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The Natural Wonders of Northern Arizona by Peter Thody

Few 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.

Monument Valley

The classic road view heading south on Highway 163 into Monument Valley. Despite this being the first Saturday in August, the roads are still almost empty.

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Photo by Peter Thody

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, unforgettable glory.

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 our trip.

Leaving Page we turn south on U.S. Highway 89. A sharp right at Bitter Springs and minutes later we're at the Navajo 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 opposite.

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 Canyon.

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 of us.

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.

Peter Thody

(Links updated 6/30/20, RTA)


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