places on earth could fill 48 hours quite so memorably
as northern Arizona. On this leg of his western journey,
Peter Thody takes in two of the world's most recognizable
landmarks, saves a few dollars on hotel bills at wife
Carole's expense, and manages to avoid being party to
the mass suicide of the state's chipmunk population.
They say everyone feels at home in New York as
its streets are so familiar. Monument
Valley is the same. From the instantly recognisable, dog-legged
highway that leads you in from the north, to the mesas, buttes
and spires of the tribal park itself, these are views you've
seen a hundred times before in books, on travels shows and
at the movies. But this familiarity doesn't detract from the
experience one bit.
We time our arrival perfectly, pulling up just
in time for a lunch of chili and Navajo fry bread at the visitor
center's surprisingly good restaurant. Another unexpected
treat is a permanent exhibition highlighting the invaluable
role that more than 400 Navajo
Code Talkers played in World War II, transmitting vital
information over the airwaves in their native tongue, a "code"
that was never broken.
As for exploring the valley itself, you can catch
a tour bus, hire a horse, hike a trail, or follow a 17-mile
self-guided drive. I'm not sure I'd have taken this last option
if my car wasn't (a) 4-wheel-drive and (b) a rental, but plenty
of others seemed happy to negotiate the ruts, rocks and puddles
in their smart saloons.
For the outward leg, the sun refuses to play
out, leaving the Mittens, the Three Sisters and John Ford's
Point looking dark and brooding. But as we complete the loop
around the Raingod Mesa and start the journey back to the
visitor center, the clouds disperse, the sky turns blue, and
we get to see these majestic natural features in their full,
It was one of those afternoons that seem to flash
by and I would have been happy to drive the same route all
over again the moment we finished. It's that kind of place.
However, there are two sides to every story.
Tonight we're booked into a Holiday Inn at Kayenta, half an
hour's drive south, and while the levels of service and general
friendliness of this Navajo-run hotel are appreciably higher
than others I've stayed in, it does feel like a securely fenced-off
refuge for wealthy white tourists.
I don't know enough about the situation to do
anything except describe what I saw, but the empty Budweiser
boxes and Smirnoff bottles that litter every lay-by, and the
packs of cowed and mangy dogs that nervously beg for food
around the hotel and gas station all suggest there's a social
issue here that America has yet to resolve.
Of course that's an over-generalisation. On the
17-mile drive we'd chatted with one of the girls selling jewelry
from a roadside stand. She was outgoing, ambitious and optimistic
about her chances of getting through college and forging a
career. She was interested in learning about our lives too,
eagerly scribbling down her address "so maybe your daughter
could be my pen pal?" It's great to think she could be
part of a generation that was about to change things, especially
as the old guy who makes his living posing on horseback for
tourists' photographs turns out to be her grandfather.
The next day begins less than perfectly when,
getting out bed, Carole manages to run her calf along a broken
spring sticking out of the side of the mattress, causing a
fairly deep cut. (A leg injury has become something of a holiday
tradition for her so it was really only a matter of "when"
not "if.") However, being British, nonlitigious
and keen not to cause a fuss, we eagerly accept the manager's
offer to waive our room charge in return for promising not
to sue. "Just sign here. And here. And here." I
guess it's a good job it never turned gangrenous.
Patched up but $160 better off (the pleasure
I get from unexpected money is always disproportionately greater
than the sum actually warrants -- and I'm aware of just how
mean that sounds), we hit the road and head west on State
Route 98, a road which crosses a desolate and understandably
sparsely populated section of the Navajo Reservation.
An hour or so later, we stop for coffee at Page,
the starting point for trips to nearby Antelope
Canyon. This is the most photographed slot canyon in the
world. Even if you've never heard of it, you'll have seen
the pictures: layers of swirling sandstone illuminated by
brilliant shafts of sunlight. For a keen amateur photographer
like me, the idea of not visiting is almost unthinkable, but
we just don't have the time to wait for the next tour (all
visits must be accompanied). You can't hope to see everything,
but this is one place I do regret not having scheduled into
Leaving Page we turn south on U.S. Highway 89.
A sharp right at Bitter Springs and minutes later we're at
Bridges. These identical-looking bridges were built more
than 65 years apart, the newer, wider bridge on the left opening
in 1995 to provide the extra strength and capacity required
by modern-day traffic. Rather than dismantling the original
bridge, they left it there for pedestrians to enjoy the view
of the Colorado River 467 feet below and, as a ranger points
out, that of a rare California condor resting on the bridge
The road continues west, past the towering sandstone
escarpments of the Vermilion
Cliffs National Monument and on to Jacob Lake. The last
leg of today's journey leads south through Kaibab
National Forest, a strange combination of lush green flora
and charred, blackened tree stumps, and finally there it is,
the world's most famous physical feature: the Grand
It's a place everyone promises themselves they'll
visit before they die, and seeing it for the first time is
certainly a moment I'll never forget but
at the same
time I can't escape the feeling that there's something missing.
Where's the New York Philharmonic and 100-voice choir performing
"Carmina Burana"? Where are the angels descending
from the heavens above? Where's the shaft of light breaking
through the clouds? (Actually, where is the shaft of light
breaking through the clouds?)
But it's not the canyon's job to impress. If
all the preamble has raised your expectations to such an extent
that even if the Lost City of the Incas were to be relocated
to the cliff opposite you'd still want more, then it's
up to you to take another look. So, after checking into our
log cabin (which could be described as either "traditional-rustic"
or "crikey-that's-basic"), we follow the narrow,
winding and occasionally perilous-looking trail to Bright
Angel Point. And sure enough, despite the poor visibility
caused by fires on the South Rim 10 miles away, it really
is an awe-inspiring sight. And over the next few hours, as
we explore the various footpaths surrounding the lodge, watch
the views change as afternoon turns into evening, and enjoy
the most scenic pre-dinner drinks imaginable as the sun sets
and the sky turns red, we begin to appreciate the full beauty
of the canyon.
The next day, after getting up at 4:45 a.m. to
catch a sunrise that never quite materialises (not for the
first time this trip!), we follow the 23-mile road along the
Walhalla Plateau to Cape Royal, a wonderful woodland drive
made all the more exciting by the chipmunks who insist on
playing chicken with a ton and half of Chevrolet.
Cape Royal itself is a quiet but easily accessible
spot that enables non-hikers like us to experience the vastness
and isolation of the canyon. There's a nice short walk along
a cactus- and scrub-lined trail to build the sense of anticipation,
and then -- suddenly -- the whole world opens up in front
Now that's what the brochure promised:
staggeringly beautiful views over a landscape of huge craggy
sandstone buttes, immense deep canyons, and dizzying drop-off
points. At last we get a sense of the scale of the place.
Finally we experience the physical and emotional high that
we'd been led to expect, and we're able to join that club
whose rapturous descriptions and breathless wonder spoil it
for those who have yet to see it for themselves. It wasn't
immediate, but the magic of the Grand Canyon overwhelms us.
We leave very, very happy.