We’d been riding for about an hour—clip-clopping up and down the dusty hills of the remote Cochise Stronghold, me hanging on to my saddle horn with white knuckles while we lurched over dry riverbeds—when Miles “Bucky” Buckley started talking about Geronimo.
Looking out from below his big, broad hat, the old cowboy settled back in his saddle and traced an imaginary line across the facing mountains, just now reddening in the fading light of late afternoon. “Geronimo and Cochise, they would sit up in those mountains, right there,” he said, recalling long-ago events, when the West was truly wild and the two Apache leaders were already legendary. “They could see the cavalry coming for miles, kicking up a trail of dust behind them,” he added, with a chuckle. “It sure wasn’t hard for them to escape.”
While the vast Sonoran sands of Arizona now host more snowbirds than gunslingers, real cowboys still ride this rough, rugged land. As a kid who grew up wearing a plastic revolver while watching old westerns, I’ve always idolized these iconic figures and forever desired to ride the open range. I am, no doubt, a confirmed amateur—all hat, no cattle. But the buckaroos I met along the trail more than made up for my own shortcomings as I immersed myself in this state’s legendary cowboy culture.
A white cowboy hat atop my head, I roamed the state in my rented, fire engine-red Fiat 500, stopping at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone—“the town too tough to die”—where I watched a reenactment of the famous 1881 shootout that left one man standing, a sheriff’s deputy and saloon-keeper named Wyatt Earp. In Bisbee, I joined an old digger and rode a rickety little train deep into the mountain that gave up 8.5 billion lbs. of copper and 600 million ounces of gold more than a century ago from the Queen Mine, when Bisbee was the biggest place between St. Louis and San Francisco.
And I rode with the wranglers of Tanque Verde, a legendary guest ranch near Tucson where hands still herd 800 head of cattle over almost 63,000 acres of land. After an early morning “breakfast ride” up to an old homestead, I sat down for flapjacks served out of the back of a chuckwagon with more than 20 staff cowboys and cowgirls who told stories about spending weeks herding cattle for the first sale of the year, of sleeping on the ground and of living out of their saddlebags and cooking their vittles over an open fire. “For a young guy, it’s the ultimate lifestyle. After all, the ladies love cowboys,” one told me, while the young woman next to him rolled her eyes.
Then I went to the Stronghold and met up with Bucky. As we wound past big saguaro cacti, he told me about his operation, Blue Sky Ranches, which offers everything from afternoon trail rides to multi-day equine vacations.
And he regaled me with plenty more tales from the trail—most of them from his own 40-plus years of riding. There was the time a rattlesnake reared up from a woodpile and bit him, hard, on the arm—“It swelled up good, and I was sick for days, but I was okay.” And that crazy trip a long time ago, when he rode his horse all the way up from Mexico, he said, “just for the hell of it.” And, of course, the scary moment, just six months ago, when he got bucked off the back of a mustang. But, true to the old adage, he got right back on the horse. “I got her broken. I’m riding her right now,” he said, with a slightly chagrined smile.
“I’m too old to know how to do anything else. Once a cowboy, always a cowboy.”
Getting There: WestJet flies to Phoenix 13 times a week from Toronto, Calgary and Edmonton.