By Nicola Bridges
Riding quietly along on my trusty steed, Phoenix, with a horse-high view of an explosion of white saguaro cactus blooms as far as the eye can see, I'm in awe of nature and truly stunned by the landscape of Arizona's Sonoran Desert. We're moseying along on one of the 195 pristine trails at the base of the McDowell Mountains that traverse Scottsdale's 30,000-acre McDowell Sonoran Preserve, and I couldn't be more content.
The preserve is a living treasure of flora, fauna, unforgettable views, petroglyphs, and the rich history of the Hohokam, Yavapai and Apache Indian cultures and the pioneer homesteaders who settled here, just 30 miles from Phoenix and 18 miles from the popular Western former gold mining town of Cave Creek, where I'm staying.
I'm with my best friend, Michelle, whom I've not seen in a year, and we're here on horses from a desire to meet up in a wondrous place in a wonderfully special way that memories are made of, catching up as we ride along on a private and personalized trail ride that includes a tasty catered trail-end feast.
We mosey through spurts of chitchat, bursts of laughter and stretches of quiet reflection, listening and learning as we go from our wrangler trail guide Diane Kozlow, who narrates our ride with her deep knowledge of the history of the area, the phenomenal rock formations, and plants and animals along the way.
She points out medicinal plants and the different types of cactuses, telling us about their blooms, prickles and pears, and how they cross-pollinate thanks to hummingbirds. And we learn about the plants that would help keep you alive should you find yourself lost and alone in this desert.
We sample some, including the surprisingly delicious jojoba nuts we pluck from its bushes along the way that have the texture and slightly bitter-but-pleasing taste of an almond. We see lizards underfoot and birds of prey above. Mule deer, gray foxes, snake and javalinas are indigenous to the area but not to be seen today.
In no time at all, the three of us have fallen in step, bantering like great friends out for a four-hour ride, sharing personal moments in our lives and talking the talk women do when they're in women-only company. It's an intimate experience, and that's precisely the intention.
Diane and her cowgirl cohort, Penny Benson, had met during years of trail-guiding under their belt buckles at local stables trekking the same trails every day in another place, and they wanted to offer something more private, bespoke and special. So they decided to break out on their own and started Diamond Buckle Adventures as a small outfitter tailoring experiences for individuals to large groups and special-occasion rides throughout Arizona for any riding level and catering (in every sense of the word, including food) to their guests' desires. They've done everything from surprise sunset proposals, Sweet 16s and kiddie birthday parties to corporate groups and regular ride-outs, each experience uniquely crafted.
With just a brief advance chat, Diane immediately got what we were looking for as two friends getting together after a too-long while and tailored our ride to our every desire down to detail. As we are staying local to Diamond Buckle's base in Cave Creek where they keep and care for their horses, and after listening to what we'd love to see on our ride and for how long, Diane's recommendation of a four-hour Renegade Ride at the McDowell preserve, along the Brown Ranch trail — named for the family who, starting in 1904, homesteaded, ranched and ran cattle there — sounded perfect.
And it was.
At the end of our memory-making, we come off the trail where we'd met hours earlier at the staging area, just after the dawn of day when the deep orange sunrise silhouetted the mountains and soldierlike saguaros, welcoming yet another clear blue, cloudless Arizona sky.
It is now the higher heat of noon. We dismount, lead our horses to water and settle down at a picnic table, attacking our delicious surprise charcuterie plate with honey and fig spread, Michelle's and my favorite, washing it down with more water and a glass of wine, reliving the ride, none of us wanting to leave.
WHEN YOU GO
For more information: Diamond Buckle Adventures, www.diamondbuckleadventures.com
McDowell Sonoran Preserve: www.mcdowellsonoran.org
Nicola Bridges is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
A group of horseback-riders travel through Arizona's Sonoran Desert. Photo courtesy of Diamond Buckle Adventures. Photo courtesy of Carol Waller.