Women dressed in the latest fashions strolled into Gucci and Neiman Marcus, intent on adding to their chic wardrobe. Not far away, my wife, Fyllis, wearing blue jeans, boots and a cowgirl hat, was learning to lasso cattle.

The first impression of Scottsdale, Arizona is the diversity of attractions. The shopping experience alone provides an introduction to the something-for-everyone variety.

World-famous top-of-the-line stores are neighbors to one-of-a-kind specialty shops and boutiques. And in a city whose slogan is "The Westís most western town," itís no surprise to pass store after store selling cowboy hats, boots and everything worn between them.

The authentic western influence also lives at the Arizona Cowboy College, where Fyllis experienced a taste of life on the range. Most city slickers undergo a two-day orientation course there, followed by four days spent rounding up cattle, branding and doing other cowboy-like chores.

Included in her one-day introduction was learning to clean hooves and groom and saddle Billie, the horse she was assigned. Then came riding Western style, including instructions to "lighten up on the reins" and "sink your butt into the saddle." Later, Fyllis had a lesson in roping a metal mini-cow on wheels which, after several errant tosses, my newly westernized wife was able to ring.

The cowgirl experience ended with a horseback ride in the Sonoran Desert. While descriptions of deserts usually include words like bleak and barren, we learned that what looks like a dry wasteland in reality is home to plants and animals that have adapted to life in searing summertime temperatures and an almost complete lack of water.

The Sonoran Desert, which is about thee times the size of Virginia, is a virtual cactus heaven. The king of cactus, the majestic saguaro (pronounced suh-WAHR-oh), can grow to a height of 50 feet and live as long as 200 years.

Numerous other species of cactus also have found the Sonoranís arid conditions to their liking. They come in numerous shapes and sizes, along with colorful names like purple prickly pear, organ pipe and teddy-bear cholla that add to their appeal.

Equally fascinating is how plant and animal life have adapted to the harsh desert environment. Some cacti have stems that expand to store rain water for later use. The saguaro can store enough water to last up to a year. The western-banded gecko keeps liquid in its long tail for later use when needed.

Visitors interested in exploring this other-worldly setting have a choice of alternatives. On land, they include hiking, biking, horseback rides and off-road driving tours. Those who prefer to take to the air may choose a hot air balloon ride or clamber aboard an airplane, helicopter or even a seaplane for a flight that includes a lake landing.

Some of the desertís magic and magnificence is captured in sanctuaries and museums. The McDowell Sonoran Preserve is a mini-wilderness that provides an excellent introduction to the desert. Itís home to hundreds of plants and animals, along with 60 miles of trails for hiking.

The Desert Botanical Garden contains more kinds of cactus than I knew existed. Five trails meander through an amazingly varied collection of arid plants transported from deserts around the world. Exhibits demonstrate how Native Americans used various plants for food, medicine and other needs.

In fact, reminders of American Indians are common in the area. An extensive collection of Indian art and artifacts is featured at the Heard Museum locations in North Scottsdale and adjacent Phoenix.

The Pueblo Grande Museum and Archeological Park sits atop remains of a village of the Hohokam people, who lived in the area from about 450 to 1450 AD. They were the first to cultivate the Sonoran Desert, using an intricate system of irrigation ditches, some of which still are visible today. Also intact are an excavated ball court, and full-scale reproductions of both early houses and a later-style adobe home.

Neighborhoods in and around Scottsdale combine interesting historical tidbits with an array of shopping and recreational opportunities, Old Town, located on the original site of the community, is a hub of museums, historic structures, dinning and night life. Many of the cityís estimated 125 art galleries also are there, offering works that range from renderings of cowboys and Native Americans to avant-garde abstract pieces.

Other enclaves are very different in appeal. Cave Creek (population about 5,000) was settled in 1870 by miners and ranchers, and served as a stopping point for U.S. Cavalry troops. The town clings stubbornly and proudly to its western heritage, and as home to several saloons and periodic rodeos.

The adjacent village of Carefree is very different in atmosphere. It was built as a planned community with homes now valued at millions of dollars which line streets with names like Easy, Tranquil, Ho and Hum.

Locals describe this juxtaposition of Old and New West as "the home of cowboys and caviar." That same comfortable marriage of old with new, casual with chic is experienced in and around Scottsdale, and for Fyllis and me added greatly to its charm and appeal.


For more information on Scottsdale, see www.experiencescottsdale.com




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