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How the Ranches of Arizona Made Me and Changed Me

I added spa girl to my cowgirl identity.

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The foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains
The foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains Courtesy Canyon Ranch
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Years ago, I was coaching a son on his college admission essays and one of the prompts was: “Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content.” After a long silence, he chose “a basketball court.”

My own answer came instantly: Tucson, Arizona, where my family vacationed from the time I was a toddler until college graduation. I can close my eyes and rusty memories swirl through every layer of me, shiny and clear, of the Double U Ranch.

This was the dude ranch where my parents, sister, brother and I rode horses led by tobacco-spitting wranglers on dusty trails, dodging cacti and yucca.

For years, I rode Chico. My dad rode Ace.

Decades before screen-time, nature was our entertainment. Embraced by the Santa Catalina Mountains, we would be hypnotized by the lilac and rose sunsets dancing on the peaks. The Double U was the backdrop for first steps and first kisses, the place I grew from girl to woman.

Iris Krasnow on horseback a child at the Double U Ranch
Iris riding Chico at the Double U Ranch
Courtesy Iris Krasnow

In 1979, my rustic Double U was transformed into the Canyon Ranch Wellness Resort, heralded in its birth announcements for its integrative approach to drawing methods from Western and Eastern medicine to address well-being of mind, body and spirit.

Riding horses and running wild in the desert, I never thought of dividing mind, body and spirit. All I knew was that the Double U made me feel whole. Over the ensuing decades, I returned to Tucson, staying in places I could saddle up, like the Tanque Verde Ranch and Hacienda Del Sol.

I could not imagine going to the horseless Canyon Ranch, forecasting I would instead be saddled with old memories of young parents — now both deceased.

Then this happened: A Canyon Ranch pop-up on Instagram asked: “What leads you here?” Like the essay question, I immediately knew the answer: “I need a break, from everyone and everything.”

So, as an early Mother’s Day gift, I returned solo to the sacred Double U grounds — and surprisingly, I loved the ranch that stands in its place.

Gone is Cowboy Frank, our guide on lopes through the Sonoran Desert. He wore tight jeans and smoked Camel non-filters and made the best eggs fried in bacon grease on breakfast rides. Replacing gritty wranglers, integrative wellness experts in psychology, fitness, spirituality, nutrition and aesthetics now guide guests, and doctors treat almost any health challenge, from high blood pressure to arthritis.

Gone also are greasy breakfasts. The meals are uber-healthy organic and locally sourced, and feature sustainably caught seafood and grass-fed beef supplemented by a bountiful fruit and salad bar at each meal. Some of my favorite menu items were peanut butter protein pancakes for breakfast, Southwestern vegetarian burger for lunch and smoked chicken enchiladas for dinner. Alcohol is not served at Canyon Ranch, though there are refrigerators in the rooms if you want to BYO.

Iris Krasnow on horseback
Iris credits her love of horseback riding and the Wild West to her many stays at a dude ranch in Tucson
Courtesy Iris Krasnow

Our schedule in the '60s was simple: Eat, ride, swim, run around with friends. Canyon Ranch guests can now choose a “Pathway” with self-explanatory titles like Relax and Renew, Integrative Weight Loss and Outdoor Escape, a wilderness experience. I chose one called Lifestyle Reset that included sessions with a therapist who gave me tips on parenting adult children and a “performance scientist” who got me hooked on rubber band strength training.

After stretching brain and body, I got a massage.

For 90 minutes, I lay still as my masseuse worked every inch of me with a cocoa-buttery lotion. I sank into a calm I have not felt since pre-motherhood days, precluded by the births of four sons.

While Canyon Ranch does attract celebrities and other fancy folks, what I found were many un-fancy people. They came for lots of reasons: to heal after the loss of a loved one, to lose weight, to escape a stressful life. 

Many of them were women 60-plus and traveling solo, like me.

Canyon Ranch is pricey — although prices dip in summer when Tucson temperatures hover around or above 100 degrees — and I talked about this with fellow guests. What I often heard is that they stashed away some funds year-round, or for a couple of years, to have this experience. “I wanted to give myself the best gift I could ever receive — better health,” a 70-year-old teacher from New Jersey told me.

With grown kids or no kids, spouse or no spouse, when do we start claiming the gift of much-needed renewal? For many of us, it has been a very long time.

While guests pay extra fees for appointments with staff experts and procedures like facials and acupuncture, plenty of free activities are built into the price of your stay, beyond meals and accommodations in cool casitas. The schedule of complimentary daily offerings is posted each morning and can include Sunrise Yoga and Aqua Zumba, Desert Drumming and Power Blast Fitness. Bingo nights are a big hit at the ranch.

Sanctuary at Canyon Ranch Tucson
Sanctuary at Canyon Ranch Tucson
Courtesy Canyon Ranch Tucson

I spent most of my time just roaming the grounds, fast-walking the two-mile trail that circles the ranch or on a slow stroll along the Spirit Path, filled with restorative stops like “The Pond at Peace Creek.”

I spoke to Joanie Zimmermann, who has worked at Canyon Ranch for 30-plus years and is now the director of membership sales, about why older women are drawn to the place.

“All your life you have been taught to take care of everybody else. We teach you how to take care of yourself,” Zimmermann says. “You are there for your friends, your family, your spouse, your work, your kids, and where is the time for you? Canyon Ranch gives you the opportunity to stop, take a pause and discover that spark of joy in yourself, all over again. So, when you go home and are pulled right back into the vortex of life, you can remember, and feel, the peace you felt here. And more and more, you will make you the priority.”

As we age, we do need to ask ourselves: “Aren’t I worth it?” when choosing how to spend our money. Even if the getaway is a onetime gift-of-a-lifetime, the takeaways are tools that will bolster that lifetime.

Returning to the sacred grounds of my old Double U, I was awash with memories of a mom and dad who took care of me, though on this trip I learned a lot about how to take care of myself. There is magic in those mountains and in that place that houses my history and gave me a place to add to my life story. Turns out, you can go home again, even if that home has added “spa girl” to my proud identity as a cowgirl.

Have you ever spent a night at a spa? Which one? Let us know in the comments below.

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