The new freeways, the traffic, even the ever-present smog over the Valley of the Sun didn't dispel my love for the Arizona desert when I returned after a two-decade hiatus.
But when I learned this past fall that Rawhide, an Old West town on the northern edge of Scottsdale, was pulling up stakes to make way for yet another new housing development, my long-repressed Annie Oakley instincts resurfaced. If only I had a horse and twin six-shooters, I'd ride out to Rawhide and let 'em have it.
You see, Rawhide helped whip up my enthusiasm for desert life when I moved 30 years ago from Upper Michigan's lush forests and waterways. I was not only prepared to dislike this barren, ugly country, I was irrationally fearful of the creepy critters and thorny cacti that inhabited it.
Within the first couple of months, however, I discovered three Old West traditions that not only dispelled my fears but instilled a deep appreciation for the ways of the West.
I read Zane Grey's novels. (There's nothing like a pure-hearted cowboy's intentions to help a girl learn to deal with rattlers and tarantulas.)
I saddled up for my first four-hour horseback ride through the open desert with Hube Yates, a real-life cowboy who had once caught an eight-foot rattlesnake in a barrel. ("Ya know, missy, you can stop looking for 'em. Rattlers hibernate in the winter and they don't travel in packs.")
And I visited Rawhide, the Western-themed park that offered a hands-on perspective on how pioneers settled this area and carried out daily affairs. A circular wagon train set up around a campfire greeted visitors with a recording of a trail boss talking about the trip so far and the plan the next day to cross a dry riverbed - "if the rains don't come."
There was a Main Street, with period businesses, as well as a first-class steakhouse that served cowboy beans with every meal. Among other attractions, there were stagecoach rides through the desert, burro rides, a shop where kids could try on Western garb and have their pictures taken for a "wanted" poster, and enactments of real-life situations in the streets, including shoot-outs.
It was fun and authentic enough to avoid being schlocky. Visiting Rawhide became an annual family tradition and a highlight for visiting friends and relatives who needed a 10- gallon Stetson.
So when it closed in October, I feared that I'd lost a piece of my West. The Gila River Indian Community had purchased the 1880s town and moved it to its reservation, just south of Phoenix. In seven weeks, it dismantled and reconstructed Rawhide - in time for the annual "Cowboy Christmas" and prime tourist season. Would the new Old West live up to my memories of the reasonably old Old West?
I saddled up my, well, convertible and rode out to the new site to find out. And, I'll be darned. It's nearly the same Rawhide that I remembered.
The wagon train set up around a campfire greets visitors at the entrance. Main Street is wider and the facades a little fresher, but still authentic. The same ol' sheriff mans the jail, and for $5 will stage an arrest for "excessive shopping," or some such, firing blanks in the air to apprehend surprised tourists and lock them up in the hoosegow. In return for bail, freed "convicts" get to keep their rap sheets.
"Personally, the new drive adds 80 miles to my commute," Sheriff Al Hubbard says. "But then there's air conditioning and heat here, and that wasn't the case at our Scottsdale operation."
The new owners say they also want to incorporate elements of native American culture, but that will come later. In the meantime, they've added a train ride. And the desert stagecoach now includes options for a sundown cookout and panning for gold.
True, the freshly planted paloverde and mesquite trees, as well as various varieties of cacti, are not well established, so they aren't as thick or realistic as the old Rawhide desert.
But that didn't stop a family of four from Grants, N.M., from enjoying the ride. "The stagecoach is my favorite. Well, maybe the burro ride," says 5-year-old Tyana. "But I want to go get a cowboy hat too, please." And off the Walters amble to the General Store, which features felt cowboy hats for kids, pink ones with rhinestones for the ladies, and yup, the traditional 10- gallon Stetson as well.