The animals of Arizona

Is there a plant more perfect?

The dude ranch has a couple of hundred horses, four of them mustangs and all of them geldings. With their testicles removed, the horses are gentler and less skittish. That way city folk are less likely to break their collarbones and litigate. Everyone is happy.

As for wilder terrestrial varmints, I’ve now seen several, even though it’s winter and many of the most interesting ones are under rocks, fast asleep.

While out running one day, a coyote crossed the road a few metres ahead of me. I later saw a small lizard sunning itself on a rock. And then a scrap of dark fur scrambled across my path as I was hiking in Saguaro National Park.

At the Cowboy Cookout, the singer dedicated a song to Ian Tyson, who had just died. I pumped my fist in the air and shouted, “Canadian!” All in all, an embarrassing moment.

Javelinas at the cookout

At the Cowboy Cookout one evening, the cowboy music conjured several javelinas from the surrounding darkness. I suppose they had been waiting for the city dudes to be seated with their grub, before materializing to lurk beneath the serving tables, snuffling for scraps of cornbread, shreds of pulled pork and brisket. A ranch employee came over and shooed them away, but the javelinas were back seconds later, nose to the dirt, eyes alert.

They’re about one-third the size of a wild boar but narrow on the x-axis. Two-dimensional wraiths, paper silhouettes sliding soundlessly between a forest of table legs. If a javelina turns to stare at you with its tiny black eyes, it’s reduced to a bold vertical pen stroke. And when it moves, it’s in an odd start-and-stop manner. A few quick steps, stop. Some more quick steps, stop. Like a housefly.

Leaving the Cowboy Cookout.

Alas I saw no Gila monsters on my hikes, even though I was smack dab in the middle of Gila monster country. These are the biggest and heaviest lizards in the U.S. They’re also venomous, as their orange and black mottling suggests. If you were to meet one, it would be like running into a fat-bellied salami, but with legs. And don’t you fret about that venom part, a pamphlet reassured me. Gila monsters are exceedingly slow moving. But the pamphlet also noted that Gila monsters dine mostly on birds, rabbits and mice. So I’ll take the “slow-moving” part with a grain of salt. I know for a fact that I can’t catch a bird with my teeth.

The head wrangler at the dude ranch, an ancient gentleman who’s worked here for more than fifty years, loves the pomp and ceremony of dressage. His name is Joe, and he’s seen the famous Lipizzaner stallions perform twice. When he learned I was Greek, he said that the “father of dressage” was also Greek. He must have meant Xenophon, who wrote two treatises on horses around 350 B.C.

I peeked into the tack room and saw dozens of saddles, neatly numbered and stowed on pegs. There were bridles and bits and straps and other mysterious steel-and-leather tools of the cowboy trade.

The animal within

When you’re the son of a butcher man, as I am, you’re raised to have a casually utilitarian view of our fellow creatures. You eat ‘em, nose to tail. Nothing wasted.

But as an urban elite living in these times, I don’t know what to think or feel about animals anymore. A noisy group is currently lobbying Ottawa for a ban on the export of horses to Japan, where horse flesh is delicious. A friend emailed to ask if I’ve eaten snake in Arizona — if that’s even a thing. Meanwhile the twice-weekly Cowboy Cookout, at the dude ranch, is a grand and jangling festival of meat and more meat. There’s always a fish option, which I reckon to be a recent innovation. But let’s not kid ourselves. That’s meat, too.

* * *

I must have been ten or twelve years old, when I first took the long drive with my father to a slaughterhouse. It was summer, school was out, and there was only so much you could do to amuse a young boy, I suppose. Might as well show him the business. I made several more trips over the next few summers, and saw things I probably should never have seen. The images and scenes have stayed with me ever since, and I’ve never managed to put them into words. Nor will I do that now.

Of course, farming people, the folks who live with and raise animals, entertain few illusions about what it’s all about. I have fond memories of my loving aunt in Greece. A happy quivering little goat perched in an olive tree. Later, God bless us, a sumptuous Sunday roast prepared in a traditional tapsí, surrounded with potatoes and fragrant with oregano and lemon.

My father didn’t think twice about taking me to the abattoir. For this had been his childhood, too. Maybe less mechanized, a little more shrink-wrapped, but fundamentally the same. The facts of life and death laid bare.

But what my father failed to grasp is that we live in a more complicated time and place. So when I entered the house of horrors, it was like taking a twelve-year-old boy into a strip club. 

The kid has never seen ladies without their clothes on. So you buy the kid a beer and a lap dance. Order up shots.

“Hey, have some more peanuts, kid.”

You push the kid onstage for his first slow dance. He’s sandwiched real hard between Luscious Lola and Desiree, who are grinding their hips against the kid. The kid doesn’t know what to think. A number of other naked ladies are also present, writhing on poles. All around, men are making loud suggestions.

You take the kid to the strip club again. After a time, it becomes easier for the kid and you. Then you expect the kid to grow up and have a regular relationship with women.

That sums up me and meat.

Also, peanuts will never again taste the same.

The Western World

I’ve gone for a few runs at the Arizona dude ranch, where we’re staying. But frankly I’d rather hike in Saguaro National Park right next door. Because, after all, when will I ever get a chance to hike here again?

The desert climate makes it tough to run in any case, especially if you’re not acclimatized. I can’t carry enough water to go very far, and there’s no refuge from the sun, wind and my own bad judgment.

Here’s what I’ve learned. If you visit these here parts and plan to run, do not run within three hours of a roast beef Sunday brunch. A more prudent length of time to wait is three days.

The beef, mashed potatoes and palate-scouring horseradish were excellent. And they remained excellent for hours. Because I limped for eleven kilometres that afternoon, and I could taste them every damn inch of the way.

* * *

We were driving to a restaurant in Tucson, one night, when the subject of cowboys came up. I wondered aloud about Europeans’ odd fascination with the frontier mythology: Italian spaghetti westerns come to mind, where Clint Eastwood made his career. But also Germans’ near-obsession with cowboys and especially Indians. (Theme parks devoted to Indians are still in business. Once a year, devotees wear feathers, sleep in teepees.) There’s a writer of cowboy adventure books from the 1920s, I said to my audience in the van — “Surname of May, I think” — that had a huge influence. Many of the themes he wrote about dovetailed with Germans’ growing appetite for “authentic folk” and nature, for the cult of the body, violence and race, which eventually led to the rise of fascism (hello “Yellowstone”). But after so many years I couldn’t quite dredge up the German writer’s full name.

Also, I could hear my pompous self, lecturing and blundering in near-total ignorance, into touchy territory. So I did everyone a big favour and shut up.

Magic Tom in the Adirondacks

In Park Extension, where I mostly grew up, we played cowboys and Indians all the time. For afternoon TV, we had muscular John Ford westerns, or Roy Rogers cheesecake. In summer, a local TV entertainer for kids, Magic Tom, took his show on location to a dude ranch in Upstate New York. Frontier Town featured bloodthirsty Indians, daily shootouts at four o’clock sharp, and fistfights that spilled out of the local saloon. I dreamed of going, but for a kid from Park Ex, this was next-to impossible.

Our book club recently read Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry, which is a masterpiece among cowboy books. (Or so I’ve heard, since I’ve long since moved on from all that.) You need to suspend plenty of disbelief to read Lonesome Dove, and also judgment. You need to look past the book’s casual assumptions about Blacks, Mexicans, Indians and women (in alphabetical order). Not to mention its views on colonialism and justice, on society and civilization, on nature and wildlife. Lonesome Dove is set in the 1870s, but it more clearly reflects the views of the 1980s, when McMurtry wrote it.

And yet, if the views in this book seem retrograde fifty years after it was written, how much more alien seem the views held by ordinary folk (by that I mean white males) 150 years ago.

So how to enjoy a book that would likely be offensive and even unreadable for most African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, feminists and Indigenous People? You enjoy it by being a white male of a certain age. By having played Cowboys and Indians in more innocent (i.e. ignorant) times.

It’s hard not to like Lonesome Dove. It’s so damn charming, so cunningly written and packed with mythical figures and action. I read McMurtry’s essays for years (he died in 2021), and loved his dependably funny and informal Texas drawl on the page. But beneath it all he was a highly educated, deeply intellectual dude. He knew what he was doing but, like all of us, he was a prisoner of his time and generation.

* * *

After we returned from dinner, I googled German writer of pulp westerns. His first name was Karl, and I was wrong about when he wrote. Karl May was born in 1842, so he was a cultural force long before the 1920s. He began his career as a con artist and wound up serving time in prison. Then, without ever having set foot in America, he began writing westerns. And he was so good at spinning yarns that his books have since sold 200 million copies. He’s the best-selling German writer of all time.

Generations of German kids, especially boys, devoured his books. Young Adolf was a huge fan. Later, when Adolf became more famous, he recommended the books to his generals. You can see how frontier stories would set Adolf’s boyhood imagination on fire, and how this could lead to further musings about a world unfettered by laws and civilization, where scores were settled with guns, and the stakes and struggles were simple and stark.

But, in fairness to May, you can find whatever you want in any book. Karl May was sympathetic to the Indians, admired Jews, and was a committed pacifist.

How does one enjoy books like Lonesome Dove or Huckleberry Finn? What about a kids’ book about a gay couple taking their toddler to her first opera, or a Dolly Parton lookalike contest? How do you keep these books from being locked in a basement — or worse, burned?

These here subjects are complicated. Too complicated for a city feller out for a ride on his blog — a feller whose eye even now is wandering to the word count at the corner of his screen. Time to move on out.

And now, a little colour to our story. Apologies if this is getting tedious, but I can’t get enough of this landscape.

From a dude ranch in Arizona

Jimmy, who is a horse wrangler at the dude ranch we’re headed to, meets us at the Tucson airport and helps us load our bags into the ranch’s white van. On the drive, Jimmy explains how he arrived at wrangling by way of working at a dive shop in Baja, Mexico. On his very first dive, Jimmy came face to face with a hammerhead shark. Also, there was an ex-wife and her family back in Denver, where he grew up. They owned the dive shop. There may have been another wife. At some point things got complicated.

It’s after eleven at night and we’re a little woozy from a long day of travel.

Jimmy takes a detour to show us the massive “boneyard,” where some 4,000 decommissioned military aircraft are parked. It’s the biggest in the world. I peer into the dark but don’t see a thing. Jimmy admits that he sometimes misses diving. If you’re bitten by a rattlesnake, he cautions, do not do like in the movies. Do not open the wound and suck out the venom. That might be the last thing you do. I’m still looking for the 4,000 aircraft. Any one of these aircraft, which I can’t see, can be operational within seventy-two hours, he says. Standing orders from Washington, just in case. On a typical day at the ranch, Jimmy collects a dozen or so rattlers. He uses one of those gizmos grocers once used to fetch down your box of corn flakes from the top shelf. He drops the rattlers into a barrel and drives them out for “relocation.” No sense killing ‘em. It’s winter, though, so the rattlers are asleep.

“Hibernating?” I offer.

Jimmy gives me a sideways look.

Big ole saguaros

Maybe Jimmy is right about the rattlers. On my two hikes, I have yet to see a terrestrial varmint, except for the occasional road runner. There are coyotes and bobcats, apparently, as well as javelinas (pronounced with an aspirated “J,” like “Javier”), small pig-like scurrying creatures with sharp tusks. Jimmy warned us that they can be mean tempered and territorial, in the usual way of snouted things.

Our dude ranch sits beside Saguaro National Park, named for the iconic cactus you can’t help but associate with cowboy movies and logos for rolling papers. Saguaros, which cover the ranch grounds and surrounding landscape, typically live for hundreds of years and grow more than forty feet in height, but ever so slowly. A saguaro no bigger than my thumb is ten years old.

But with great age comes dignity. Among the twisted mesquite, the low, clinging vegetation and rock-strewn hills, these towering cactuses possess a formal, dignified verticality. Like giant butlers: straight-backed, waiting patiently to be summoned. At their feet, a cluster of prickly pear disturbs their dignity. Round-eared, snot-nosed, like green Mouseketeers.

Arizonans make sport of Texans, who put saguaros on their restaurant and bar signs to indicate their cowboy bona fides. But you won’t find a single saguaro anywhere in Texas.

Saguaro means “crossing guard” in Antediluvian. These giants are confined to the Sonoran Desert, so they grow only in southern Arizona, western California and parts of Mexico.

Aging with George

I have time on the ranch to consider the ancient saguaros, which will long outlive us. The desert itself, with its thousands of decommissioned aircraft parked somewhere out there, seems ageless, unchanging. But I already know better.

On our second day at the ranch, an elderly Mexican gentleman in a black hat, cowboy boots and a neat goatee detaches himself from his family to greet us. His name is George, and in the way of the very old and very young, he’s eager to talk about his great good luck: it’s his birthday! Oh, yes, his son has paid for a special weekend celebration with the family at this dude ranch. There will be a horseback ride, with a pancake breakfast on the trail, then prime roast for Sunday brunch. We congratulate and wish him a happy birthday.

George is a sweet old man: grateful, excited, eager to experience new things. But age does tricky things with some men, especially men. Too many become bitter, prickly; mourning their mounting losses and regrets. Even with the best of intentions, loving sons and daughters listen less, ask fewer questions, make less room in their busy lives.

The firelight dims, the sound of drums recedes.

My own father, who came to Canada nearly penniless, who had a dishwashing job lined up for the morning after he arrived in Montreal, who built and lost three businesses, who never learned English or French, who took his young son to the bank to arrange for loans, who kept faith with his youthful politics, who was respected by all for his judgment and sense of justice, and who always sided with the poor, the powerless, the already-beaten, in old age grumbled about the new immigrants, who had it so easy, who were showered with government money and benefits, and who were just too lazy to work.

Then I stop and consider all he’s been through, the wrenching displacement, the impenetrable languages and customs, the years battling illness and disillusionment, and the bitter old man is little ol’ me.

* * *

George points to his son, who is now glancing over, politely smiling but also wondering how to disengage his dad from these nice strangers so the birthday weekend can resume.

But George is clearly bursting with pride, for his handsome son and his beautiful family, for what a long life has brought him — this special weekend in his honour, this chance to share meals with his loved ones, a horseback ride, adventures. Life is full, and he wears old age like a crown.

We met George again on our second day at the dude ranch. He was at a pancake breakfast at the old abandoned homestead, which sits on a low hill behind the ranch. I asked if I could take his picture. I’m not sure he remembered me, but he agreed.