Linda Ballou

The highway to Hana should be listed as another wonder of the world. Each day thousands traverse the narrow road that hugs the coast of southeast Maui. It is a miracle that the over fifty one-lane bridges, many of which are over a hundred years old, don’t collapse beneath the steady stream of cars. Drivers are rubber necking to see the most beautiful waterfall, and angling to find a pullout near unmarked trailheads to take a closer look. Pesky locals press tourists trying to take in the beauty on the unfamiliar curvaceous highway to go faster. That distracted drivers careening around blind curves don’t plunge over the steep precipice into deep gulches to an instant death is a mystery to me.
Chaos can be avoided if you do the highway my way. Make arrangements to spend at least two nights in Hana, rather than rushing in and out in one day to the Seven Sacred Pools aka O’hi’o Gulch. This gives you time to explore and make stops along the way. Fuel up at trendy Pa’ia, the gateway to Hana, where there are several good eateries. While you are there, stop at the Mana Food Store to pick up a few supplies for picnic lunches. Leave at about noon giving the rest of the travelers a head start.
Stop at the Garden of Eden about halfway into the drive. There you will find miles of manicured lanes winding through an incredible array of tropical plants shaded by the canopy of towering mango, banyan, and enormous fanning palms. Viewing platforms framed in luxuriant foliage overlook a vast blue expanse of the Pacific and stunning Puohokamoa Falls. I strolled through the garden in reflective solitude on a sunny day in January, peak season in the Islands. When you leave the Garden of Eden keep an eye out for the trailhead just past the eleven mile marker to the pool beneath Upper Puohokamoa Falls where you can take a dip.
I wanted to make this journey back to what is left of Old Hawaii to revisit a time when I was in formative stages. Seeing the lush tapestry of deep ravines cloaked in deep green and spiked with orange African tulips soothed my weary little soul way back then and still does today. I dropped out of society to live on the north shore of Kauai in 1978. I found peace there listening to the patter of rain on the leaves, lull of the surf breaking on the reef a half mile out, and waking to the chorus of birds. I remembered taking long walks on lonely beaches and just being there. I hoped Hana would allow me this once again.
There only a few places to stay in Hana: the exclusive Travassa Resort, a smattering of bed and breakfasts, or setting up camp at Wai’anapanapa-Black Sand Beach. The beach park is riddled with sacred sites, burial grounds, and caves that are easily accessed on a coastal trail that wraps the bay. Ferocious bearded monsters pummeling the black lava into sand make a dramatic show, but don’t make for safe swimming. I found an eco-lodge tucked in the Hana Botanical Garden close to the beach park. The entrance to Kahanu gardens, the site of the largest and one of the best preserved heiau (temple) in the Hawaiian Islands was about a half mile from my rustic digs. You must make reservations to tour this 15th century heiau that spans three acres.
I rose early and drove through sparkling, dew-laden meadows stopping to take in splendid Wai-lua Falls along the way to Haleakala National Park. I was eager to hike the Pipiwai Trail, a root and rock strewn path that traces a death-defying gorge up to the Waimoku Falls, a 400-foot plunge down a sheer rock face. A portion of the track took me though a towering wind-whipped bamboo forest that felt like being inside a giant wind chime. By the time I got back to park headquarters the tourist vans had arrived. I shared the famous Seven Sacred Pools with other travelers from around the globe. Bracing, sweet water spilling over rock ledges to form three large pools did not disappoint. I swam in the second pool that is said to “free limitations.”
The rest of day was spent lollygagging at a scalloped-shaped cove where gentle, turquoise waves curl onto a powdery sand shore. Hamoa Beach, by far the best swimming beach at this end of the world, is not to be missed.

Kauai is where I fell in love with the relaxed ways of the Islands, the warmth of the people, and beauty without end. That is where I met Captain James Cook, Kamehameha the Great, and his favorite wife Ka’ahumanu who became the inspiration for my novel Wainani, High Chiefess of Hawai’i. She was a royal whose mother hid in a cave here in water-rich Hana so that her child would not be killed by her jealous ex-lover, the ferocious ruler of Maui. Hanalei on the north shore of Kauai, most recently the backdrop for the film The Descendants, was a sleepy, backwater when I was there. That is what Hana still is today—remote, rugged, rainy, undisturbed, gorgeous, and inhabited by a few lucky souls who want to keep it that way.
On the way back to civilization I enjoyed a diversion to the Ke’anae Peninsula. This road hugs a dramatic coastline and deposits you at a handy beach park. While sitting beneath a broad-leafed tree on a rock perch watching enormous swells cresting into foaming white against jutting lava, it became clear to me; the searing sunsets, the embrace of warm translucent waters, the endless azure skies, and the wind voices had spoken. My imagination was ignited once again by primal elements; earth, wind, fire and the ceaseless energy of sea as sure as these Islands continue to be forged by them today— and forever will be.

Passengers aboard the Safari Explorer sprinted from stem to stern, up to the wheelhouse, and onto the top deck to spot humpback whales. The giants had arrived in the channel between Maui and Lana’i early this winter season. They had migrated 2,000 miles from the chilly waters of Alaska to give birth to their young in the warm waters of Hawai’i. Playful calves frolicked around docile mothers that curled under with a goodbye wave of a tail. Our captain, who has plied these waters for the past thirty years, said he had never seen such a dramatic display in such numbers.
This was just one of the exciting events shared by twenty-six guests on our “Un-Cruise Adventure” through what Mark Twain dubbed “the prettiest fleet of Islands ever to lay anchor in the South Pacific.” We had met on Lana’i at the hospitality room of the luxurious Four Seasons Hotel overlooking Manele Bay framed in a crescent of powdery white sand. A swim in the delicious water proved to be the perfect decompression chamber after a long flight and ferry ride from Maui. A tour of the tiny island, recently purchased by American tech billionaire Larry Ellison, with a stop at the cultural museum exhibiting artifacts of ancient Polynesians gave us insights into the mysterious “people of old.”
Next day dawned clear and bright. A quick skiff over to Shark Fin Rock off the coast of Lana’i brought us to a perfect snorkel spot. Yellow tang, angel fish, and swarms of small tropical fishes drifted through the water like neon confetti. Strong currents proved to be a workout, and I was thankful for the morning yoga class conducted by a staff member that kept muscles limber after being asleep at the switch for years.

Each day began with a hearty breakfast. Food choices were well conceived and delicious. The attentive staff attempts to satisfy everyone’s special dietary needs. I was happy to sample everything offered during the week—prime rib, roast duck, fresh caught ahi and desserts to die for. Our chef gathered fresh fruits and greens at farmers markets while we played away the day.
Moloka’i, a 38-mile long island, has resisted development and does not allow big cruise ships in her harbor. The Safari Explorer, a 150-foot motorized yacht, enjoys an exclusive relationship with the people of Moloka’i. Aunty Snooky talked to us about the power of the old ways while standing in front of a sculpture of Hina, the goddess that looks over the island from her home in the moon. We were invited to an authentic Hawaiian experience at the Moloka’i Museum and Cultural Center where a buffet was spread with samplings of island specialties: shrimp, fresh seaweed, octopus, lua pork, and poi.

Our host, a slim and elegant man, played a haunting tune on the nose flute. Next, he thumped a big bellied gourd while his sister, a sensuous Hawaiian woman, performed a graceful hula.
The west side of Moloka’i boasts a three-mile sweep of deep sand where massive swells crash ashore from a 2,000-mile fetch unbroken by rock or reef. This stop called for a picnic of poki (seasoned raw tuna) and pasta salads. The east side of the island harbors the site of the oldest settlement in the Hawaiian chain dating back to 650 A.D.
The hike up the verdant Halawa Valley shaded by giant mango trees ensconced in vines took us to a pool fed by a triple-tiered waterfall. Amazingly, our eclectic group moved through the forest with ease. A little assist at two creek crossings by our guides was all that was needed. Some of my fellow adventurers joined me in a dip in the bracing water guarded by the giant lizard named Mo’o.
The following day found us blasting across cobalt blue swells to Kealakakua Bay on the Big Island with Captain Zodiac, a local outfitter. The crystalline waters in front of the monument dedicated to Captain James Cook, who met his demise here at the hands of the Hawaiians in 1779, happen to be one of the top ten snorkel spots in the world. We were greeted by a pod of about 100 petite spinner dolphins doing triple-saults and back flips. The colorful array of fishes going about their business in the pristine coral reef don’t seem to mind the daily onslaught of big-foot fish padding overhead.
All water sports are weather driven. I hoped to kayak more during my week, but the wind came up on our last day, so we “skiffed” along the rugged coast of the Big Island. Our guide maneuvered us close to active blow holes in the obsidian lava lining the shore. Humongous aquamarine swells crashed white against the cliffs force billowing spray to shoot skyward. Fireworks Hawai’i style!

A walking tour of historic Kailua/Kona was in order. Kamehameha the Great, the warrior who united the Hawaiian Islands through conquest, chose the Gold Coast of the Big Island for his retirement. He nurtured the arts during this phase of his rule and gave his people a golden age of peace and prosperity. He reconstructed the Ahu’ena Heiau in front of the King Kamehameha Kona Hotel in 1812-1813. (The present structure is a replica that is one third the size of the original) Inside the hotel is an exhibit of the paintings of Herb Kane, the much-loved Hawaiian artist famous for realistic depictions of the people of old.
For a marine life finale we donned wet suits and wore a bracelet with a light on it to attract manta rays—what some would call monsters of the deep. Peering into the gaping mouth of a creature with a fifteen foot wing span was not something I would have sought out, but watching their back bends in a graceful ballet accompanied by circling schools of silvery fish was mesmerizing.
After a week, life on the Safari Explorer had settled into comfortable routine. Each morning our expedition leader laid out our plan. Guests shared adventures at the end of the day over a sumptuous meal then fell into comfy bunks lulled to sleep by the roll of the sea. Our “Un-cruise Adventure” was over all too soon.

This all-inclusive holiday is a great way to dodge the flocks of snowbirds that migrate to the Islands each winter. A more active, less expensive option is being offered in November. Go to “Un-Cruise Adventures” for details on this, as well as Inside Passage and Sea of Cortez sailings.

I’m sitting in a rocker on the porch of the Wildhorse Lodge at the North Fork Ranch in Colorado listening to the soothing voice of the Platte River. Wood rose, horsetail ferns, and aspen trees shimmying in a warm breeze line the shore. Ponderosa pines flank the far bank of the cooling flow famous for prize-winning trout. Guests are congregating for happy hour on the porch as the scent of spareribs cooking to succulent perfection floats on the evening breeze.
We all eagerly await the sublime creations coming from Karen’s kitchen. Garlic green beans with tomatoes, Portobello mushroom caps filled with tender veggies, and an incredible array of breads accompany a tasty entre. The main course is lovingly prepared by Dean, master of his fifteen-foot grill. Steak marinated in secret sauce and chicken breasts spiked with flavorful Southwest spices are dished up so far. The desserts at NFR are so sinful I have to slap my hand to keep from going back for seconds. After 27 years of owning and operating their dream-come-true- a first-class dude ranch-the Mays have it down
Jim, who is here with extended family for Father’s Day, told me he loved his fishing guide and couldn’t remember having more fun fishing. For many of guests, the ranch is like a second home they return to return to year after year. Two families with small children are here enjoying a reunion. I am a solo traveler, but I feel very welcome in this family friendly environment.

Everything is taken care for you at the North Fork Ranch. Short stays are offered, but a week at the ranch allows you to get into the rhythm of country life and enjoy a complete rest. The biggest decision to make is whether you will take a day ride with a picnic lunch, try your luck fishing for rainbow trout in the clear waters, venture over to Breckenridge with a stop at Conifer for zip-lining, hike to an wondrous alpine lake, dare a day of white-water rafting on the Arkansas River, or just laze around the ranch. Scheduled activities for kids are overseen by staff and allow parents to have the day off. Non-riders have lots of options making this a perfect family holiday.
My first ride took me to vistas of the lush river valley that once beckoned tourists to summer resorts tucked into the hills of nearby Shawnee. A hastily constructed narrow gauge track built for gold-mining operations up valley in the 1800s became the fastest way for wealthy “Denverites” to get to the woods. Stately lodges blossomed and throngs came to relax and catch trophy trout. Fire, the largest natural threat to those who live in the high country, destroyed the old lodges. Today, Highway 285 follows the track of what was dubbed the “Fish Train.” North Fork Ranch is a totally renovated, rustic remnant of those days gone by.
We crested the hill and dipped into a shady aspen grove then veered off trail to “bushwhack” through lodgepole pine and spruce. Meandering through the forest on a bed of dropped needles is good conditioning for the animals and is a chance for the wranglers to see how well novices are handling their mounts. There are horses available to accommodate all levels of riding ability. The wranglers allow you stretch your abilities safely. They strive to give you to have an authentic, out-of-the-arena riding experience.

My mount for the week is a sure-footed fellow who was once used as pack horse. After an hour of climbing to where our breakfast was waiting, he had not broken a sweat. The smell of sizzling sausage filled the crisp morning air. Mimosas were served with country potatoes and quiche. Adults rested in the shade after breakfast while the kids and staff played a game of softball. Our afternoon ride took us into the National Forest wilderness area populated by elk, deer, coyote and the nocturnal mountain lion.
Beginners soon flagged and went back to the ranch. I went on with my wrangler guide to enjoy the quietude of seldom seen backcountry with a cooling wind blowing up canyon. We had a lope or two but the sometimes steep and rocky terrain is best done at a walk. As we neared the Platte River Valley I could hear the rush of the water and was eager to get back to what now felt like home. A dip in the refreshing pool removed all memories of dust on the trail as I watched powder puff clouds drift across blue skies. The vast unbroken beauty of Colorado set my mind sailing. The less-traveled Platte River valley about an hour southwest of Denver has cast a spell over this cowgirl lucky enough to explore its secrets.
For more about the ranch read my Interview with Karen May in my June article at
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Colorado Wildfires

Colorado is home to 23 million acres of public lands, including 10 national parks and monuments, 41 state parks, and 334 state wildlife areas. The active fires represent less than one percent of the state’s public lands and most of the state’s destinations and attractions are open for business. The Colorado Tourism Office has announced an online travel resource for tourism-related fire updates at

I arrived in Durango a week too early for the fall colors. Still, I got to see them in the Circle of Life panorama at the $38 million Southern Ute Cultural Center in Ignacio. Standing in the center of a panorama, surrounded by the orange and persimmon colored trees, listening to the calm voice of an elder telling the story of the Ute Indians transported me to a time when man lived in harmony with Earth Mother. I could almost feel the breeze as it rippled across the Pine River and see bronze warriors riding bareback across rust-colored meadows in search of game.
The Utes say that “When a man moves away from nature his heart becomes hard.”
Seven tribes of Utes called “Blue Sky People” by other Native Americans occupied the San Juan Mountains from about 1500AD until they were displaced by swarms of gold-hungry miners in the 1800s. The cultural center with its unique architecture resembling a bird’s nest in the center with two wings that serve to enfold and embrace the visitor opened in May 2011. Local timbers and boulders were used in its construction to remind us of our connection to the land. Extensive collections of historic photographs, exceptionally beautiful woven baskets, ceremonial dance regalia, and numerous artifacts are on display along with storytelling videos.

The stop at the cultural museum before heading out on the San Juan Skyway, a 236-mile loop that links Durango, Mesa Verde, Telluride, Ouray, and Silverton greatly enhanced my explorations of the region. Lynn, owner of Rimrock Outfitters in Mancos stopped our ride under her corner of blue sky to point to Sleeping Ute Mountain lazing on the horizon. The giant warrior resting on his back with hands folded on his chest is held sacred by the Utes. They gather at the base of the mountain each winter to perform the Sun Dance.
The Tribal Mountain Ute Reservation abuts Mesa Verde National Park, famous for the elaborate dwellings carved into the cleft of canyons by the Anasazi or the Ancient Ones. Unlike the sedentary Anasazi, the Utes lived in tipis and were nomadic hunters and gatherers so the only structures to explore on their tribal lands are those of the Anasazi who left the region in about 1250 AD. However, there are numerous petroglyphs and wall paintings left by the Utes in the 125,000-acre park. Half- and all-day excursions can be arranged through the Ute Mountain Museum and Visitor Center twenty miles south of Cortez.
Following in the footsteps of the Utes, the scenic skyway turns up the verdant Delores River valley through four mountain passes to high country meadows and their summer hunting grounds. The sparsely populated river corridor was once home to 10,000 native peoples. The Anasazi Heritage Center ten miles north of Cortez houses a rich collection of artifacts. Each spring the Utes made the stiff climb up the canyon to Lizard Pass passing beneath stark Ophir peak to welcoming San Miguel Mountain Park. How happy they must have been to return to this valley framed in staggering snow-capped peaks streaked with misting waterfalls. Meadows flushed pink with flowers and shrubs heavy with ripe berries awaited their return. Plentiful elk, deer, and other wildlife made this a land of milk and honey for the Utes. Today the park is home to Telluride the gentrified Victorian village famous for black diamond ski runs and its many festivals.

When the Spanish arrived in the San Juans in the 1600s, the Utes were able to trade the bounty they enjoyed with the Spanish for horses. The “magic dogs” gave them a tremendous advantage over other tribes and enabled them to remain the dominant force in the region until gold was discovered here in 1860. The Tom Boy Mine sitting above Bridal Veil falls at the head of the box canyon overlooking Telluride was the site of one of the richest strikes in the San Juans. The Utes were no match for the thousands of miners who came here despite daunting winters to seek their fortune. The boisterous mining towns of Telluride, Ouray, and Silverton sprang up overnight. The legacy of the miners who brought prosperity to the region are hundreds of miles of trails inter-connecting the mountain towns enjoyed by hikers and mountain bikers and 4WD enthusiasts.
The Skyway turns east over the Dallas Dive to neighboring Uncompahgre Mountain Park and the hamlet of Ouray-the sweetest spot in the San Juans. Mt. Abrams, a Matterhorn look alike, stands guard over the hamlet framed in an amphitheater of rose-colored cliffs. The mountain tribes congregated here each spring to perform the Bear Dance, a ceremonial rejoicing that lasted many days. The healing waters of natural hot springs were favorite resting places of the great Chief Ouray. Today, clothing optional Orvis Hot Spring with eight pools in lushly landscaped grounds is a favorite of locals. A more family-oriented hot swimming pool is beside the Visitors Center in Ouray. The trailhead to the newly completed Perimeter Trail that overlooks “little Switzerland” with stops along the way at triple-tiered Cascade Falls and not-to-be missed Box Canyon with its magnificent formations carved in basement rock is across the street from the pool.
Chief Ouray was chosen to be spokesman for the Utes in Washington. He is credited with having saved his people from massacre by signing the Brunot treaty in 1873 that ceded away millions of acres of his mountain home to the U.S. government. This led to the migration of the Utes to reservations and the end of their nomadic existence that flowed with the seasons connected to Sky Father and Earth Mother. Visitors may learn more about the Ute people and their history at the Ute Museum in Montrose or in the Ute Room at the Ouray Historical Society.

The stretch of the Skyway between Ouray and Silverton traverses the treacherous Red Mountain pass famous for avalanches Here the world is ethereal, wild, and pristine. Ragged, stark peaks glare down upon puny mankind unmoved by the scratch marks made by early miners in their flanks. At this lofty elevation, fall had arrived. I descended into the volcanic caldera where the tiny berg of Silverton rests. The iron rich waters ran pumpkin orange, adding to the autumn bouquet of lemon yellow willows lining the creeks and rusty sedges in the meadows. My heart softened at the wild beauty of the place. My thoughts drifted like the white clouds floating above to the Blue Sky People and what they lost.
The bones of Chief Ouray who saved his people from a war they could not win are buried in Ignacio near the cultural center. Unlike many Native Americans, the 1,400 Utes who live on the reservation in Ignacio are prospering. Wise use of their natural resources and a thriving casino that generates revenue allows continued efforts to keep their stories, dance, songs, and celebration of the Circle of Life alive.

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“Wake up people! Find your behind and sit on it,” Captain Adam yelled over the roar of the monster wave spilling into a 20-foot hole- dead ahead. Lava Falls is the most fearsome rapids on the 227-mile Grand Canyon run. I bolted from my day-dreaming position on the warm pontoon. While drifting between walls of black porous rock once inside the cone of a volcano, I’d sunk into river time. When we floated past the enormous basalt plug in the middle of the river, I’d forgotten that it meant we were approaching Lava Falls and that I was holding a one-way ticket home.

The enormous wave cascading over the lip of rock was begging to catch a boatman in a mistake. I saw water spitting from the churning brew as we headed for the maelstrom. I held onto the straps for all I was worth and prayed I wouldn’t get washed off the raft. A thrashing bull ride later, it was over leaving us clapping and laughing as we rocked and rolled through the rest of the wave train.
When Georgie White ran Lava prior to the installation of Glen Canyon in 1964, the volume of water was often five times what we experienced. Upsets were the norm and many rafters had the swim of their life. In 1869 when John Wesley Powell led the first recorded run of the Grand Canyon, he portaged supplies and had his men line their wooden boats downstream past Lava Falls. In the 1940s, Georgie not only rafted the entire run through the canyon solo twenty times, she actually swam through the over 100 rapids on the run in a life vest. The “Woman of the River” as she liked to call herself, admitted that the rapids were her first love. But, the peace she felt in the Grand Canyon when she rafted the entire 280 miles in 21 days without seeing another human being called her back over and over again. The continuum of nature counter-balanced her life of selling real estate in Los Angeles in the winters.

The 37-foot raft with pontoons on each side used by Grand Canyon Expeditions is steered by a guide at the motor arm of an outboard. It’s called a G-rig named after Georgie. She was the first to strap three rafts together to create a craft buoyant enough to handle everything the river had to offer. It allowed anyone with a spirit of adventure to take this journey with her through deep time.

When I climbed aboard our raft at Lee’s Ferry with twelve other passengers, the river was aquamarine. When Georgie ran the river before the installation of the dam, the river ran red from sediments and warmed to 70 degrees in the summer. Today the water released from the bottom of the dam is a chilly 55 degrees requiring travelers to wear rain suits that Georgie would have found silly.
When she started commercial runs in the ’50s, she always took her guests on the steep hike up to the granaries carved into the cliffs by the Puebloan people in 1100AD at Nankoweap. We camped on the delta below and made the same stair-stepper climb. The storage rooms for corn grown by the native people are impressive, but the sweeping vista of the pumpkin coliseum cupping the coffee-brown Colorado winding its way to the Gulf of Mexico is mystical. At dusk the setting sun warms the canyon walls to a rosy glow as though shining through a stained glass window.

Deer Creek, a blaze of white water cascading 100 feet out of a polished red rock, has carved a sinuous gorge that can only be explored on foot. The stiff climb up to a flat rock ledge tracing this deep cleft in the canyon opens to an Eden-like paradise shaded by emerald green cottonwood trees. The Paiutes hold this site high as it is the jumping off place for spirits into the afterlife. The chatter of Deer Creek that continues to sculpt the snaking sandstone gorge is all that is heard in this sacred chamber.
Georgie was happy with a tin of tomatoes in her backpack for sustenance. She found that a vegetarian diet gave her boundless energy. Contrary to her Spartan ways, we enjoyed meals of grilled halibut, chicken, and tender filet mignon with a variety of wholesome salads and side dishes. Every night Captain Adam and Chelsea, his assistant guide, served us cake warm from a Dutch oven. Breakfasts were blueberry muffins, French toast, yogurt, egg sandwiches, fruit, cereals, sausages and cowboy coffee.

Days on the river seem to collide into one another. Some people wore watches, but I couldn’t understand why. We chatted in the cool mornings over coffee while the sun peeked over the rim illuminating the canyon walls that protected us from any news from outside. Now part of the natural rhythms of the canyon, we awoke at first light and were in bed when the sun dipped down behind the rim after a full day of rafting and hiking. I slept under blinking stars with a light warm breeze on my cheek and no mosquitoes to ruin the spell. The only flying insects were gnats that were dinner for the hundreds of bats that flickered between me and a brilliant full moon.
I envied Georgie her time alone here. Her words rang in my ears. “Once you enter the world of that canyon on the Colorado River you are completely alone.” I did have a few moments to myself at Stone Canyon where a bubbling flow tumbles over a rim of a red rock framed in maidenhair ferns and green mosses. My skin was dry from the alkaline-rich waters of the Little Colorado where we had giggled down a water slide earlier that day. I tore off my clothes and stood under the tingling spray that made me think about the power of water. The element that in six million years sculpted this canyon a mile below the rim of the Colorado Plateau, unearthing basement rock that is 1.7 billion years old, is the same element that gives life to us all. I sat before this lovely little waterfall and gave thanks to Earth Mother.
Each day on the river brought new wonders. Day one we motored through serene stretches of sandstone pharaohs, sphinx, and thunder birds. I saw Kokopeli, the randy prankster of the Southwest, who led many an Indian maid astray with his magic flute. A burst of white spewing from polished red rock called Vasey’s Falls seemed a miracle after miles of arid monoliths. Upper Granite Gorge on day two-or was it three-is a fun 40 miles of roller coaster rapids with big waves splashing over our bow. Where the opalescent waters of the Little Colorado merge with the now murky Colorado marks the end of Marble Canyon and the beginning of the Grand. Vistas widen, temples rise, cathedral buttes now olive green with sage-covered shoulders stippled with barrel cactus spread to the rim 10 miles away. Mysterious slot canyons carved by creeks merging with the main vein beg to be explored. Caverns in the river wall streaked with black and white designs bring to mind the pottery of the Native Americans who have long made this canyon their home. Clouds of teal-backed swallows and black and white swifts do fast flight maneuvers about our heads. Herons on the shore stand like sticks hoping to be ignored. A mountain sheep stares at us with dull recognition as we glide by his shore. It’s just another day on the river and each day there is more.

I kept asking myself why was it so important for me to raft in the wake of Georgie White? Is it because I too sell real estate in Los Angeles and need to reach for the freedom demanded by a wild spirit? Chelsea, a full-fledge boatwoman who takes guests down the river in an oar boat, told me the river was like a relative she has to come back and visit each year. She needs to see how the river has changed the beaches and churned up the rapids, and to feel the embrace of the canyon once more. I loved going with the flow of the strong current carrying us into unbroken time. I felt vitally alive living in the present watching for signs of what was to come-shifting clouds, rising winds, whirling eddies, sounds of rapids looming ahead. I felt a powerful jolt of energy while doing my mediations. It’s an energy that Adam says can steal your soul. An Indian friend told Adam he must call his soul back from the river at the end of each season lest it be tempted to stay during unforgiving winters. Like the Woman of the River and all the brave women who paddle in her wake, he too is captive to the charms of the canyon.

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A three-mile causeway from Fort Myers across San Carlos Bay to the barrier islands of Sanibel and Captiva takes you back to a gentler time. People seem to move slower here where there are no stop signs, no street lights, and no structures over three stories. The year-round population of about 6,200 souls bulges to 20,000 in winter when snowbirds of all stripes migrate here from the frozen North. Twenty-five miles of biking trails along with a 100-mile kayaking trail called the Great Calusa Blueway, the best shelling in the world, and opportunities for sport fishing make this a great getaway for those who love the outdoors.
A stunning 11-mile sweep of white sand washed by turquoise water fringes the southwest shores of the islands facing the Gulf of Mexico. Mansions of the sanded gentry and resorts line the beach awaiting the migrating flocks. The cozy Island Inn, splashed with happy Caribbean colors, has served as a home away from home for returning generations for over 100 years. Gracious grounds shaded by royal palms, a bountiful shelling beach, and arguably the best view of the sunset on Sanibel, make this a favorite spot for weddings and family celebrations. The newly remodeled traditional restaurant serves Mediterranean cuisine, and liquor, for the first time in the Inn’s illustrious history. Enjoy a relaxed breakfast in the sunny lounge before heading out for a day of adventure.
The Stone Crab, about a half mile from the Inn, is a local hangout with great seafood at reasonable prices. Sanibel voted against street lights that could reduce one’s ability to witness the intense beauty of the heavens, so a moonlight stroll to the restaurant is especially nice. This decision is also a courtesy to the light-sensitive loggerhead turtles that return here to breed from the beginning of May to October.
You can rent a bicycle at the Inn and pedal over to the 6,200-acre “Ding” Darling Refuge which occupies about half of the island. A four-mile road winds through mudflats and mangrove forests of the National Wildlife Refuge established in 1962, just one year before the causeway opened bringing throngs of tourists and development.
The bird haven is best seen by bicycle because it allows you to easily pull over to investigate the nooks in the mangrove forests where ibis, anhinga, and night green herons roost. Be sure to stop at the viewing tower to glass the tidal flats where flocks of white pelicans congregate on the sand bars, and roseate spoonbills dabble for a meal. Tarpon Bay Kayak offers kayak and tram tours of the refuge.

Kayaking is the best way to explore the endless waterways in this region that at low tide are often too shallow for motorized craft. I chose Adventure Kayak in captivating Captiva, Sanibel’s little sister to the north. Adventure Kayaks, owned and operated by Brian Houston, was the first kayaking company on the island. Brian is an expert who takes time to teach the greenest novice how to maneuver his top-of-the-line kayaks. It is a tremendous pleasure to glide through the water in an easily maneuvered craft that is very sensitive to steering cues.
A long-term resident of the region, Brian is chock full of local lore and is a strong advocate for environmental protections. He spotted the many birds we passed by in the primordial mangrove tunnels of the island refuge of Buck Key, imparting specific knowledge of their habits. We were so close to many of the birds like the tri-colored heron that I didn’t need binoculars to see them clearly. Part of our outing was on segment of the Great Calusa Blueway, a paddling trail used by the indigenous Calusa tribe that extends through these coastal waters from Cayo Costa to the Imperial River in Bonita Springs. You can paddle bite-size chunks of the trail with stops off for good eats on the way. (Maps of the trail and kayak outfitters on the trail are available at the link below.)
After a hearty lunch at the Tween Waters Inn beach bar, I met up with Brian’s son John, owner of Native Guides. In his custom motorized launch, he takes folks sport fishing, shelling at Cayo Costa State Park, for a sunset joy ride, or whatever your pleasure might be. When I arrived, he was filleting grouper for his last bunch of guests and feeding the innards to the pelicans and herons lined up for the feast. Native Guides offers a day trip to Pine Island for a tasty seafood feast at the Tarpon Bay Lodge and then a guided walk on the Calusa Natural Heritage Trail. A student of the indigenous Indians, John delights in imparting his knowledge about them. Born on Captiva, he knows every aspect of the region. He took me to a sleepy lagoon populated by nesting osprey and then for a spin around North Captiva where damage from Hurricane Charlie that struck on Friday the 13th 2004 can still be seen today. We stopped at Red Pass just as a burnt orange globe dropped into the sea and a luminescent mauve and lavender glow lit the horizon to the east.

Bring a hearty appetite to the splashy Keylime Bar and Grill in the heart of tiny Captiva and enjoy live music any time of day. The seafood antipasto, a mix of clams, mussels, and squid in a wine-lemon broth will excite the most discerning fruit de mere aficionado. It is just minutes from pristine Captiva beach with billowy sand fringed with white surf perfect for an afternoon of lollygagging.

It’s hard not to have fun here with so many easily accessed outdoor things to do. The best time to come is fall, winter, and spring. Christmas week is high season, so it’s best to avoid the deluge in the last two weeks of December. You can expect any kind of weather. Brilliant cloudless skies can be blanketed in mushrooming gray in a matter of minutes. Be prepared for tropical squalls in between sunshine and blustery winds.
My last evening was spent strolling with other shell seekers along the beach in front of the Island Inn. Winter storms decorate the shores with lightning whelks, Scotch bonnets, starfish, horseshoe crabs, conch, and more. There is a display of prized shells collected over the century by guests in the lobby of the Inn, but if you want to learn more, visit the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum for the finest collection in the western hemisphere. The sunset of pastel pink, periwinkle blue and lavender stippled against yellow gold sky remains my favorite keepsake of this very special place preserved by loving generations for us all to enjoy.

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Moloka’i is a sleepy island 38 miles long and 10 miles wide with the dramatic allure of Kauai’s sheer sea cliffs, hidden valleys, and waterfalls but without the crowds. The blue Pacific laps the edge of the coastal road that traces the eastern shore. The road is shaded by a tangle of tropical foliage and narrows into one lane. It reminded me of the drive to the Napali Coast on Kauai before it was taken over by tour buses. A precipitous climb delivers stunning views of white fringed beaches far below and Maui resting beneath a billow of white clouds. As I neared the trailhead where I was to meet my guide into the sacred Halawa Valley, I had the sensation of dipping into the distant past.
I was greeted by Lawrence Aki, a fifty-generation descendant of those who lived in valley. Like them, he continues to raise taro and pound it to poi…the pasty purple staple of the people of old. The trail to Mo’oula is rocky and root strewn, but worth every effort to reach the two-tiered waterfall tumbling over a verdant pali (precipice).

Today 80 percent of the existing plants and trees in the valley are introduced from other exotic locales. Towering mango shade the centuries-old trail lined with giant ferns and splotches of wild pink impatiens. We passed by a temple to Lono (god of agriculture and healing) that consisted of seven tiers of rock walls with levels for praying, dancing, and a sacrificial altar. Our guide did not want to talk about the human sacrifices that took place here, rather he stressed the Hawaiian concept of oneness with nature, the connection of the humans to the rocks, the trees, the clouds, the water. He talked about mana (spiritual power) that is passed from one generation to the next. When he sees someone, he sees who is standing behind them. “The ancestors never die,” he says, “ they are always looking over the shoulder of the living person.” If you are wise to their ways you can summon their knowledge and increase your mana.
A shroud of mystery hangs over Halawa, the earliest settlement on the island with archeological digs dating it back to 570 AD. The heiau (temple) at the mouth of the valley is over a thousand years old. Hawaiians lived here peacefully for centuries, isolated from warring factions on other islands even after the aggressive Tahitian chiefs arrived in the 13th century. It is said that whenever invaders tried to approach, the seas rose in response to the powerful prayers of the priests. These priests were the keepers of the poison god and birds that flew over the trees, which were used to carve his image, would drop from the sky.

By the time of Kamehameha the Great (1750-1819) priests could pray a person to death. One of the reasons Moloka’i has been slow to develop is that these ana’ana priests were greatly feared by other islanders who were pleased to leave them alone.

When we reached the pool beneath the falls, I couldn’t wait to plunge into the bracing waters. After lunch I dried off on the rocks on the sun like Mo’ the great lizard spirit who guards these waters. Too soon we left what is the most authentic Hawaiian experience in all the islands and headed back to the 21st century. At the end of the hike, I bade farewell to the other guests and took a few extra steps to a protected white-sand beach for a private swim in the delicious rolling surf of Halawa Bay.
Laid-back Hotel Moloka’i rests beneath swaying palms on tranquil waters protected by a thirty-mile reef. Centrally located near Kaunakakai town and harbor it makes a good home base for explorations that include mule rides or hikes into the Kalaupapa Peninsula, Kamakou Preserve, and the dry west side of the island, home to some of the most gorgeous beaches in the world and the Mo’omomi Dunes. The hotel concierge will be happy to make arrangements for you for any of the Island adventures. Most people, however, come here for what the Island is most famous for…doing nothing. Evenings are spent swinging in a hammock beneath a haunting moon and listening to the sweet voices of local talent crooning Hawaiian favorites. With a light breeze off the calm Pacific, a belly full of ahi, teriyaki strips, crab cakes, poke, ribs, and coconut shrimp from the Hula Shores restaurant. . . well, my friends, this traveler could ask for nothing more. This recently renovated landmark hotel has retained its South Seas “glitch in time” charm. The shallow waters in front of the hotel are not swimmable, but there is a pool and good swimming beaches nearby.
Kaunakakai is an old Hawai’i time-warp with everything you need within two blocks. Stop into the Molokai Fish and Dive shop to make arrangements for a snorkel, kayak, diving, or fishing trip on one of the world’s great reefs. Once you fill up on supplies at the Friendly Market and buy a few handmade crafts at the Bamboo Gift Shop, go to the helpful Molokai Visitors’ Bureau for heads ups on road conditions and a map, and then head out to explore the island.

From the Kalaupapa Lookout I gazed down upon the peninsula that was home to hundreds of hapless victims of Hansen’s disease, or leprosy. In the 1850s they were forced to live here in isolation. The kindness is that they were given the most spectacular setting on Moloka’i. The knob of land jutting out into endless blue backed by shaggy green sea cliffs is scalloped with crescents of white sand kissed by translucent jade waters. The highest sea cliffs in the world prevented escape and kept curiosity seekers out. Today you may hike, fly, or arrive by mule train to the historical village where about 25 residents chose to remain. You must obtain a permit from the Historical Park Headquarters and be 16 or over, regardless of your mode of travel. Father Damian, the priest who arrived in 1873 and worked tirelessly with the patients, acquired the disease and died from it in 1889. He is being canonized this year.
The rain forest of Kamakou Preserve lies near the summit of Molokai’s highest mountain. It is home to 250 species of endemic plants-at least 219 of which are nowhere else in the world. Once a month guided hikes are led by the Nature Conservancy. You can take the Pepe’opae hike on the boardwalk through what locals call “the bog” that takes you back a few million years on the cloud-draped trail without a permit from the Nature Conservancy, but you must have a four-wheel drive vehicle to navigate the road to reach the trailhead. The Waikolu Valley Overlook that provides views of the dramatic north shore is on the way to the trailhead.

On Molokai’s northwest coast visitors can access Mo’omomi Preserve, one of the last intact coastal dune ecosystems in Hawai’i. Windswept dunes harbor native plants, nesting sea turtles, colonies of shearwaters, and numerous other birds. The Nature Conservancy offers guided hikes once a month, but you may enter without a permit or guide if you pick up a key for the gate to the preserve at the Nature Conservancy office. The catch is that the road to the gate can’t be reached unless you have four-wheel drive. Most of the roads are good on Moloka’i, but those to Mo’omomi and Kamakou Preserves are deeply rutted. Happily, Alamo Car Rental delivered a fleet of brand new shiny jeeps to the Island that you can rent for about $50 a day.

If you just want to lie back and slosh in the surf, head for the dry west side of the Island. Highway 460 deposits you at Dixie Maru, where you can swim safely in a protected cove. Condos are available for rent or purchase on this side of the Island, but there are no towns. Moloka’i is a microcosm of the environmental battles raging throughout the islands. It is especially acute here where locals have made a hard stand against development. This has cost them dearly on an economic level, but because of this their beaches remain uncluttered and peaceful. I shared the delicious waters of Dixie Maru with perhaps six others and I had Papohaku Beach, a three-mile sweep of deep powder sand, all to myself. Here, deep swells rise to white bearded monsters that pound home Mother Nature’s message: “Don’t mess with me.” Locals turned up for happy hour with pupus (appetizers) and beach chairs to watch the sun slip into a pastel sea.
The next time I visit Moloka’i, I will contact Island guide, Walter Naki. For $50 he will take visitors out for four hours of kayaking or hiking into hidden gems throughout the Island. He is filled with great aloha, loves to talk story, and knows the Island like the back of his hand. I will time my visit in the summer so that I can explore the north shore with him. Ten months of the year enormous waves crash at the foot of the sheer sea cliffs preventing landings in four epic valleys that were once home to the ancestors. Waterfalls streaming down cliffs cloaked in shaggy verdure, scented with ginger, protected by ti plants remain isolated rugged and wild. Perhaps mischievous spirits of the priests of the past want mystical Moloka’i to stay that way.


Molokai Visitors Association 800-800-6367
Hotel Moloka’i 800-535-0084 or
Moloka’i Fish and Dive 808-553-5926
Moloka’i Action Adventures- (Walter Naki) 808-558-8184
The Nature Conservancy Email- hike 808-553-5236
Alamo Car Rental airport code MKKT71
Island Kine Car Rental-

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Floating face up in the Watsu pool at the Kalani Ocean Retreat that is tucked into a remote corner of the Big Island in Hawaii, I drifted in a state of embryonic innocence. Sylvie, my provider, massaged my spine gently and rotated my limbs to release joint tension. This was the first of many experiences on my quest of a healing Hawaiian holiday that would include traditional lomi-lomi massage; interviewing Kumu Dane Silva, a respected native Hawaiian healer; a swim in a hot pond used for centuries by the ancestors to cleanse body, mind, and spirit; feeling the power of Pele, the volcano goddess; this is topped off with and an open air massage by the sea where wind, water, and sun stir the senses. On the Big Island, the nexus of the plexus for healing gurus of all stripes, there is a choice to fit every pocketbook.
Sylvie, lured here a decade ago by romantic ideas about the dolphins that frequent nearby coves, learned about the volunteer program at Kalani. She took advantage of the volunteer program at Kalani whereby people of ages and from around the world donate a tuition fee and volunteer hours in departments that include agriculture, kitchen, housekeeping, and maintenance and take part in all the Kalani community has to offer. This 120-acre eco-village rests on a stunning coastal drive in the lush, tropical Puna District near Hilo in Eastern Hawaii. Kalani offers a range of accommodations and activities that nurture creativity and encourage connection with the land—a basic Hawaiian precept. You may attend yoga, dance, tai chi, and many other classes offered year round. All meals are provided and served cafeteria style to guests and volunteers. Kalani caters to workshops for groups, but one person can stay one night or just spend a heavenly afternoon at the spa.

With my mind already softened from an hour of water therapy, I was led to the massage room—another haven of tranquility. Warm air laden with the scent of ginger and the firm, gliding hands of Sylvie administering lomi-lomi, the loving touch, left me limp and receptive to the flow of new energy. Lomi-lomi was used by the ancients to massage tiny fingers to long tapered tips that would be better receptors for mana, or spiritual power. It was also used to lengthen the elegant limbs of an athletic race engaged in the dance of hula, surfing, and the martial arts.
Mahealani Kuamo’o-Henry (Aunty M) is another resident of Puna who gives workshops in ho’oponopono—the ancient way of talking things out. She says Sylvie’s work makes those who come to her more receptive to her blessing. She leads Hawaiian therapy groups and comes to them with the required open heart and cleansed mind of a leader. Participants must come with an attitude of forgiveness to successfully set things right—that is to make things pono. You must toss stones of anger, regret, or other emotions that might block light from coming into your bowl. She shares her great wealth of ancestral wisdom with others at the Ahalanui Hot Ponds. In these sessions, she speaks of our path of spiritual connectedness to the elements, bringing the message home in the tepid sea waters warmed by the breath of Pele. Aunty M was off-island the week I visited, so I did a solo float in the mineral-rich pool populated by giggling children, lovers, and elders talking story.
Dreamy days start with the patter of tropical showers and the coo of doves at Hale Makamae, a bed and breakfast with all the comforts located in the center of the attractions in eastern Hawaii. It is an easy hop from here to the coastal road where you can access beach parks, the hot ponds, and the night viewing station for an active lava flow. The Big Island, the youngest in the chain, is still being formed and is said to be a vortex of special power. Molten lava, which flows from Kilauea volcano from the Puu Oo vent, meets the sea in a convulsive spray of embers and billowing steam. It is also evident in nearby Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. There are numerous trails in the park that bring you closer to the immense energy emanating from the live volcano. My favorite hike in Volcano Park is through the Iki crater. It switchbacks down the fern-lined wall to the crater floor where steaming fumaroles remind you that Pele sleeps beneath your feet.

Before heading out, I enjoyed a fortifying breakfast of fruit and hotcakes in the screened lanai, and yoga in the sprawling two-acre garden filled with all manner of tropical blooming plants framed in palms. Hosts John and Petra helped create the best route for my touring day. They told me not to miss the drive through the centuries-old mango tree tunnel on the way to Mackenzie Beach for a spectacular stroll along black lava bluffs pummeled by monster waves. The solitude here is soothing balm to a city-weary soul.
Kumu Dane Silva, lomi-lomi master and an expert in native plant remedies and the martial arts wanted to meet me on Coconut Island, so I made arrangements at Doug Arnott’s Lodge (the best budget option in Hilo). Doug, an Australian transplant, has created a European-style backpacker lodge with an open air gathering place that boasts Internet access. He offers everything from family friendly two-bedroom apartments to $10 a night plots to pitch your tent. A morning of tide-pooling at the nearby beach shaded by humungous trees is a lovely way to begin your day. High tide fills a swimming pool coveted by locals having family picnics in the beach park. Doug also offers adventure tours to nearby attractions. Don’t miss the sensational Botanical Garden on the lush Hamakua Coast. After a day in the tropical sun you can indulge in a warm algae wrap to detoxify and re-mineralize your skin at Nicole’s spa nearby.
Kumu Dane Silva is a transcendent figure with the ability to synthesize western a and traditional Hawaiian healing modalities into one holistic toolbox for treating patients. Coconut Island or Moku Ola, literally the healing island, is a place he brings people because it is invested with the spiritual energy of his ancestors. It was believed that if you could swim around the island you would be cured of whatever ailed you. It is also a place of refuge. Law breakers could be saved from a swift death if they could reach the island in time—sort of an olly olly oxen free kind of justice.

I asked if I had to do anything special to receive the energy here. He said no. Just bring don’t negative energy with you. When people come to him their energies and their bodies are not in harmony with nature or other people. His job is to identify the root of the problem and find the proper way to treat the patient. In conjunction with lomi-lomi, he administers a diluted sea water cleanse, the universal Hawaiian remedy to remove toxins from the body, or medicines from native plants if it is appropriate to help people. However, he does not limit his patients to these methods. He refers people to western medical doctors if he feels that is what is best for them.
As an adventure travel writer I rarely land at exclusive high-end resorts with a host of smiling people anxious to see to my every need. But, that is exactly what I got at the Fairmont Orchid, a luxury resort on the sunny Gold Coast of Kohala. My room overlooked a dazzling display of tropical abundance. Winding pathways through a wonderland of lava rock waterfalls let you imagine you are a royal of the Ali’i class living in a land where the spring of love flows freely. In this self-contained village resting on azure Pauoa Bay you can snorkel in crystal clear water where you are sure to spot a green turtle or two, or just swing in the hammock and stare up at a hula moon. A delightful shoreline trail takes you to fish ponds used by the Hawaiians living on this coast a thousand years ago. It was kapu to catch certain fish during spawning time to ensure abundance. A contemplative walk on meandering paths beneath swaying palms here gives a sense of the peace and harmony of a time gone by.
I came here to receive lomi-lomi in the open air by the sea. The ancient masters combined long sweeping movement using their whole bodies to relieve tension in muscles and, more important, they directed mana to the recipient to encourage healing, regenerative powers in the body. Dane Silva said it is a way to open us to connect with the land, the sea, and the air we breathe, for the Hawaiians believe we are all one. I focused on that idea as my expert masseuse moved across my body with long strokes of her forearm, kneading with her elbows to release sources of tension. I listened to the hiss of waves receding over pebbles and felt the warm breeze caress my skin scented with sandlewood oil. Letting cares fly, I dreamed I was on Kane Huna Moku, the paradisiacal isle that rests on the western horizon beneath a rainbow of radiance.

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I must the be the luckiest cowgirl beneath a bronco moon to spend part of my February at both the Elkhorn Ranch southwest of Tucson, and the Flying E Ranch northwest of Phoenix. Each winter a colorful denizen of twittering snowbirds from around the globe flock to Arizona’s guest ranches. Many of these migrants return to the same ranch year after year to renew their claim on a corner of the American West. I rode with them through haunting desert landscapes; got my fill of home cookin’; spent an evening listening to cowboy tunes; had a ringside seat for the Gold Rush Days parade, and checked out the best little art museum in the Southwest. Whether you are looking for a ranch with more comforts than home or a retreat from civilization, there’s a guest ranch in Arizona just for you.
“It don’t get any better than this,” Chris, my wrangler guide said as we surveyed the Altar Valley spread out before us like an unfurled quilt framed in the purple ridges of the Sierrita Mountains. In the distance, Mt. Lemon stood cloaked in a frosty white cape towering over Tucson. Behind us, crags of the Baboquivari Range jutted into cobalt skies. Snuggled into secluded Sabino Canyon just spitting distance from the Mexican border, the Elkhorn Ranch, owned and operated by the Miller family since 1945, remains a hacienda hidden from time.
“It’s like mountaineering on horseback,” exclaimed Max, my companion for the day ride across the chaparral, though a mesquite tunnel, up a tricky climb on a less-trod trail to this 360-degree view. Max, a businessman from Switzerland, was visiting the Elkhorn with his partner Alison, an artist who spent the day sketching the weathered windmill behind the barn. The Elkhorn’s isolation and the guests’ mutual respect for solitude makes it a perfect place to get in touch with your creative side. The Miller’s think so, too. In January, they host a painting seminar, and in April, a digital photo workshop.
Temperatures this time of year hover around 65-70 degrees, but the ranch sits at 3,700 feet and the weather can be moody. Wear layers and pack a pair of long-johns and weatherproof gloves. On my first morning, I woke to a patter of rain on my window that turned to hail, then snow. Nestled like one of the burrowing animals that live in the desert to protect themselves from the 118-degree summers and the sometime-freezing winters, I waited for the storm to pass. That afternoon, I took a walk up a canyon beside a chatty creek full of itself from the morning rain. Glistening spikes of ocotillo stood in stark relief against a brilliant blue sky and snow clustered at the base of the yucca. Mourning doves lifted at my footfall. I breathed deeply the scintillating air, as the sun burst through slate-gray clouds creating a silver lining on the day.
Guests congregate for meals in the Long House with its commanding view of Altar Valley and the big sky that flushes crimson at dawn and dusk. Grandma has some real competition in the kitchen at the Elkhorn. Ham with scalloped potatoes served with crisp greens and apple-pecan pie for dessert was my favorite meal. Breakfast is a choice of every country combo imaginable, including buttermilk biscuits.
Killer cookies get tucked into your lunchbox if you want to venture out to explore nearby sites. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum about an hour away is part zoo, part botanical garden, and part museum. It’s a favored attraction, along with a drive through the Saguaro National Forest. Nearby Kitt Observatory offers tours for serious stargazers. A few guests linked up for a drive into Tucson to play golf, others ventured to Tubac, a small town with a Spanish flavor, for an art show. But, most guests come to ride the endless miles of trails to stunning vistas.
I enjoyed curling up in my casita with a good book. There are no phones or televisions in the pueblos to distract from the desert serenade. Feeders in your own mini-Sonoran Desert garden draw flashy red cardinals, cocky Gambel’s quail, and chirpy black-headed sparrows. When the sun goes down, only yipping coyotes and hooting owls are heard, and the velvet heavens become backdrop for a billion brilliant stars.

Wrangler Jake took Max and me for a ride on sandy footing across the desert floor. All I had to do was sit back and rock along in an easy lope on my steady steed,Juarez. Jake let us do a little trail-blazing through shimmering Teddy Bear Cholla. It looks cuddly but, like most desert plants, has sharp needles for defense. The Jumping Cholla attaches to anything that comes near…its clinging clumps sticking and spreading if threatened to be pulled apart. The ubiquitous, hardy Prickly Pear grows in mounds that can turn a great day into a bad one in a hurry if you land in one. We maneuvered our horses through the cacti, chasing jacks that sprang in foot-high leaps ahead of us on our path. Other local wildlife includes the mountain lion, mule deer, wild pigs, a seldom-seen gray fox, and an array of colorful birds.

A woman who owns a cattle ranch nearby told me, “I have visited every guest ranch around Tucson. I come here every winter to see old friends and ride the most varied and beautiful trails on the best horses around.”
Even though rides in the enchanting country at the Elkhorn filled my adventure bill, I did hear from some muscles that I haven’t talked to in a long time. When I pulled into the Flying E Ranch (a four-hour drive later) and spied the inviting pool and spa overlooking thousands of acres of rolling desert, an audible sigh slipped frommy lips.
After checking into my comfy cabin, I rushed to the hot, bubbling waters beneath cloudless blue skies. Lulled by the melody of the cactus wren while weary muscles melted away, my thoughts drifted to the pioneers who first settled here in what can be a hostile land.
A black volcanic saddle called Vulture Peak dominates the landscape. Henry Wickenburg gave it this name because when he discovered a fifteen-foot vein of gold about twelve miles south of the Flying E it was one of the scrappy scavengers that led him to the site. Vulture Mine turned out to be one of the richest deposits in Arizona…over a billion modern-day dollars came out of the mine from 1866-1872. Where there is gold, there are folks who want to get at it without doing the work. The old stagecoach road for gold deliveries to Phoenix cuts across the ranch land. A monument at the gate of the Flying E marks the spot of an unsolved gold heist. Legend has it that Apaches killed the outlaws that robbed the stage and all those aboard the stage save two. Supposedly, they then left behind the ore they had no use for. The search for the missing treasure goes on.

The riches here for me are rides on well-groomed trails through cowboy country, the chance to spot a little wildlife and to make new friends along the way. Days at the ranch end with happy hour in the saloon that adjourns to the rustic main lodge for a full-service, sit-down dinner with all the trimmings. The relaxed, convivial environment of the ranch is great for a solo traveler or extended families. A three-day minimum stay means lots of comings and goings during a typical week-long stay. I chatted with a frisky 88-year-old who had just arrived with her daughter and granddaughter from the Northwest. The equestrienne sitting next to me had just flown in from across the pond to revisit the West’s wide-open spaces. A strolling cowboy serenaded us while we enjoyed a succulent prime rib dinner topped off with peach cobbler. Ray Caldwell is a living library of western songs dating back to the early 1800s. His rendition of “Wildfire” left me misty; and his “Cattle Call” is enough to calm any herd.

The stately Saguaro cactus standing guard at the entrance of the Flying E was here when Vi and her husband George Wellik circled overhead looking for a to land their plane. Vi wanted to create a ranch with resort-like amenities that would be a comfortable place for weekend wranglers to put their boots up. They chose this spot in 1949, and Vi remained gracious hostess of the Flying E until 2004. Today the elder Saguaro is a high-rise for chirping birds that greet guests to the 20,000-acre dude ranch with pool, spa, sauna, and workout room. The barn, lodge, cabins, and manicured grounds are all lovingly maintained by Andrea and Steve Taylor …just the way Vi wanted them to be.

I awoke to the clamor of hooves as the wranglers brought the horses in for the day’s rides. Morning and afternoon two-hour rides range from an easy-going-walk-trot-scenic to hold-onto-your-hat lopes. Undulating trails through rock formations tinctured with lichen stir the imagination. Many of the same cacti I saw south of Tucson are here, and in addition are the Palos Verdes trees, and an abundance of Creosote bush. One afternoon each week is dedicated to team penning, and on Sunday mornings the chuck wagon is rolled out for an authentic cookout on the breakfast ride.

Pleasures to be had in nearby Wickenburg include the Desert Cabballeros Western Museum, housing western art and a neat mineral collection. A birding hotspot, the Hassayampa River Preserve, is laced with trails though a riparian ecology unique to the region. Hikes up Vulture Peak and into Box Canyon where the Hassayampa flows year round, are worth the effort.
The day I arrived in Wickenburg, the 60th annual Gold Rush Days celebration was in full swing. That calls for a rodeo, a dance in the community center, and the descent of thousands of equine visitors upon the town. Guests of the Flying E have front-row seats for the procession of cowboys, Indians, mountain men, the sheriff’s posse, and dance hall girls. One young man wearing a jaunty, red kerchief jumped off of his pony, ran over, and got down on one knee before his sweetheart who was standing next to me. He looked up at her with all the hope and innocence of youth, popped open a box bearing a bright shiny ring, and asked her to marry him. She responded with a shudder of disbelief then jumped into his waiting arms. The romance of the West is alive and well out Wickenburg way.

I hope to come back to Arizona in the spring when the cottonwoods, willows, and sycamores that line the creeks are leafed out, and the desert is bursting with blooms. Until then I have the Flying E brand on my boot to remind me what a lucky cowgirl I am.