’ve ever had. I could bolster this claim by singing the praises of the food, the staff, the pool and the evening entertainment, but that’s what Tripadvisor is for if you’re interested. Having said that, I’d certainly recommend this bottle of wine from the fabulously branded Merkin Vineyards if you do decide to visit: