Arizona made the cowboy famous. The term had been rousting around the Wild West since 1870-ish, mostly synonymous with the more pejorative ‘rustler’ tag.
But a decade or so later the Copper State took accidental ownership of brand cowboy when it became the hideout of the notorious Cochise County Cowboys.
A loose association of hoodlums, robbers and stick-’em-ups comprising gnarly, cinematic characters such as Phineas Clanton, Johnny Ringo, Pony Diehl and Curly Bill Brocius, the Cochise mob stole cattle and horses from ranches, held up stagecoaches and relieved terrified passengers of their valuables at gunpoint.
Saddle tour: Learning how to ride Western style past giant cacti on the desert trails feels like being in a movie
Their crime spree made them infamous across America and they are widely acknowledged as the world’s first organised crime gang.
Effectively wiped out at the historic gunfight at the O.K. Corral at Tombstone, Arizona (a skirmish estimated to have lasted just 30 seconds but stretched out to a two-hour drama starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas in the 1957 movie), the cowboys would be later re-cast by America and Hollywood as the good guys. But back then they were very much the baddies.
I’m getting my history lesson and a crash course in cowboy horsemanship at the Arizona Cowboy College, a few miles’ drive from downtown Scottsdale — ‘The West’s Most Western Town’.
My dirt floor professor is Rocco Wachman — a slow movin’, spurs-jangling dude with a bow-legged gait, a droopy moustache and hands that know how to work a pair of castrating irons.
Rocco’s straight-shooting syllabus is very much focused on safety and respect around the potentially dangerous horses; the cowboy as a positive, respectful, ridin’, ropin’ and wranglin’ role model.
This is my first time in a cowboy hat since childhood, my first time ever riding Western style rather than ‘English’ (my equestrian skillset evidently less Billy the Kid and more Billy Crystal in the old City Slickers movie).
A horse rider with a lasso. Proper cowboys ride ‘western style’ with just one hand on the reins
But Rocco, who has taught at the college for three decades, remains a firm but patient teacher. I saddle up and poke dried mud out of my piebald’s shoes before a tentative trot around the yard. Straight back. Hat held high. One hand — forward and low — on the reins, the other resting easy on the pommel.
Rocco is explaining about the time he was up in the red rocks of The Superstitions mountain range, east of Scottsdale. Having lost his way in the wilderness during a fierce snow storm, he fell unconscious while still in his stirrups, leaving his horse to bring him home.
Unresponsive and showing signs of hypothermia, Rocco’s life was saved by the dedication and tenacity of his loyal steed.
With my horse under control, a warm temperature, the air dry and windless, I am mesmerised. Arizona is a beautiful, big country with fluffy white clouds cotton-wool-balling the blue, widescreen sky. Sage brush desert, red mountains and lowing, longhorn cattle as far as I can see. Just the sound of hooves and breeze. No danger of any comic book adventures for this cowboy.
Exercise high: The spectacular Arizona hills are the perfect place to go for a jog
Next day, I am in the passenger cockpit of a noisy, khaki-coloured Hummer H1 vehicle, as used by the U.S. troops in the Gulf. We are clattering our way to the Bulldog Canyon trail for an off- road adventure in the shadows of The Superstitions.
Sonoran Apache legend claims that the entrance to the underworld lies somewhere around here. Other myths tell of an abandoned gold mine full of treasure.
Giant saguaro — magnificent, multi-limbed, flowering cacti — are everywhere, regularly growing to 50 ft high (the record being 78 ft) and some estimated to be more than 200 years old. A mature saguaro can store a ton of water within its bulging trunk.
Architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who built his Taliesin West home and school on a remote site 13 miles north of Scottsdale in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains, was so enamoured with the saguaro that he referenced it in many of his own commercial designs.
From its completion in 1937 until his death in 1959, Taliesin West — ‘a look over the rim of the world’ — was Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter retreat. To entice friends from Hollywood he built a screening room and small concert hall for piano recitals. Weekend guests included artist Georgia O’Keeffe, actress Elizabeth Taylor and rock legend Jimi Hendrix.
Rodeo dive: Taking a dip at Sanctuary Camelback Mountain hotel, pictured, where Jay Z and Beyonce spent their honeymoon