Gill Sutherland and her husband head for the Wild West to channel the cowboy spirit… with the kids in tow
What is it about Scottish people and country’n’western music? Step north over Hadrian’s Wall it’s not so much the fanfare of a wheezy bagpipe that will greet you as the twang of a country ballad about bad luck, love gone wrong and the curative powers of whiskey. It was just such a soundtrack that accompanied my Scottish upbringing – my ma and pa were devotees of Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton.
Understandably the call of cowboy country proper had long beckoned me. It’s probably why I ended up marrying my husband Steve – he’s one of the few men I’ve met who can wear a cowboy hat without looking a total pillock.
Anyway, saddled up with our three kids, we set off on a family holiday to Arizona for a wild west adventure and where I can finally unleash my inner cowgirl.
First stop is Arizona’s numero uno, must-do visitor attraction, the Grand Canyon, aka the Big Ditch. We British tend to think of the States as a brash, bratty and uncultured sort of place: “Why it’s all so new there’s no proper history, nothing nice and ancient like Stratford’s 450-year-old house in which the mighty Shakespeare was born in,” we chuckle into our real ale…
Standing nearish the edge on the South Rim staring into the TWO-BILLION-year-old abyss of the Grand Canyon is absurdly giddying. Although at 8,000ft above sea level, the giddy bit could be my notoriously lame altitude sickness and diabolical vertigo (yes, I’m a wussy sort of cowgirl). Still, its immensity is undeniably eye-boggling – 1.2 million acres of jaw-dropping wonderment. This place is half as old as the earth – in a game of tourism top trumps this would trounce even Stratford’s rich and noble history.
Under an impossibly azure blue, cloudless sky on a bright, crisp early summer morning we Sutherlands stand agog, gaping at the rocks, cliff edges and stone columns made up of layer upon layer of burnished gold, red and orange stripes: each strata a geological clue to the earth’s creation.
It feels like a religious experience. I beam at the kids, enjoying their rapt absorption of this special moment, this beautiful, sacred place…. Until my boy Syd, 12, takes a run at the edge, so he can put some welly into the stone he chucks into the giant hole before him. Obviously I screech like a demented banshee at him to mind the edge. The magic is broken. Normal family life resumes and we troop off to the gift shop.
On the road
I’ve always fantasised about going on a great American Road Trip. But with three kids on board, we settle for a day trip – driving south in pursuit of proper cowboy-and-Indian country. Our final destination is Tombstone, scene of America’s most famous gunfight, but first we hit Scottsdale for a few nights.
Scottsdale is our reward for surviving yet another dreary British winter. It sits next to state capital Phoenix in an area known as the Valley of the Sun and occupies Native American desert lands. In high summer it experiences triple-figure temperatures. When we visit in February it is merely in the 70s.
Known for its high-end shopping malls, abundance of plastic surgeons and golf resorts, Scottsdale is a Marmite sort of town – you either love it or hate it. Given its daily sunshine and luxe feel, I am assuredly in the love camp, and the fact that we end up at the Hyatt Regency – a stylish family resort, so good it could appear in those Carlsberg ads – you know the ones where holiday fantasies come true. Stylish rooms, huge open-air Grand Canyon-size lobby (well almost) where one can enjoy a cocktail overlooking cacti gardens and the ten (yes, ten!) swimming pools.
But Scottsdale is not all chi-chi shopping and lounging. At its heart is Old Scottsdale: a quaint couple of blocks that pretends it’s the old west – wooden sidewalks lined with bars and restaurants thrumming with the sound of good times. And of course there are many novelty items to purchase: cowboy boots and hats, turquoise jewellery, cheap Mexican imports, skulltastic Day of the Dead ornaments, rattlesnake tails that still rattle, scorpion lollipops (yes, really) and T-shirts tie-dyed red with desert mud. I buy a black vest that says ‘cowgirl’ in diamante. Classy, right?
Our road trip ends with a stay at Tanque Verde Ranch, where I hope to fully transform into Cowgirl Mum. The place is perfect: surrounded by red desert earth, with enormous big-armed green saguaro cacti, blue mountains in the background. Our room is a Mexican style adobe chalet overlooking miles of tranquil desert – at night the air is still and warm and scented by wild sage, bats swoop, crickets chirp and the stars sparkle like rhinestones in the cloudless sky.
As cowgirls are obliged to do, I take a horse ride (husband and kids come too). We are greeted by a gang of female wranglers. Miss Kelsey (no casual first names for these tough gals) tells me that cowboys tended to be too grumpy so thus the female dominance (yeehaw for cowgirl power!). We head out on the trail, marvelling at the sculpture-like cacti, the flush of early-summer yellow, white and red flowers that sprout improbably on scrubby looking bushes, the skittering lizards and watch out for the rattlesnakes that come out at sundown. We pass by Paul McCartney’s ranch where Linda chose to end her days 15 years ago – two days before her death she was riding this very desert on her beloved horse. Paul’s last words to her were: “You’re up on your beautiful Appaloosa stallion. It’s a fine spring day. We’re riding through the woods. The bluebells are all out, and the sky is clear-blue.”
After a reflective day on horseback, I take my saddle-sore rear to the bar. After ogling cactus all day, I now drink one – a prickly pear margarita (the prickly pear makes a hot sweet sticky liquor), and am given a mini portion of freshly popped popcorn to go with it. Just as I decide this will be my diet for the rest of my days, Johnny Cash comes over the stereo: singing I walk the Line (“I walk the line cos you’re mine”). Surrounded by my gang of misfits (noisy kids, cowboy-hatted husband), I’ve got the happy cowgirl blues.
See scottsdale.regency.hyatt.com and www.tanqueverderanch.com for more details.