This article appears in Volume 23: The Adventure Issue.

Rocco Wachman is demonstrating the multitude of ways I could die today. “Statistically, this is the most extreme sport you can do,” he explains. “He can butt you in the face, bite you, drag you along at 50 miles per hour or kick you in the head.” The lethal weapon he’s referring to? A docile-looking chestnut mare called Misty. “There are a plethora of dangers when horseback riding,” he goes on. “And then there are the rattlesnakes…”

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As far as induction speeches go, it’s not exactly reassuring. But this is what you get when you enroll at Arizona Cowboy College. City slickers like me have been coming to this “dude” (trainee cowboy) ranch since 1989 to fulfil their Wild West fantasies. “We live such sterile lives now, we need something to scare us,” says Rocco, who from the brim of his Stetson to the spikes on his spurs is every inch the cowboy. “We’re craving that danger, that sense of adventure – that’s why people come here”.

I spend the day being taught how to groom, saddle and ride a horse “Western” style – sitting back to trot, holding the reins in one hand and resisting the urge to grab the saddle horn when we “lope” or canter. Then it’s time for a crash course in lassoing from Lori Bridwell, who rules the college with an iron whip. My first telling-off happens before I’ve even picked up the rope. “Tie your hair back right now,” she shouts when I don a cowboy hat for a photo. “No self-respecting cowgirl would ever have her hair in her face.” It takes several, hand-shredding tries to get the knack of lassoing – which involves flicking your wrist at just the right moment – but when I catch my first cow my pride can’t even be tempered by the fact it’s stationary and made of plastic.

Most “dudes” stay on the ranch just outside Scottsdale (“the West’s most Western town”) for six days, sleeping in bunk beds and eating family-style, but after a day’s tuition it’s time for me and my photographer Brandon to hit the road. And what a road it is, flanked by craggy, rust-coloured mountains, dusty desert trails and giant, bulbous cacti with protruding digits. No wonder this view feels so familiar – it’s the landscape Wile E Coyote chased Road Runner through and the backdrop against which a squinting John Wayne loped into the sunset in The Searchers. This is Marlboro Man country.

Although there are horseback riders and herdsmen throughout the world – the gauchos of South America, the csikós of Hungary, the vaqueros of Mexico from whom most of the clothes and lingo of the American version are derived – none have generated the same myth and status as the cowboy. As someone who watched reruns of Clint Eastwood’s Rawhide every Sunday with their dad as a kid, there’s always been something powerfully nostalgic about the Wild West. The cowboy (and his female counterpoint) looms large in the collective imagination, whether its Woody from Toy Story or the recent Dior Cruise collection, which saw every model strut the catwalk in a Stetson.

The lone, silent cowboy hero and his association with freedom, strength and self-reliance continues to fascinate – and there’s arguably no better place to understand America’s sense of itself and the construction of its national mythology than Arizona’s wide-open frontier towns. Brandon is clearly similarly enraptured. He spends most of our drives with one hand on the wheel, the other on his Nikon shooting out the window. With Johnny Cash on the stereo, this has the makings of an epic road trip. If only we had a Ford Thunderbird and not a rented Nissan we could be Thelma and Louise.

Passing squat, dusky-pink Baptist churches we see billboards with “Got Jesus?” on them and adverts for Cheese Curds (deep-fried curdled milk). About 30 miles from Tucson it starts hailing but when we pull up at Mission San Xavier del Bac the clouds part and the sun illuminates this ornate “white dove of the desert” in a not ungodly way. Maybe those billboards are on to something. We poke around the candy-coloured cornices and feel uneasy at the glossing over of colonial history in the museum – “no doubt the Sobaipuri Indians living in the village of Wa:k were surprised to discover their land belonged to the Spanish in 1692”. It’s a reminder of the profound violence that undergirds any myths of how the West was won.

At Welcome Diner – which, with its Formica-topped bar and aquamarine stools is straight out of a John Register painting – we meet Dan Gibson, a former editor of Tucson Weekly. “Tucson is changing, but in many ways it hasn’t changed at all,” he tells us over a hibiscus-honey iced tea and fried buttermilk-chicken sandwich on what Americans call a biscuit but is quite clearly a scone. “Ten years ago you wouldn’t really hang out Downtown. Now there are great restaurants, cocktail bars and breweries, and most of them are in historic buildings where you can still hear the train go by.” In 2015 Unesco designated Tucson one of its Cities of Gastronomy, the first in the US to receive the award.

One person who’s no doubt seen more changes than most is Tiger Ziegler. The 84-year-old bartender at the Hotel Congress has been mixing margaritas since 1954. “I got the best job in the world,” he tells me, after he’s discreetly looked up the ingredients for an old-fashioned in a laminated file he keeps in a cupboard. Wearing a branded apron and bolo tie, he recalls how when he first started working at the bar the only beers were Bud and Coors at 15¢ a mug. The hotel itself, built in 1919 for travellers passing through on the new railroad, has a few stories of its own – it’s where notorious bank robber John Dillinger was finally captured after a fire nearly burned the place down. “I don’t serve the ghosts and they don’t bother me,” says Tiger with a wave of his hand when I bring up the hotel’s haunted reputation.

The next morning, feeling – appropriately enough – like death warmed up, we drag ourselves to Exo Roast Company, a speciality coffee shop in what used to be a toy factory. Over barrio bread with barrel cactus jam and a Chiltepin Cold Brew we get chatting to owner Amy Smith. When she moved from Portland, Oregon to Tucson in 2004 there were no third-wave coffee shops. “When we opened, nobody had heard of pour-overs or could understand why you’d wait for your coffee, so people took a little convincing,” she says. “But this is how neighbourhoods get regenerated. We just had this belief that if we built it people would start coming.”

As if to prove her point 4th Avenue is packed because of a street fair. We weave among the market stalls and Sonoran Sno-Cone vans to meet Jimmy Bultman, who runs Tucson Bike Tours. Breezing around town on two wheels is a whistle-stop way to get a feel for the different neighbourhoods, but we’re secretly relieved when one of our party gets a flat tyre and we get to spend more time in Barrio Viejo. Although much of Tucson’s Old Quarter was heartbreakingly bulldozed in the 1960s for urban redevelopment, the remaining Crayola-coloured adobe houses are so photogenic it’s no surprise to discover they featured as the backdrop in a recent Céline campaign.

While deciding which crumbling wall to Instagram first we bump into Alex Streeter and his chihuahua Jake. Alex is a silversmith who made the jewellery worn by Robert De Niro in the film Angel Heart. He invites us into his home-cum-museum and regales us with stories of opening a store on Prince Street, the epicentre of New York’s art scene in the 1970s. “I’ve always attracted history,” he jokes. “I’m the Forrest Gump of the art world”. With his embroidered Western shirt and battered cowboy boots he fits right in, telling us he was drawn to the “lingering spirits” in Tucson. “There’s something soulful and tragic about this place,” he says as he directs us to Il Tiradito, a shrine said to be dedicated to an 18-year-old ranch hand who was murdered in the 1870s after having an affair with his mother-in-law. The tiny candles, paper prayers pushed between the brickwork and discarded wedding dress all add to the Miss Havisham-esque atmosphere.

For our next stop we bypass the touristy honky-tonk bars at Tombstone and daily re-enactment of the gunfight at the OK Corral and keep driving to Bisbee. I’ve heard this former copper mining town is now an artists’ community and as we emerge from a dark tunnel through the mountains and pop out at a cluster of pastel wooden houses nestled into craggy rock I’m reminded of Cinque Terre. At the bustling coffee shop 31 Beaux (exposed brickwork, double bass in the corner) we get talking to Jen Luria, a graphic designer, manager of the tourist board, owner of the Tumblewood Gypsy boutique next door and belly dancer. “Everyone in this town wears a lot of different hats,” she explains.

When I describe our approach into town, she laughs. “We say going through that tunnel is like going down the rabbit hole to Bisbeeland. Once a year we hold Alice in Bisbeeland where we play croquet in the streets and dress as characters from the book.” It’s a story that instantly sums up this place – enchanting and not quite real. Particularly uncanny is the aptly named Eerie Street, all that’s left of the old mining town of Lowell, complete with rusting 1950s cars and faded mannequins in Claudia’s Hat Shop. There’s also Shady Dell, a collection of retro-cool RVs you can stay in. Posters around Bisbee advertise an art exhibition in a toilet (“The Loo-vre”), bumper stickers proclaim “I Got Weird in Bisbee” and there’s the omnipresent sound of wind chimes and someone playing Skunk Anansie. There are vintage clothes shops and antique stores and on every corner it feels like we encounter another eccentric character.

Sitting on a stoop on the main drag is Alberto, a cigarette dangling from his lip, black Stetson on his head and skin as weathered as his boots. “I came here after my rodeo career ended. I got gored by a bull in the thigh,” he tells us. “I ended up hauling horses and appeared in a couple of movies. Some big fat guy asked me ‘What do you do round here?’ I said ‘As little as possible’ so he told me ‘We’re shooting a movie we could use you in.’ The fat guy turned out to be William Shatner and we made Groom Lake.”

While browsing second-hand bookstore Meridien we meet Rafiki, an artist who hitchhiked here in the 1970s from California with a backpack and a trumpet and never left. “They call this town the open-air insane asylum,” he says. “We need to keep it that way.” With rooms to be found for as little as $150 a month it’s easy to see why artists keep flocking here. Jen introduces us to Ryan and Tiffany, who in true Bisbee fashion are artists slash writers slash beekeepers studying for their real-estate licences. They moved here from Detroit in 2015 – “There’s always been a mystique about the West,” says Tiffany – and have now set up a retro Airbnb in a former miners’ boarding house that was also once a brothel and a bakery.

We’d love to spend the night but we have a date at White Stallion Ranch. This former cattle ranch turned luxury resort was built at the turn of the century and its 3,000 acres of rugged scenery have made it the setting for many Hollywood movies, from the 1940s epic Arizona to George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. While Cowboy College had me mucking out stables and scraping hooves, wranglers at White Stallion bring me my horse saddled up and ready to ride. Instead of dorms I’m sleeping in an immaculate wooden cabin with Mexican blankets on the walls.

We go on morning hacks past alien-looking giant cacti (or saguaro) and in the afternoon I nervously sign up for Team Penning. It’s a classic rodeo sport in which four riders have to herd cattle into a small pen, “cutting” them up, blocking their exits and yelling, yowling and yapping for encouragement. Loping as a pack my hat is instantly blown off. With the wind in my hair and the sound of pounding hooves the experience is an exhilarating blur. My team do it in 15 seconds, which given the ranch record is 13 and my only riding experience before this trip was a bit of rising trot at Pony Club, feels like a hero’s ending.

While Brandon shoots the sunset, a neon smudge against the pink mountains, I say goodbye to my trusty steed Comanche. His warm, piebald snout snuffles hot breath on my hand as he butts my head. Although it’s undoubtedly in the hope of one of the “horse cookies” they keep in a jar by reception, it feels like he’s saying goodbye. As I squint into the rapidly sinking sun I feel like I have dust in my eye. After all, cowgirls never cry.

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