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Gallery In The Sun

Find out more
about the
work of Arizona’s
most renowned artist
Ettore “Ted” DeGrazia

THE Arizona sun beat mercilessly down as I weaved my horse Oro between a maze of saguaro and cholla cacti towards the Panther Peak mountains, but despite the intense heat I felt like the coolest man on the planet.

In my mind's eye I was Clint Eastwood, riding into town as the Man With No Name – to the wrangler here at the White Stallion Ranch just outside Tucson I was Chris Stratford, the Man With No Horse Riding Experience. “Chris, give Oro a nudge – you're falling too far behind the horse in front.”

So, with more dialogue than Clint used in a fistful of scenes, I was swiftly reminded that I had only sat on a horse once before in my life yet by the end of one day's riding I felt competent enough to agree to head wrangler JC's invitation to take part in the guests' rodeo. And so it was I galloped towards the finishing line in the barrel race, dipping under the one-minute mark to the hoots and hollers of my fellow competitors.

Well, it was probably more of a fast trot than a gallop but was no less exhilarating for that and was testimony to the wranglers' ability to make even a novice quickly feel like an accomplished horseman. There was no equestrian magic at work; White Stallion Ranch is not a Hogwarts for horsemanship. But if you have ever wanted to ride – or indeed wanted to do nothing but ride – it is the place for you.

A visit is like a stay with family, the feeling of home accentuated at meal times by dining at long tables, shoulder-to-shoulder with other guests who animatedly swap stories of their day's riding.

From the first-time guests who had already booked a return stay to the British couple who had been visiting regularly for 15 years – and whose daughter left home for the White Stallion Ranch when she was old enough to become a wrangler – all were of one voice: this was the place to be. Because of its extensive range of riding – only the cost of lessons is not included in the price of a room – plus its tennis and volleyball courts, heated swimming pool and hot tub, and many other amenities, most residents tend to stay on the ranch until it is time to mosey home.

The vibrancy and colour of this cowboy life is captured wonderfully in the pictures of one of Arizona's most famous artists, Ettore “Ted” DeGrazia, whose vast collection of paintings, ceramics and sculptures is housed in the near-by Gallery in the Sun in the foothills of Tucson's Santa Catalina Mountains.

DeGrazia, renowned for his work illustrating the native cultures of the Sonoran desert, built the gallery himself.  It is an evocative setting for a provocative and spell-binding array of work which would exceed its breathtaking 15,000 items had he not burned more than a million dollars of his art in protest at punitive inheritance tax laws.

His work helps open a gateway on to the spiritual history of Arizona's native people and its landscape; those with sufficient funds can leave with a DeGrazia original while others, like me, leave with a print which still exudes energy and dynamism.

While the Gallery in the Sun left me uplifted and pondering the spiritual dimensions of life, the Titan Missile Museum – just south of Tucson – forced me to contemplate man's tenuous grasp on mortality. During a one-hour tour of this former Strategic Missile Wing, now a National Historic Landmark, I sat briefly at the launch control desk from which the world, as we know it, could have been brought to an end. The nuclear missile still inhabits its launch pad, disarmed, but the enormity of its former potency is enough to induce a chill even on a summer's afternoon in Arizona with temperatures climbing to around 115F.

Our guide talked us through the elaborate two-man launch procedure involving complex codes and synchronised key-turning, which had the ring of a macabre TV game show – The Ex-Factor, perhaps. An eerie yet compelling experience.

Tucson is associated more with missiles a fraction of Titan's size, those propelled from a six-shooter. Old Tucson Studios has been the location for countless Western films and TV shows and, while I quite clearly don't ride like Clint Eastwood, I did walk in his footsteps, as well as those of such acting luminaries as John Wayne and the cast of series like High Chapparal, Gunsmoke and The Little House on the Prairie.

It is an active filming location which doubles as a tourist attraction, staging comedy stunt gunfights, saloon musicals, re-enactments of episodes from the lives of such infamous figures as Billy the Kid – and offering more dining choices than you could wave a Winchester rifle at.

If travelling by horse is too slow for you then maybe planes are more your thing in which case a visit to the Pima Air & Space Museum in tandem with a tour of the nearby “Boneyard”, an aerospace storage facility housing more than 4,200 aircraft at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, comes highly recommended. The former's exhibits include Air Force One used by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

Finally, on the subject of air flight, should you visit Arizona – and you should – travel light. Chances are you may be asked to pay excess baggage on your return.

Arizona cuisine is as seductive as its scenery, with much of it nodding in the direction of its Mexican heritage, and to sample the latter at its best drop in at El Charro Café in Tucson.

But for the sake of your horse, order only a small portion of their home-made pastel de tres leches – cake of three milks. I didn't and maybe that's why Oro could only reach a trot rather than a gallop.

Tucson, Arizona

Published: January 8, 2011

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