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What Has Meaning For You?

October 29, 2023

What Has Meaning For You?

What has meaning for you?

It was a question I asked myself recently in a semi-panic. I’d just bagged four non-refundable air tickets to Arizona in the BA sale about ten months ahead.

The idea was to give the boys an educational adventure in cowboy country, except I later discovered they didn’t know what cowboys were and didn’t seem too interested. Then I remembered as a child my parents and their friends regaling over stars of music hall and variety which predated TV and had zero meaning for me.

I was fed a diet of Western films with stars like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. High Chaparral and Bonanza on TV, Desperate Dan in comics. Cowboys and Indians were the am-dram games we played, and most kids had a bow and arrow - not so my nine-year-old twins. Hollywood lines were drummed into us growing up; “we’ll head them off at the pass”, “the only good Injun is a dead Injun”, which wouldn’t go down too well at the next HR meeting.

This stereotyping of white settler - good, Red Indian - bad started to change in the late ‘60s as a raised consciousness seeped into Hollywood and racial categorising and cultural imperialism were questioned. Films like Little Big Man and Soldier Blue in 1970 indicted the whites for prejudice and brutality against the indigenous Native Americans as they looted and plundered their lands. A generation on and Hollywood moved to cast Native American roles with actual Native Americans.

Of course, Arizona isn’t all about cowboys, so I went ahead and filled out an itinerary for them. I knew from a visit myself long ago, how interesting and diverse the desert flora and fauna could be and the dramatic landscapes and vistas of Sedona, the Grand Canyon, Utah, etc. were sure to interest them even without the dude ranches, fishing, rodeos and bull-riding. 

They aren’t really to sit on when you’re tired and no, it’s not ‘hug a cactus’ week.

The Saguaro Cactus - səˈ(ɡ)wärō

The desert flora is abundant while managing on very little rain. The most famous icon of this area is the Saguaro cactus. It grows only in the Sonoran Desert, a region that drifts into Mexico, eastern California and southern Arizona,  but despite this, it was a useful prop for cowboy films shot all over the States.

The definitive silhouette of these plants are the arms which don’t appear for fifty years. The first five formative years of life give a plant no bigger than your thumb, but which ultimately grows up to 60 feet tall in a 175-year lifetime. Its pleated trunk allows it to carry more water and the spines help limit water loss from wind as well as deterring animals from feasting on it. The flesh is edible but not as popular or useful as another desert plant, the agave, on which the vast tequila industry is built.

Dawn Hiking

We rested for two days at the Four Seasons Scottsdale. A beautiful low built resort with stunning landscaping that left us feeling very relaxed as we acclimatised to the dry desert heat and eight hour time difference. 

We rose early to climb the nearby peak overlooking the resort. The marked trail rising about 1000ft would take a couple of hours so we started before dawn with torches to show the way for the first half hour. Scorpions light up in the dark and tarantulas and snakes are best seen before getting too close. The reluctant boys became very excited when the first thing we saw was a rattle snake trying to eat a whole mouse.

Horses and Cowboys

Driving down south past Tucson we came to our second stop. Tanque Verde was a proper 150-year-old ranch turned semi-authentic event space for the heritage experience. Two hundred horses and endless trails through the Sonoran landscape. The more I looked into the history of the settlers the more I realised how tough life must have been for those pioneers to trek into the desert and start a life with nothing.

James was very excited having spotted a salon at the ranch and looked disappointed when we explained what saloons were. An easy mistake, my mother continued to call my place of work a saloon despite decades of my trying to correct her.

James and Jack quickly became fond of their horses Spur and Clint and joined in the grooming after their riding session. They were sad to leave the ranch but other adventures beckoned.

Sedona and the Grand Canyon

We stayed at Enchantment Resort in Sedona, a beautiful Relais Chateaux, marred only by their current refurbishment of the main pool area. This left a hole in the central offering of the resort which was more acutely felt as the summer temperatures had lasted further into the season. We used this as a base to visit the beautiful red rock Sedona desert areas and the Grand Canyon about two hours drive away. We came in at the eastern entrance to the park and despite seeing images, only being there truly gives a feeling of the awesome scale. At 7500ft altitude we were unprepared for a 25 degree drop in temperature from the late 30s of the more southern desert.

We took the South Kaibab trail that leads down to the bottom. This was hacked and blown out of the rock a hundred years ago. Teams of men working mostly in the cooler nights suspended on ropes to plant their dynamite charges. We walked only part way down as it comes with a warning to all but the hardiest hikers to plan an overnight tented stop halfway.

Glass Blowing

Sedona town is the art enthusiasts heart of Arizona and a haven for spiritual wellness. There was a chance here to explore a different creativity with glass. The nuances of movement in handling hot molten dripping glass come through years of experience and fortunately Jordan our instructor had that.

This skill goes back millennia and I’d always wanted to understand a little more. We each got to make an item in our chosen  colour to take home.

Bull Riding

Buffalo Chip Saloon in Cave Creek is a huge indoor/outdoor restaurant bar with live music, line dancing and a rodeo tacked on the side for twice a week bull riding – possibly the most crazy dangerous sport I’ve ever watched. Full of amazing looking characters, there must have been a thousand people at this gig and it felt like a Wild West version of the first night at The Camden Palace, Steve Strange et al, I was there too. 

The aim of bull riding is to stay on a near one-ton animal for at least eight seconds with one hand in the air and then not get crushed by him as he throws you off. Clowns are on standby to distract the bull once the rider is jettisoned. Amazingly, novices turn up at rodeos, sign a waiver and try their hand. Under 18s need parents’ permission.

We returned to the restful Four Seasons Resort in Scottsdale for our last two days. 

Introduction to Astronomy

The night sky in the desert is pretty much free from man-made light pollution. On our last night at Four Seasons a Nasa astronomer set up his electronic telescope and computer screens to show us the moon, stars and planets in a way we'd never seen. Even close-ups of the sun and all its plasma flares that he'd filmed through the day. It was the most interesting insight into Astronomy I'd seen and the boys were fascinated.

What did they love most about their trip? Horses, horses horses.

 Michael Van Clarke


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