Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Tanque Verde: Desert Heaven

I’ve been to heaven. It’s a dude ranch located in Tucson, Arizona. Surprised? Don’t be. It makes sense once you understand what this desert gem offers. What it signifies to us as individuals and social animals, as youngsters and not-so-youngsters, as singles and family folk, as gluttons and fitness freaks, as Team America and Team Finland (Olympic hockey eviscerations notwithstanding).

My family first went to Tanque Verde Ranch for Thanksgiving when I was two months old. We spent our next 25-odd Thanksgivings going back together, meeting a group of other like-minded families each year. It wasn’t just the food – bacon, eggs and pancakes and a fresh fruit buffet for breakfast; buffet lunches with carved prime rib and an epic dessert table; followed by a gourmet dinner. Well, okay, the food was pretty important. But not all-important.

The place is magical. It starts with the ride from the airport: forty-five minutes down a scorched desert highway that stretches past the Pima Air Museum's rusty hulls of thousands of decommissioned military planes, all set within a bowl of mountains ensconcing a sandy ocean of giraffe-sized saguaros and stout golden barrels and prickly pears and cholla cactus. The extreme scenery change always shocked the dreary Seattle November blahs out of me as a kid. I experience the same pleasant shock last week; even after nine years away, even after flying approximately 6.66 million miles to Tucson from Finland with my wife and our six-year-old and four-year-old. We all felt it once we gazed into the Sonora Desert, the greenest desert in North America. What “It” is I can’t exactly say, but it is magic and it makes six-year-old Finnish-American girls make up epic 10-minute songs that they sing with their little brother while their father, sitting behind his own brother, looks at the kids and remembers, “That was me, 30 years ago.” And ahead of us all rides grandpa, staring out the window with his own serene smile despite a long day's travel. Tres generaciones. It's always a beautiful thing.

It was my kids’ first time at Tanque Verde. I wasn’t sure how they’d handle it. Their first language is Finnish, although no one would know that from speaking with them. But still, it's always an adjustment. They’d never worn cowboy boots on a horse before, and they’d never been in a kids’ program with real cowgirls serving as their wranglers and supervisors. They’d never seen rattlesnakes. Or played Sharks and Minnows. They’d never even roasted smores at a cookout. They were far from home, left to play with American kids most of the day while my wife and I rode horses on dusty trails surrounded by cactus and the occasional rattlesnake or long-eared rabbit or coyote or white-tailed deer. And it was hot, 89 degrees, hotter than it ever gets in Finland.

My kids loved it. Every second. They made friends, they had favorite horses (T-Rex for my boy, Arizona for my little girl), they caught fish in the lake. Tipping back a prickly pear Margarita, I watched over them one night from the guest ranch’s Dog House Saloon as they played a capture-the-flag type game with a score of other kids ages 4 – 19. Everyone ran and screamed and jumped and climbed the way I remember doing at that age on those same sport courts: un-self-consciously, free, in-the-moment, in the only place on Earth I wasn’t concerned about being cool or tough, but just with being a kid playing with other kids. I found myself talking to the teenagers and being struck at how genuine and interesting they were, how much they had to offer in spirit and curiosity when they spoke to me as just another rider at the ranch, rather than as a teacher or just some goofy adult to be tolerated. Again, the memories. That used to be me.

The adults were cool, too. Each day I met another interesting, bright, friendly person. This gregariousness differs from my life in Finland, which is perhaps Europe’s most introverted country, a place where smiling and saying hello to a stranger marks you as either an idiot, a cheat, a foreigner, or all three. I can go days without having chitchat of any kind in Finland (which carries its own advantages as well, to be sure.) But here, in Arizona, within a day I struck up a real community of people with whom I could imagine sharing a tradition with indefinitely, watching their children grow against the timeless backdrop of the desert. All by starting sentences with: "Where'd you come out here from?"

The real world and all its concerns stays far away from this place. At the ranch it’s about family, horses, people, and food, in roughly that order. Every day we’d ride out on the same dusty trails, jokingly fighting over the best horses in the corral. How you handled yourself in a Western saddle topped the way you handled yourself in a boardroom or a classroom. Riding was paramount. And for those who don’t ride, it was about tennis and hiking and biking. Or maybe just sun and food.

As an adult, I can better define the magic of Tanque Verde Ranch: it’s community. It’s serenity. It’s tradition. We can lose sight of those things as we get stuck in the zig and the zag of teenage social pressure, of college choices, of career struggles, of maintaining our families and our marriages. We can have falling outs with our friends and loved ones; but at the ranch, all is forgiven. We can make mistakes in our life choices; but at the ranch all is momentarily forgotten. We can have failures; at the ranch, all is renewed. We can get caught on the hamster wheel; at the ranch, all is slowed down. You achieve perspective in such a place. You remember what’s really important.

You remember how good it feels to just ride a horse at a gallop. How tasty a steak tastes fresh off a wood-fired grill. How fun it is to catch a trout.

To have such an extended moment of peace, without cell phones or iPads, without worry over groceries and daycare – where all physical and emotional needs are met, and all undue expectations are erased—is to achieve a brief glimpse of the royal life, only without the paparazzi.

And, therefore, Heaven.

My understanding of the Great Ranch in the Sky is that it’s supposed to be a place of boundless love, an endless green desert populated by electric guitar-strumming angels, where cold cerveza is always on tap for you and all your departed friends, family, band-mates, teammates, brothers in arms. All together again after a long, long journey apart. It is a final rejoining of your community. It is the ultimate reunion, the limitless ride into the sunset, the never-ending feast with a table set for two or two thousand, if it pleases.

Until that ethereal sky ranch happens… I’m cool with Tanque Verde.