For visitors to Arizona resort, the desert's eternal tranquillity dissolves 20th century stresses

OLD WEST REVERIE

November 03, 1991|By Sharon Nicholas

The road runner leads the percussion section. Quail and mourning dove baritones sing melody, supported by cactus wren sopranos, the hollow resonance of the horned owl on bass and the intermittent dissonance of raven tenors. Their music is staged just before dawn daily in Arizona's high Sonoran desert.

With no competition from rustling leaves or rushing rivers, not to mention elevators, automobiles and tour buses, the clarity of the tweets, twitters and hoots rivals that on compact disc. Here in the vast, mystical landscape of this southwestern desert, intensity is the norm. Colors seem more brilliant. Fragrances more vivid. Tastes, purer. And for those drawn to certain inviting cactuses -- pain more acute.

For migrating "snowbirds" fleeing blizzards and sub-zero temperatures, the intensity of the therapeutic sun may be the prime motivator, along with the ceremonious trading of snow shovels for golf clubs. But that's the least of what Arizona can do for symptoms of winter stress.

Thirty miles north of Phoenix is Carefree, Ariz., population 1,800. If the name alone doesn't establish the mood, every street sign provides subtle reinforcement -- Peaceful Place, Nevermind Trail, Easy Street and Nonchalant Avenue.

Just up the prickly pear-lined path on the edge of town, past a few bunnies and quail, is a massive outcropping of enormous boulders in shades of bronze and rust. The rounded, creased chunks of granite are arranged in a precarious house-of-cards fashion, some serving as perches that balance other, often much larger rocks, on a single point. From a central peak nearly 400 feet high, the whole fascinating sculpture gently diffuses over the desert.

Somebody thought this would be a nice place for a resort. No big business conferences. No big city. Just a big, romantic desert.

The Boulders was built seven years ago (alongside the boulders built more than a billion years ago) with extraordinary sensitivity to the ecosystem. Guest units are one- and two-story, tawny, pueblolike casitas. Each luxurious bungalow is tucked away against the rocks, or settled unobtrusively amid hundreds of acres of undisturbed saguaros, barrel cactuses and fragrant mesquite trees.

Yes, the Boulders has all the "sun-and-fun-getaway" things -- pools, tennis, championship golf. But here they seem relegated to the role of extras. The star is the charismatic high Sonoran desert, just outside the door of every casita.

After a cool, peaceful night, after the dawn's feathered operetta, the sun turns a navy sky to royal blue, outlines the tops of Pinnacle Peak and the Superstition Mountains in a soft haze, and turns the color on.

The landscape is always a rich combination of honeys, hennas and greens against a brilliant blue sky. But when it's in bloom, the desert floor is a Van Gogh of golden marigolds and poppies, hot pink thistle and verbena, reddish-orange Mariposa lilies, violet lupine, desert lavender.

Above them all, the saguaro, with its distinctive upstretched arms, reaches 60 feet high. Living as long as 300 years, it's native only to this desert. Yellow and white saguaro blossoms, Arizona's state flower, crown each limb. Tiny caves in its pleated skin often become home to the cactus wren, Arizona's state bird.

The inviting terrain of the Sonoran covers southern Arizona and eases into parts of California and Mexico. This isn't Lawrence of Arabia's vast expanse of sand, accented by an occasional camel. The landscape is rocky, hilly, even rugged in parts. The 2,500 species of plant life fight for space to decorate the desert forest and provide food and protection for 600 species of birds and animals.

For naturalists, it's a field day. For history buffs, a closer connection to the past. For stressed-out urbanites, peace. And those who embrace a "when in Rome" philosophy find a wide range of "when in the Sonoran" desert exploration possibilities.

Ballooning gives a raven's-eye perspective of the landscape -- a special treat over this desert forest. For more of a road runner's-eye perspective, there's a self-guided nature trail or, with a horticulturist, extended nature walks that rival a syllabus for Desert Horticulture 101.

Horseback rides here have a trailblazer feeling, compelling for anyone not worried about the horse shying at a rattlesnake and landing them on a cactus. At the end of the trail . . . a steak cookout at sunset.

Adventurous anthropologist types trek across the desert with llamas, past 13th century petroglyphs to 19th century gold mines.

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