The Western wonders of Scottsdale, Ariz.

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Victor Block

Outside Scottsdale, Ariz., hikers in the Sonoran Desert pass numerous types of cactus, including the towering saguaro, which is unique to that locale. Surprisingly, the desert is also home to 60 types of mammals, over 100 sorts of reptiles and 350 kinds of birds that have adapted to its hot, dry environment.
Photo courtesy of the Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau

Bejeweled women dressed in the latest fashions strolled into the likes of Gucci, Neiman Marcus and Tiffany intent on adding to their chic wardrobe and collection of costly adornments. Not far away, my wife Fyllis — wearing blue jeans, boots and a cowgirl hat — was learning to lasso cattle.

My afternoon was spent exploring a rugged wilderness of giant cacti, towering mesas and vast stretches of barren landscape. There I discovered that what appeared to be a dry, dead desert actually is home to thousands of plants and animals that have adapted to life in searing temperatures and an almost complete lack of water.

The first impression that Fyllis and I had during a visit to Scottsdale, Ariz., was the diversity of attractions in and around that small city. The shopping experience alone provided an introduction to the something-for-everyone variety.

World famous top-of-the-line stores are neighbors to one-of-a-kind specialty shops and boutiques. And in a city whose slogan is “The West’s most Western town,” it’s no surprise to pass store after store selling cowboy hats, boots and everything worn between them.

Of course, where there were cowboys there usually were Native Americans, and their influence also remains strong. One shop alone, the River Trading Post, sells Native American art and artifacts created by people from more than 50 tribal nations.

The Arizona Cowboy College in Scottsdale imparts such skills to visitors as rounding up cows, vaccinating livestock and branding. Here, Fyllis Hochman practices using a lasso to rope a calf.
Photo by Victor Block

Cowgirl for a day

Nor has the cowboy influence faded, as Fyllis learned while playing the role of a working cowgirl, at least for a few hours. She was a part-time student at the Arizona Cowboy College, which serves up a taste of life on the range without touristy frills.

Most city slickers go through a two-day orientation followed by four days at a ranch rounding up cows, searching for missing steer, branding, vaccinating and doing other cowboy-like chores. Hearing that description prompted me to inquire, “And they pay for that?”

The one-day introduction to life on the range that Fyllis attended included learning to clean hooves and groom and saddle Billie, the brown mare she was assigned. That was followed by instruction in riding on a Western saddle.

As Fyllis and Billie circled a ring, Elaine Pawlowski, the ranch manager and teacher, shouted out reminders: “Heels down. Lighten up on the reins. Sink your butt into the saddle.”

Later came a lesson in roping a wayward calf. Rather than a live animal, this exercise used a metal mini-cow on wheels which, after several errant tosses, my newly Westernized wife was able to ring several times in a row.

The cowgirl experience ended with a ride over the rocky wasteland that surrounds Scottsdale and nearby Phoenix, loping over sandy, rocky terrain past cacti in a variety of shapes and sizes.

Desert denizens

The trail in the Sonoran Desert over which Fyllis rode, and the somewhat larger area that I had explored, represented just a sliver of that vast wilderness. It stretches through Arizona, California and northern Mexico, covering an expanse eight times the size of Maryland.

Descriptions of the desert often include words like bleak and drab. Fyllis reported that her horseback ride passed through a monochromatic panorama of gray and tan, broken occasionally by the muted green of a cactus.

For anyone who favors that kind of plant, Arizona and its Sonoran Desert are cactus heaven. The majestic saguaro (pronounced suh-WAHR-oh), the most familiar and identifiable kind, can grow to 50 feet and live as long as 200 years. They exist only in the Sonoran Desert, and the saguaro blossom is the official state flower.

Numerous other species of cactus also have found the Sonora’s arid conditions to their liking. Their colorful names — like purple prickly pear, organ pipe and teddy-bear cholla — add to their appeal.

One of many fascinating stories the desert has to tell is how both plant and animal life have adapted to its harsh environment. What appears to be a seemingly uninhabitable wasteland is home to some 60 mammals, 350 kinds of birds, over 100 types of reptile and even 30 species of fish. Their survival techniques are among nature’s more intriguing stories.

For example, many cactus plants have a root system that grows outward rather than down in order to absorb surface moisture, and some have stems that expand to save rainwater for later use. The saguaro can store enough water to last as long as a year.

Many animals sleep in shade during hot days and venture out to feed during the cooler nights. Some rabbits and other small mammals are able to survive primarily on water they get from what they eat. The Western Banded Gecko stashes away both food and water in its long tail for later use when needed.

More outdoorsy adventures

The desert is also a treasure-trove of human history, ranging from prehistoric ruins and remnants of Native American life to abandoned mining encampments.

A wide choice of alternatives awaits visitors interested in exploring this other-worldly setting. On land, that can mean hiking, biking, horseback rides, and off-road guided tours via Jeep, Hummer and luxury SUV.

Those who prefer to take to the air may choose a gentle hot-air balloon ride or clamber aboard an airplane, helicopter or even a seaplane for a flight that includes a lake landing.

Some of the desert’s magic and magnificence is captured in several sanctuaries and museums that Fyllis and I took time to visit.

The McDowell Sonoran Preserve is a mini-wilderness that stretches over 21,000 acres and provides an excellent introduction to the entire desert. It’s home to hundreds of types of plants and animals, as well as 60 miles of trails.

Entering the more formally organized Desert Botanical Garden, Fyllis and I glanced around, looked at each other and exclaimed “Wow” in unison. Never had we realized there are so many, very different kinds of cactus, each quite beautiful in its own way.

Five thematic loop trails meander through an amazingly varied collection of arid plants from deserts around the world. Each path focuses upon one topic, including plants of the Sonoran, desert wildflowers and conservation.

I found most interesting the exhibits of how people learned to live in the hostile environment. Native Americans learned to use a variety of plants, including cactus and mesquite, for food, medicine and other needs.

Along the way, Fyllis and I paused at a grinding stone to pound mesquite beans into flour, a muscle-tiring exercise that gave us a new appreciation for store-bought bread.

We also stooped to step inside a roundhouse of the kind constructed by Native Americans who once inhabited this area.

Additional reminders of the native residents are everywhere.

A vast collection of Native American art and artifacts is the main feature at the world-class Heard Museum (based in Phoenix, and with a satellite location in North Scottsdale). The lovely sculpture and native plant garden at the Scottsdale site is a perfect place to relax and rest following a sightseeing excursion.

The Pueblo Grande Museum and Archeological Park also is worth a stop and stroll. The complex sits atop remains of a village of the Hohokam people, who lived in the area from about 450 to 1450 CE. They were the first to cultivate the land of the Sonoran Desert, using a vast system of irrigation ditches. Some of those trenches, and an excavated ball court, are still visible today.

Reproductions of pit houses, mud and adobe-covered structures placed in a shallow depression, demonstrate how the dwellings provided insulation against the extremes of desert temperatures.

Old and new towns

The neighborhoods in and around Scottsdale combine interesting historical tidbits with an array of shopping and recreational opportunities.

The center of much action is the Old Town neighborhood. Located on the original site from which the community expanded, it‘s a hub of museums, historic structures, dining, night life and a shopper’s paradise. From cowboy wares to Native American jewelry to international brand-name handbags, any shopper who can’t find ways to spend money there just isn’t trying.

Old Town is also crammed with many of the city’s estimated 125 art galleries. Even the streets serve as an outdoor museum, with dozens of works — including a giant lizard, a metal rider astride a bucking horse and a number of less identifiable abstract sculptures — on display.

Very different in atmosphere and appeal are tiny enclaves on the outskirts of Scottsdale. Cave Creek (population about 5,000) was settled in 1870 by miners and ranchers, and served as a stopping point for U.S. Cavalry troops. The town clings stubbornly and proudly to its Western heritage, as home to shops selling cowboy gear, several saloons and periodic rodeos.

If Cave Creek keeps vestiges of the Old West alive, the adjacent village of appropriately named Carefree represents the present. It was built as a planned community of homes, some now valued at millions of dollars, which line streets with names like Easy, Tranquil, Ho and Hum. Locals describe this juxtaposition of Old and New West as the “home of cowboys and caviar.”

That same comfortable marriage of old with new, casual with chic is experienced everywhere. It’s common in and around Scottsdale to see men and women wearing jeans and Western hats strolling out of shops that would feel comfortable on New York’s Fifth Avenue or Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, laden down with high-end purchases.

Some residents refer to a gourmet hamburger restaurant, where the parking lot often is packed with top-of-the-line automobiles, as “Burgers and Bentleys.” For Fyllis and me, this combination of upscale life with a laid-back attitude added to the charm and appeal of Scottsdale.

If you go

Our stay at the Inn at Eagle Mountain turned out to be part of the Scottsdale experience. That boutique establishment, terraced in the foothills of the desert adjacent to a golf course, offers 50-mile views over Scottsdale, Phoenix and surrounding canyon terrain. Rooms come with a whirlpool tub, gas fireplace, and deck or patio from which to enjoy the surroundings.

Our Wild West Suite, one of six at the property, lived up to its name with touches like a saddle that doubles as a night table and lamps fashioned from horseshoes. Room rates during spring begin at $79 and drop even lower during the summer heat, and a number of packages are available. For more information call (800) 992-8083 or log onto

When it came to dining, Fyllis and I chose to enjoy the local flavor by sticking to Western-themed restaurants. In Old Town, we sauntered through swinging doors into the appealingly kitschy Rusty Spur Saloon, where a fully dressed cowboy wannabe leaning on the bar turned out to be an aeronautical engineer.

Food choices focus upon “Chuck Wagon” specials like a grilled chicken sandwich buried under a mountain of “fixins” ($9), and “South of the Border” favorites like a combination plate of taco, tostada and tamale ($12). For more information, call (480) 425-7787 or log onto

The Pinnacle Peak Patio, which attracts mostly locals, is the kind of place where a man wearing a necktie will lose it to a pair of scissors. In a Western town setting, the restaurant specializes in cowboy-sized mesquite broiled steaks, chicken and ribs.

Hungry carnivores are tempted by a one-pound T-bone steak accompanied by baked beans and salad ($22.95), or an entrée salad smothered by grilled steak slices ($15.95). For more information, call (480) 585-1599 or log onto

For more information about a visit to Scottsdale, call (800) 782-1117 or log onto