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.

17 thoughts on “From a dude ranch in Arizona”

  1. Just received your post before going to bed . I’m in one of my favourite cities in Europe, Lyon .Arizona sounds like dreadful place . I don’t think I’ll use any retirement passes to go visit .
    But George sounds nice enough.

    Sent from my iPad


    1. Both Shari and I laughed out loud at your comment that Arizona “sounds like a dreadful place.” Perhaps, after a little sleep, you might reconsider your intemperate outburst. Enjoy Lyon.


  2. Oh my Spyro, this is wonderful! Hilarious and poignant and informative. Man, you really know how to pack it all in to a short — what do you call this? Reportage? Travel writing? Blog post? Made me laugh out loud, contemplate life, ponder aging, and wish I was somewhere warmer. The whole scene with Jimmy… I felt like I was in the car with you. I’m wondering, exactly how old was “elderly” George?

    The first Saguaros photo is superb! Really wonderful!

    Warmest regards from chilly North Glengarry, Alison



  3. Now this was a magical sentence:
    .Like giant butlers: straight-backed, waiting patiently to be summoned…
    Thanks for that – enjoy your ranch time! And when the heck are you moving out my way?


  4. Nice story again Spyro, I was all up to go there… until I looked up the daily program of the ranch itself, that is like a holiday factory! 😅


    1. Hi, Bunny. It’s not as hard core as it seems in the descriptions. You don’t have to do any of the activities. I, for instance, do my own thing, which is hiking (fantastic here!) and running. Plus writing my blog. Hope to see you again!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The dot reappeared in The Canary Islands. It will be another month (!) before I see her in the flesh. I’ll be summoning my inner George to see this adventure through.


  5. Greetings from Boston on one of the coldest days since possibly 1934! Great story! I have been to Arizona, but not a dude ranch. We did the typical touristy things, the Grand Canyon and Sedona. There are definitely interesting characters in AZ, to say the least. While it is not a place I would like to retire to, there is some stunning and raw beauty. I was speechless (hard to believe) when I saw the Grand Canyon. See you in June!


    1. Hi! We have similar record-breaking weather in Montreal. Glad we’re not home to tell you the truth. Yes, Arizona is quite awesome. To retire here you would have to be an avid hiker. But I still prefer to have water nearby. Say hi to Phil and, yes, see you in June!


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