Gene Autry I wasn't. Barely an hour into an all-day trail ride, my hiking boots felt like ovens and my baseball cap barely shaded my face.

It was no better for my horse, Cutter. The low Arizona sun lit his red mane like flames. We were climbing, and Cutter struggled to get his footing on the rocky, steep trail. Sweat trickled down his shoulders as a dozen wannabe cowboys plodded along nose-to-tail behind a real cowboy named Joe.

I could taste the desert. I was last in line, caught in sporadic clouds of dry, chalky dust on the trails of the Tanque Verde Ranch. Miles beyond the ranch's squat pink casitas and rusty-metal-roofed barns, I spied the modern sprawl of Tucson, a green oasis fed by the rainwater and snowmelt of the Catalina and Rincon ranges.

I wasn't complaining. Back home in Minneapolis, the first snow of the season had blown in. I'd heard about the ranch during a stay at the Grand View Lodge near Brainerd -- both are owned by the same Minnesota family -- and arrived there a few days earlier with two teenage nephews for a pre-Thanksgiving holiday. I was secretly hoping that my suburban nephews would come to share my lifelong love of horses, or at least that 180 horses and only one TV would hold their interest. The boys have spent plenty of time on motorcycles and snowmobiles, but almost none on horseback.

I made a promise: They wouldn't have to muck out the barns, saddle the horses or throw a single bale of hay.

We got off to a good start. During the 25-mile trip from the airport to the ranch, we discovered that the cowboy who picked us up and my nephew, Joey, shared a love of playing "metal" on their electric guitars.

Although it was dark when we arrived, the boys were thrilled with Tanque Verde, a 60,000-acre "Gunsmoke" set come to life. The working ranch, nestled in the foothills of the Rincon Mountains, sidles up to Saguaro National Park, named for the giant cactuses that dot the landscape. Guests stay in adobe-style cottages and a few small lodge rooms (perfect for solo visitors) that are scattered among several buildings, including a dining hall, a one-room nature center and a modest spa built of weathered wood and stone with a rusty metal roof. Across a sprawling green lawn, horses stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a big corral.

Riding horses and bikes

On our first morning, I watched with delight as the sun rose over the Rincons from the covered front of our pink two-room casita. I later met with the lead wrangler -- a Marlboro Man, if I've ever seen one. Through a well waxed handlebar mustache, he told me there are several rides daily for people of all abilities, and we could do as many as we liked. Then he warned that we would need to pass a riding test if we wanted to do a lope ride -- like the Daytona 500 of trail rides, with a fast gait and a bit of danger.

"And ours is the most difficult in the industry," he said.

I was happy for the high safety standards, but knew that it would be difficult for us to pass, so we took a group riding lesson with two wranglers and a dozen or so riders from Poland who were visiting the ranch as part of a Philip Morris employee incentive trip. I called them the Smokin' Poles.

We started with the basics: steering the horses and getting them to start and stop. Not tough for us, but the others seemed flummoxed.

"Kick!" the wrangler yelled, trying to get each rider to take his horse around the ring.

It was clear that the Smokin' Poles didn't understand, and neither did their horses, but it made my nephews and me feel better about our riding skills.

After lunch we set out on a mountain-bike ride along some of the trails that surround the ranch. We sped along the narrow trails, dodging the menacing outstretched arms of cactuses growing toward the trails. Our guide, Casey, warned about other dangers, as well, including rattlesnakes and javelinas, small pig-like animals that run through the ranch in packs.

"Ouch!" I heard nephew Chayse yell. I came around the bend expecting to find him stuck to a cactus like a piece of Velcro, but instead he was standing next to his bike and had taken off a glove. A tarantula bite? No, he'd been attacked by something in his glove: a thorn. Casey said that the person who had last used the gloves had fallen onto a cactus.

That night we walked over to the Dog House Saloon, a one-room pub, for popcorn and a game of pool. Bob and Bobbi Abendroth, a retired couple from Mequon, Wis., were sitting at the bar. Like most ranch guests, they've been coming here for years. Decades, actually. They visit Tanque Verde every Thanksgiving week with their extended family. They warned that we would become repeat visitors, as well.

Bobbi said that the ranch has been a constant in her family's life and that in the many years they have been coming, things have stayed the same. Well, mostly.

"We're still upset that they took away the relish tray," she said.

It was the close of our first full day, and I was already beginning to believe Bobbi's prediction.

Daylong trail rides

The next morning, we set out on an all-day ride with Joe, a wrangler from Central Casting with spurs and chaps who has been guiding here for decades.

That cool morning turned into a sweltering afternoon as we made our way into the foothills. We stopped for lunch in a shady cottonwood grove, where we tied our horses to a split-rail fence and ate sandwiches that we carried in day packs slung around our horses' necks.

I worried that the boys were growing weary of the plodding pace and the silence of the desert, but they seemed stimulated by the increasingly rugged landscape and the challenge -- and thrill -- of guiding their horses.

We'd planned another full-day ride for the next day, our last full day, that included a trailside breakfast of blueberry pancakes made by Bob Cote.

Bob's father, Brownie Cote, bought Tanque Verde Ranch in 1957 even as he continued to run the Brainerd area's Grand View Lodge; some of the summer employees headed south to work the ranch each winter. Both the ranch and the resort are still owned by the Cote family. Bob and his wife, Rita, spend much of the year on the ranch.

Bob's pancakes fortified us for the more technically challenging ride we had in store, one that traversed several narrow ridgelines in higher elevations. I worried about the boys, but by the end -- and even after two full days of riding -- they wanted more time with their horses.

We had only a half-day left, so I suggested another lope check. We'd already done one and none of us passed. We had nothing to lose and we'd get a chance to feel some speed.

Each of us had three chances to show that we could trot, lope and stop our horses on command during a spin around the ring.

I passed, but the boys didn't. They were clearly disappointed, but didn't complain. During our four days in the Arizona desert they'd come to love horses the way I have since I was a teenager. And they made me promise that we'd come back.

The boys left to start packing. Still on horseback I caught up with a group just setting out for a 90-minute lope ride.

Our previous rides crisscrossed the rocky, cactus-filled foothills. This time we were on a low, dry river bed where the ground was soft and smooth.

It had rained a bit that morning -- nothing like the monsoons that come with summer -- and the Rincons had slipped behind a velvet fog.

We walked for a few minutes, and with barely a nudge our horses let loose. My heart raced and I resisted the urge to let out a joyful wail as the nine of us, our horses nose to tail, followed the dry wash like the summer rains. As we loped, barely making contact with the ground, I'd never felt so connected to a place.

Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376