1:10 p.m. Feb. 23
Rancho de los Caballeros ("gentleman on horseback") corral foreman Tom Secrist sized me up. I did not look like a cowboy, even though I was tumbleweeding around the 60-year-old ranch in Wickenburg, Ariz., 55 miles northwest of Phoenix. I wore my faded Cubs cap, shorts and blue Chuck Taylors.
I looked like an extra in "Bleacher Bums."
I told Secrist I had been on a horse twice in my life. He told me I was going to ride Custard though the high Sonoran desert. If Custard was a train, he would be Amtrak. The 1,200 pound custard-colored horse moved slow. As slow as molasses. Or custard.
In some rusty quarters he would have been called lazy but I will call him leisurely......
....."Once we see someone is more experienced we can upgrade them," Secrist said from under the bill of a cowboy hat. "If you put someone on too much horse at the beginning you will ruin their whole
vacation." There are nearly 100 horses in the ranch stable. They have unique names like All Righty., Boysenberry, and Toupee (who looks like he's wearing a bad hair piece).
Adults and kids who visit the ranch on an annual basis often request the same horse from a previous vacation. The rides are breathtaking. Cowboys and cowgirls meander through the hilly desert. There's black tailed jackrabbit, coyote, muledeer and cactus wren (the state bird of Arizona). During my ride I saw a red tailed hawk regally perched atop a saguro cactus.
Speaking of hawks, why isn't Andre Dawson in the Baseball Hall of Fame?
Rancho de los Caballeros is 2,400 feet above sea level and my excellent wrangler Norm Lilley told me we rode as high as 2,600 feet. Gold, silver and some copper were mined in these Arizona hills. Native Americans first settled in Wickenberg, followed by miners and then ranchers.
Secrist either owns or has purchased the horses.
"You can never have enough good horses," he explained. "What makes a good horse is reaction time. I'll get on them, wake 'em up and find out how quick they shut down. The ones that keep slingin' their heads and can't shut down---they don't make dude horses. People got it wrong when they think buckin' is so bad in horses. Buckin' is the easiest thing to fix in a horse. Runnin' away is the second one. You got a horse that rares and is sticky with his feet? Don't even mess with him if you're trying to make him a dude horse. Somewhere in that horse's makeup something will happen. And if they react, its going to hurt somebody. I've learned that from a lot of other horsemen."
The ranch wrangler picks where you will go on the ride. Lilley knew the history of the area and recited classic cowboy poetry during our rest stops---or stops where Custard suddently decided to eat.
"You can come here and see all this, but if you don't know anything about it, it doesn't mean anything," Lilley said. "A lot of people don't realize this all used to be a part of Mexico. That's why we have a lot of Spanish names here. I just like to know about my surroundings."
The key to riding a horse is just like getting through life: stay balanced.
You pull back on the rein to stop and a kick on the side serves as a gas pedal to go. Wrangler Caroline Markham later told me, "You put one leg on each side and your mind in the middle."
Rancho de los Caballeros is a secret find. The spacious laid back feel of the ranch reflects a 1950s or 1960s Phoenix. You expect to see Barry Goldwater coming around the corner. Today Wickenburg is known for its recovery centers. There's the Remuda Programs for Eating Disorders and The Meadows. Its not uncommon to see Hollywood types wandering around Wickenburg after visiting loved ones.
The 20,000 acre Rancho de los Caballeros involves deeded land and some long term leases from the state and federal government. The ranch started cattle ranching in 1953 as a steer operation, later developing into a cow-calf operation with the purchase of 100 cattle from the Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation.
"You put all 20,000 acres together and you have a ranch," said Rancho de los Caballeros owner Dallas "Rusty" Gant, Jr., whose father founded the ranch. "You don't own all 20,000 acres. You own about 1,600. We ranch cattle but we don't raise our own food. Ours are more grass fed and they need to go through mid-term steps before they go to market."
After my 90-minute ride, I adjourned to the ranch's bar for a very unique Prickly Pear Margarita. The bright red fruit is picked from prickly pear cacti in the summer. The cacti grow throughout the ranch resort. The berries are then soaked in tequila so the alcohol absorbs its flavor.
Here's the secret recipe:
1 1/2 oz. tequila ( I recommend Cazadores), infused with prickly pear cactus fruit.
1/2 oz. premium triple sec liqueur (Cointreau).
1 oz. lime juice.
And don't drink and ride.
For more on Ranchos de los Caballeros, 1551 South Vulture Mine Rd., call (800) 684-5030, or visit www.sunc.com. The ranch is open from October through mid-May.