Scenes from Scottsdale, Part I: Cowboy Country


In a feature double bill starting this weekend, Larry saddles up and heads for Arizona, soaking up vast landscapes and star-filled skies, experiencing the epitome of the great outdoors; in this first part, he realises a childhood dream…

This is something I never thought I’d do. It existed only in my imagination, in childhood memories and movie matinees. No, not being a cowboy, that was always on the cards ever since I first saw Rio Bravo as an 8-year-old and was later ribbed when I wore cowboy boots to school.

I’m standing next to a giant saguaro cactus, that iconic image of the Western, wrapt in bewildered awe as I learn the facts from my guide. Looking at the height of the one that dwarfs me, if it takes 50 years before it grows ‘arms’, this specimen must be some 400 years old. They are the equivalent of English oaks, and they’re found in only one place on earth.

I’m hiking in the Sonoran desert, where every view is like something out of a John Ford movie, where you can’t take ten steps without framing yet another photo for Instagram, where some 225 miles of trails wind through the most gorgeous landscape, bristling with flora I’ve never heard of; pallo verde, creosote, cholla, ocotillo and, of course, countless saguaro (pronounced ‘sawaro’, incidentally). It’s curious to call it a desert, even; it’s technically the ‘warmest’ in the world (ie with its median temperature), it’s definitely the greenest, but it qualifies as a desert for the level of rainfall – or lack of – it receives.

Reassured by my guide that any scorpion, tarantula – or even rattler – would not be deadly, we eventually peak at a viewing point that looks out across the Phoenix basin. Dubbed the Valley of the Sun, the city, which incorporates the other ‘cities’ of Mesa and Tempe, as well as Scottsdale, is surrounded on all sides by ranges, some with very evocative names. Superstition mountains sounds particularly alluring.

What’s more, this particular trail, part of the McDowell Mountain National Park, is on the doorstep of my hotel. I’m staying at the Adero Scottsdale, in Fountain Hills – so named for the 300ft water jet that sets off on the hour – and, as its name suggests, we are up high. If we’re speaking of views, Adero has some of the best of any property in Arizona.

While its architecture would look more at home downtown, in contrast to many of the houses that seem to blend into the landscape that surround it, there are plenty of features that keep it sympathetic; its garden and pool terraces are modelled on Havesu Falls in the Grand Canyon, and almost everything around Adero is designed around appreciating the landscape. It sits in a Dark Sky designation and was recently awarded ‘art of craft’ for its astronomy guest offering. Many of its rooms, too, take advantage of its position, with Celestial and Dark Sky corner suites featuring floor-to-ceiling windows and wrap-around balconies looking out to the night sky.

This embracing of the landscape is perhaps best manifest by one of Arizona’s most famous sons. Set in ten acres of Sonoran scrub, Taliesin West is the home and ‘laboratory’ of pioneering architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Built, simply, out of stone, wood and canvas, the exterior is framed neatly into its environment; the ribs on the roof, for example, mirroring the water channels of the mountains behind.

“A house,” he wrote, “should be a circumstance in nature, like a rock or a tree”, and it both figuratively – and literally – blends into the landscape; plants are those that were here when he moved here in 1937, including the giant saguaro marking the entrance, and several petroglyphs dotted about the property are incorporated into the grounds.

Inside, too, it’s an extraordinary execution, the use of space, light and materials (his principles) are used to such conducive effect; the canvas diffusing the harsh desert light, his idea of ‘compression and release’ as you enter the rooms, the flow between spaces, interior and exterior seamlessly blended. I’ve never really considered architecture as anything other than aesthetic, but sitting in the garden room is one of the most at ease moments I’ve experienced in a room before, simply because of how it’s designed. Little wonder that Taliesin West became a UNESCO site in 2019.

From hiking and high culture to something more down-to-earth, there was one other thing I came to Arizona to experience – being a cowboy. I know what you’re thinking; how is a city hack from the other side of the world ever going to get to grips with roping a steer? Well, believe it or not, they have lessons for this sort of thing, and aways from the hotel, down a dusty dirt track, I pull up at a ranch and prepare myself for a day’s cowboy schoolin’.

Our instructor, Rocco, is literally chiselled from the landscape. A lot warmer than Jack Palance, he’s no less grizzly-looking. Leaning over the fence post, complete with bold buckle, spurs and a woven Stetson set back on his head, he gives us an overview of the day, before taking an ageing mare into a small, sandy paddock and showing us a few fundamentals on horsemanship. I’m not sure what’s more impressive, Rocco’s deft, nonchalant handling of the animal, or the horse’s sheer precision in executing what’s required.

Then it’s my first lesson, prepping the horse for riding, delivered with various sobering scenarios. We’re grooming and saddling up, before a few laps of the paddock and understanding handling. So far, so standard, you say, I could do this in a field in Surrey. But then set this against that mountain backdrop, the saguaro cacti and massive skies, and then it takes on a whole different perspective. My steed is the disconcertingly named Bullet, and, predictably, everything I’m told goes out the window, but Bullet and our teachers are far more patient than expected, and soon he and I have a rapport, and we’re comfortably managing laps and weaving round cones, ready to take on the cattle.

Next up, roping steers. The live ones, however, long-horned, stay lazily reclined in the shade, while we tackle the static ‘rope-o-magic’ models. While not quite with the deft hand of a cowboy on the gallop, I nevertheless manage a hatrick catching both horns, to illicit a ‘you’re a natural’ from Rocco. It’s a taster, sure – full-on City Slickers courses run for several days and even include a cattle drive – but I’m made up, and we’re all set for what will come a few days later; a trail ride through the desert.

But being a cowboy is not just about horsemanship and herding cattle. Buffalo Chip Rodeo in Cave Creek cements the cowboy experience, in that quintessential South West way; rodeo. It’s hard to believe that it exists as a serious event, that it’s not simply a curiosity for tourists or a Buffalo Bill-style show. It’s a genuine sport, and given the all-American razzmatazz. Participants are introduced, prayers are offered by the pastor, and there’s a rendition of the Star Splangled Banner as a substantial Stars and Stripes is paraded on horseback around the arena.

There follows a high-energy cavalcade of bull-riding and ‘mutton bustin’- yes, kids riding sheep. In between bouts there’s the ubiquitous barbecue and, inside, the band giving some backing to some rather splendid turns on the dance floor. It’s clearly an institution in its own right, capturing all generations, and is as much a South West institution as barbecue and brisket, which incidentally is plentiful at Buffalo Chip.

And with the sun long since set, as I perch on the bench, paper plate of chicken and cowboy beans in hand, gripped by the anticipation that the next rider might last longer than three seconds this time, I’m thinking back to those old boots I had, and wondering if I might dig them out when I get back home.

ADERO Scottsdale Resort rooms during the peak season (January – May) start at £318.74/night plus taxes and fees. In the off-season (June – December), rooms start at £228.60/night plus taxes and fees. For more information, please visit Two-day courses at Arizona Cowboy College start at $2450. For more information, including course dates and details of what’s included, please visit

For more information about Scottsdale, including details of where to stay, what to see and do, and to start planning your trip, please visit

Larry’s adventures in Arizona continue next weekend when he swings through the saloon doors into downtown Scottsdale, sampling some spectacular cuisine and staying at one of the state’s most iconic properties…