by Gary Esolen –
Scottsdale? The West’s Most Western Town
Scottsdale calls itself the West’s most Western town, but to a contemporary visitor wandering among the shops of 5th Avenue or Fashion Square, it is not obvious why. Yes, there are some trading-post-styled stores, and public art tends to have a western theme, but is there something in Scottsdale, past or present, that validates its claim to essential Westerness? Ask Dave Alford.
Dave is the President of the Parada del Sol (literally parade of the sun), an annual equestrian parade with hundreds of riders, on everything from working ranch horses through Clydesdales to prize Arabians. Local cowboys (there are still a few local cowboys) ride next to Native Americans from the Salt River Settlement and brilliantly clad members of the Arizona Arabian Horse Association. This year (as it did when it got started) the whole affair will start with a cattle drive down North Scottsdale Road, past the upscale auto dealerships and the boutique fashion stores. It is a celebration of the Scottsdale that was (an important place in the history of American ranching, where the ability to grow white-faced Herefords on desert land was proven) and of the persistence of its way of life in a vital subculture that will not let the horses ride off into the sunset just yet.
Dave Alford was born in 1953, which just happens to be the year the Parada del Sol got its start. Because there was no hospital in Scottsdale then, his birth certificate says he was born in Mesa (next door), but his father always insisted that Dave held his breath for two days until they could bring him home to Scottsdale and he could take his first breath of pure Scottsdale air. When he started elementary school there was only one such school in Scottsdale; by the time he left high school there were probably a dozen. A lot of people moved in and the horses and cattle moved North, nearer the edge of town. But the town kept growing, and the large ranches became housing developments.
Dave grew up on a horse. He and his friends had a sport of their own: they would ride a board pulled behind a fast horse, like water skiing, over a newly plowed but unplanted field. Once they decided to try it on the football field behind the Paiute Elementary School. “We tore that field up pretty good,” he remembers, “and the next day every boy who rode a horse to school was out there patching it up.”
‘I came up at the end of an era,” Alford reminisces. “Pima Plaza downtown was called that because on Saturday the Pima Indians would come in on their wide wagons and gather there. It was exciting, with their jewelry and their colorful dresses.”
He and his friends would ride a third or so of the way up Camelback Mountain (starting pretty much where the Phoenician Resort is now) for the view. In the summer they would ride out to Fort McDowell and swim in the Verde River. “We would camp there for two or three days at a time,” he remembers. On the way they often stopped at a vista point near Saddle Back Mountain. “That was what we called it, I don’t know if it has a more proper name,” he says. Now there is a pull-off for cars to stop and let people enjoy the view, in the vicinity of Shea Boulevard and 124th Street.
“Out there on the reservation, on the Verde River, there are still bands of wild horses,” Alford says. When he was a boy, January was Western month, and ended with a rodeo on the last Friday and Saturday. That day, the school day ended at noon, so all the kids could go to the rodeo. “You ask me whether this was really a Western town,” he smiles and says, “well you can darn well bet it was. I rode bulls for ten years before I realized I just wasn’t good at it. It is mostly gone now, but I think it is important that we remember.”
Remembering and Honoring
If Alford knows that the era of ranching in Scottsdale is gone now, he also knows it was real, and he wants to see it honored in traditions like Parada del Sol, and in rodeo-like performances, like the one he recently staged as entertainment at the big Barrett-Jackson auction. He would like to see a one or two hour daily show of barrel racing, calf and steer roping, and even bull-riding somewhere in downtown Scottsdale, maybe in Old Town, for visitors. “Tourism could help us keep those memories alive.”
Alford has a son who is in college on a full ride scholarship—for bull riding. The young man wants to ride bulls in the rodeo and be a champion, but Alford is glad he is also getting an education so he has more choices. “Bull riders, and remember I was one, are gamblers, they gamble with their bodies.”
Alford has an eight year old granddaughter whom he calls a ferocious rider. “She is really something,” he says proudly. “You know how it is with a girl and her horse. She would sleep in the stable with that horse if her parents would let her. Heck, she might just let the horse sleep in her bedroom.” But her horse is named Stinky, and you have to draw the line somewhere.