In a wide-brimmed brown hat, closed-toe shoes and long jeans despite the heat, I’m high on my horse, literally, heading out into the Sonoran Desert just 30 minutes’ drive south of Phoenix, Arizona. The sky is a deep, cloudless blue on this November morning. Guide Robert Pablo, a wrangler at Koli Equestrian Centre, leads the way; my husband rides behind. We’re at Wild Horse Pass in the Gila River Indian Community, guests at the nearby Sheraton Grand resort on this Native American-owned property.
We’d heard that you can sometimes see the wild horses for which the area is named from the Sheraton itself, a telltale cloud of dust marking the spot in the distance. But if you’re up for it, you can attempt to see them up close by taking a trail ride. Hundreds of horses are said to roam these dry scrublands, but the pass is so huge it’s not a given you’ll see them even from horseback. Pablo promises to do his best to help us get a glimpse, but in the meantime, we’re just enjoying the ride.
Pablo, who is half Maricopa, half Pima Indian, shares some of his extensive knowledge of his peoples’ lands. “That’s mesquite,” he says, pointing to a stand of squat, ragged-looking trees. “It’ll burn just about forever.” He explains the traditional way to cook meat in the desert, which is to wrap it up and bury it with hot mesquite coals in the sand overnight.
A huge jackrabbit bounds past and bolts down a hole. Pablo also points out various birds we otherwise wouldn’t have noticed in the plant life around us. “People think there’s nothing in the desert, but there is plenty of life here,” he says.
The Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass sits on a huge piece of the Sonoran, and everything about it is designed to be an authentic representation of the architecture, design, art and oral stories of the Pima (Akimel O’otham) and Maricopa (Pee Posh) tribes. The hotel even employs a cultural manager, Rosie Rivera, to ensure that authenticity is reflected in every detail. Rivera is consulted on many cultural questions including the correct use and spelling of native words on the menus, and she researches local artists for commissioned works that appear throughout the airy, high-ceilinged hotel.