From Page 1 feel, especially when under the lee of those immemorial hills. The best hotel is off the beaten track: L’Auberge de Sedona, where you stay in lovely wooden lodges with open fires and heavy wardrobes, and sip your bourbon outside, listening to the Oak Creek River running by.
Sedona is renowned as a centre for cut-price metaphysics. In 1981, a famous psychic called Page Bryant dropped by, said she’d experienced seven
vortexes’’ of unusual spiritual energy in the roads around the town, and called Sedona the heart-chakra of the planet’’. Ever since, it’s lured New Agers looking for a vortex to stand under (all seven are marked with a squiggle on local maps).
North from Sedona is the hillside ghost town of Jerome, a former silver and copper-mining town that went bust in the 1929 Wall Street crash and is now mostly inhabited by artists. It looks a scrappy place, but has some very fancy shops. I spend far too long there, wandering the streets, buying saucy postcards at a former brothel called the House of Joy, and breakfasting in the English Kitchen, the oldest restaurant in Arizona. You must not miss Jerome: 500 people live there; two million visit every year.
In Flagstaff, where the snow-covered San Francisco Peaks loom over its tiny old quarter, I check into the Weatherford Hotel, a ramshackle but charming estaminet with a wraparound veranda, evidently pinched from New Orleans.
I later discover few tour operators send tourists to the Weatherford because of the freight trains that sound their ear-splitting, grinding-metal klaxon all through the night. I think I’ll be comforted, recalling Paul Simon’s song
but by 4am I reflect that only masochists like the sound of the bloody things close up.
Flagstaff has a nice 1950s diner, the Galaxy, some flourishing gun shops (in Arizona, you don’t need a permit; just keep it in a holster and make sure it’s visible when a cop pulls you over, OK?) and a jolly bar called the Mogollon Brewery in the historic centre, where they distil vodka. Try the prickly pear version, which tastes, surprisingly, of pear drops.
There is only one place for my journey to end: where Thelma and Louise wound up, in mid-air. But how do you explain the Grand Canyon to someone who hasn’t seen it?
Should I tell you about the final journey in the Mustang, how the rain comes on just outside Flagstaff and buckets down while huge trucks en route for California hurl sheets of water over the windscreen? How the rain ceases and the base of a gorgeous rainbow shows in the distance and in my peripheral vision the unimaginably massive Colorado plateau begins to unfold itself like a waking giant?
And the distant landscape takes on an unearthly, moonscape quality that makes me shudder, but just then the other leg of the rainbow appears to my left, and I have to wonder if I’ve perhaps been a bit hasty about giving up believing in God at 15?
And suddenly there is a roadside Scenic View sign and a walkway populated by Navajo Indians selling beads, and I park nearby and have my first, very partial sight of the colossal rocks, the 600m drop, the river snaking along below, and I think, gosh, that really is something.
Although I still have no idea what is lying in wait at journey’s end, and I get back in the car and drive another 48km or so into the Grand Canyon National Park on a never-ending road to something called the South Rim, where I park the Mustang at last and stretch my legs, still innocent of the immensity nearby, and I clamp my new cowboy hat further forward on my brow against the icy wind.
I take 30 steps forward and can feel my jaw gradually but inexorably dropping to my breast and my heart pounding like jungle drums as I walk nearer and nearer to the South Rim.
I watch as the canyon rises in front of me at last, and it is like inspecting a new planet, seeing the great dwellings and statues and public sculptures of an unknown civilisation of Titans and all these mighty structures seem, absurdly, to be alive and brooding and waiting for something to happen, a gigantic subterranean queue of stolid monuments waiting patiently for resurrection.
And as I stand there wrestling with the impossibility of finding words to describe this amazing sight, the bits of rainbow that have accompanied me from Flagstaff actually come together in the sky, like some cheesy symbolic welcome in a sentimental movie.
I don’t know how they arrange such things in Arizona. All I can say is, Billy Bob was right. You sure as hell are different when you leave. The Independent