By Nicola Bridges
Kicking back on my balcony, beer in hand, watching the sun slowly set over saguaros and silhouetted mesas and listening to the sounds of mariachi music from the restaurant next door, I'm contemplating the curious and charming weekend I've spent exploring a town just an hour north of Phoenix that in a good way has me a little confused.
I'm in Cave Creek, Arizona, population 5,500-ish, nestled in the foothills of Black Mountain, Skull Mesa and Elephant Butte. I came expecting a primarily Western frontier town. What I didn't expect was its wonderfully eclectic vibe of cowboys and bikers, golfers, artists and crystal-lovers — and supremely friendly locals and snowbirds.
My stay starts with a sunrise horse trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in nearby Scottsdale with Cave Creek-based outfitter Diamond Buckle Adventures and a latte to go from Local Jonny's, a favorite hangout among Cave Creekers. After an amazing ride, I rush to my room at the Prickly Pear Inn, the town's newest boutique hotel on Main Street, getting sidetracked in the Grumpy Ole Mule Mercantile, the inn's large store with modern takes on Western home decor, trinkets and donkey art that doubles as its lobby.
I trade in my dusty jeans and cowboy boots for shorts and flip-flops and head to Frontier Town — the heart of "Old Town" Cave Creek. A reproduction of an authentic 1870s Western town, Frontier Town re-creates Cave Creek's gold-mining days. I wander around the stockade, old wagons, a quaint chapel that still holds weddings, gallows and small Boot Hill cemetery, sucking on a spicy scorpion ice pop, wary of the edible insect inside.
Then it's on to The Town Dump, a self-described "wild and crazy store" of bargain-priced random artifacts, furnishings and outdoor decorative pots and tchotchkes, where locals and tourists rub elbows as they rummage around. Needing a reprieve from the Arizona heat, at the recommendation of one of Diamond Buckle's owners, Diane Kozlow, I slip into the cool dark of El Encanto's Old World Mission-style Mexican, sitting pond-side for a prickly pear margarita, lazily watching the ducks and chatting with locals about where to go next.
Main Street is adorned by vibrantly colorful Western and Mexican art stores, and I stroll up the street past life-size rustic iron horses that line up roadside, rearing or pulling wagons. There are giant iron cactuses, moose, Mexican sculptures of "caballeros" playing guitars, and the odd and oddly out of place large dinosaur or two. Cow-skull art and large strands of red pottery peppers for sale hang on walls over terra-cotta javelinas and mosaic ceramic pots.
Hungry, I swing into Big Earl's Greasy Eats, a small retro eatery in an old gas station. Owner Brooke Butler is there, bubbly and effervescent as she talks about her upcoming wedding in the Frontier Town Chapel and what a truly great place Cave Creek is to live, work and play. We gab next to the old pumps under the patio's fine, cool spritzer mist over a hefty Big Earl Burger, malt shake and house-favorite Tater Tots.
It's too hot to walk now in the desert heat, so I head back to the inn and jump in my rental car to drive just the few blocks to the Rare Earth Gallery, where giant geodes, 10-foot-tall amethyst crystals and rose quartz bath tubs in the outdoor rock garden had caught my eye. It's a vast store and truly is a rare display of Mother Earth's creation of crystals of all kinds.
I spend an hour perusing, then push on to the Red Truck Trading Co., a consignment store showcasing Western furniture, rustic chandeliers and ornate old saddles, named for the vintage pickup at its parking entrance. I drool over a wide leather cowboy couch, and I can't help myself: I buy a tall dresser hand-painted with a cowboy and cowgirl and Annie-Get-Your-Gun replica pistols for handles — perfect for my ranch living room. It's a bargain, even shipped, and every time I open it I think of Cave Creek.
It's time for a siesta before I decide which of the town's multitude of food fare takes my fancy for dinner. Showered from the heat of the day, still not settled on where to eat and a Harley as well as horse rider, I hit the Hideaway, "somewhere in Cave Creek, the World," as the sign says — a friendly biker bar where "there are no strangers, just friends you haven't met yet."
Several new friends later and wanting to end my trip on the Western note that drew me here, I mosey on over Main Street to Buffalo Chip Saloon, awarded "Best Western Saloon" two years in a row by True West magazine, and watch local bull-riders bucking around the restaurant's rodeo ring.
This trip is over, but when I'm back in Phoenix I'll be adding an extra day for more of this fun-filled town.
WHEN YOU GO
Cave Creek's three hotels are the Prickly Pear Inn, www.pricklypearinnaz.com;
Rancho Manana Resort and Golf Club, www.diamondresortsandhotels.com; and
Tumbleweed Hotel, www.tumbleweekhotelcom.
For further information, visit www.frontiertown.info; www.cavecreek.org; www.pricklypearinnaz.com; www.localjonnys.com; www.towndump.net; www.elencantorestaurants.com; www.bigearlsgreasyeats.com; www.rareearthgallerycc.com; www.redtrucktrading.com; www.diamondresortsandhotels.com; and www.tumbleweedhotelcom.
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.
Big Earl's Greasy Eats is housed in a former filling station in Cave Creek, Arizona. Photo courtesy of Nicola Bridges.