“Welcome to America, the land of litigation”, said Marie as she handed us waiver forms to fill in. Amanda and I had just arrived to meet our four day Trek America tour from Las Vegas to the desert national parks of the Wild West, and last minute paperwork was being organised in the hotel lobby. Marie had long, thick curls interspersed with colourful braids, and wore a tie-dyed sweatshirt with her combat shorts. The group sitting around us in the lobby was mixed between people in their 20s and 30s, and one much older couple who looked as adventurous as any of the others.
We were to spend the next three days making our way across the Mojave Desert and Monument Valley as far as the Grand Canyon in a minivan, and back to Vegas at the end, cooking our own meals beside campfires along the way. I found myself sitting in the front of the van with Marie that first day when all of the seats behind were taken, and we talked as she drove out into the desert. The Breaking Bad finale was due out in a week, and we talked about that, and Marie told me about her travels and hikes around the US, as well as her annual attendance at Burning Man festival and the people she met there. I quickly got an impression of her as a free-spirited hippy and lover of mountains and forests who I would get along with.
After a supermarket stop for food supplies on the way out of Vegas, the Mojave Desert that we drove through was characterised by golden-beige earth and sprouting cacti reaching for the sky among clumps of dry grass. Our journey out of Nevada, across Arizona’s North-West corner and into Utah was punctuated by stops at scenic points, including Horseshoe Bend, where the Colorado River turns around and back on itself in the shape of a deep horseshoe in the red cliffs, and the striking Lake Powell, where the water reflects the clear blue sky and contrasts starkly with the red rock around it. Here we swam in the cold water under the bright sun, before heading onward to Paria Canyon Guest Ranch, where we were to spend the night.
On arrival at the ranch, our hungry bellies were rewarded with an enormous barbeque dinner of home-made baked beans, corn on the cob, and delicious burgers (in my case vegetarian ones from our supermarket stop) topped with everything from pickled cabbage to avocado to monterey jack cheese to teriyaki sauce. Over dinner Norma and Roger, the older couple in our group, regaled us with stories of rafting down the Colorado river and camping in Yosemite National Park. They were from England, and Norma was talkative and friendly, as well as impressively active for her 60+ years, while her husband was quiet for the most part.
After dinner, we walked across the ranch to the stables and were each paired up with a horse. This was my first time in a saddle, but my horse was quiet and calm and I was relaxed. Our guides were an aging cowboy and his young son, both dressed in all the cowboy gear from hat to boots, who cracked jokes as we rode out across the sparse, sandy valley. As the sun got lower in the sky, its rays illuminated the rock around us in rusty colours and sent golden light through the gaps in the hills
Arriving back at the ranch shortly before dark, we sat around the dinner table and drank beer before retiring to the bunkhouse – a barn-like building with five sets of triple bunks and faded rugs on its wooden floor.
The following morning we ate breakfast at the picnic benches outside the bunkhouse, hurrying to clean up afterward ahead of our onward journey.
“You girls hard at work?” sniggered Roger, as he roughly pushed his coffee cup into the basin of water where I was washing plastic cups and plates, splashing water up onto me before wandering away with his hands behind his back. He was the kind of man who thought washing up was women’s work. I caught sight of Marie’s face as she rolled her eyes, laughing quietly. Amanda and a Frenchwoman called Suzie were drying the things I washed, while Marie packed everything into the van, and thanks to cooperation between women we were quickly on the road.
Our next stop was Monument Valley, part of a Navajo Native American reservation, best known from Cowboy & Indian films, where huge towers of red rock protrude from the earth like thick pillars with a cone-shaped base.
These pillars are the eroded sandstone remains of ancient mountains, shaped by wind and water over millions of years. We abandoned the mini van in a large car park on the edge of the valley, and piled into a 4WD truck, as there are no paved roads inside the valley. The next three hours were spent touring around Monument Valley’s landscape and rock formations, with the cheeky and hilarious Native American Willie as our guide.
“Ooh-la-la”, he cooed at Suzie over his microphone. “There’s a French chick in the back!”
His giddiness prevented this from being creepy, and he repeated it at every fabulous view or dramatic rock formation we stopped at: “Ooh-la-la.” It became the perfect reaction to the stunning sights for which ordinary words felt utterly inadequate.
After a long day in the heat and dust, we pulled into the rest camp that was to be our base for the night, where Marie was already helping two local people to prepare a dinner of Navajo tacos – typical taco toppings on a thick, fried bread. I sat at the long picnic table next to Roger, and gagged when I turned in his direction only to realise that he probably hadn’t showered since leaving Las Vegas. Although there were no showers available tonight, there had been at the ranch. Marie noticed my face, and joked conspicuously and loudly that EVERYONE had to shower at the campsite tomorrow. After eating, we sat around the campfire as the sun went down, the fading light changing colour on the spectacular rock towers all around us, while Willie told stories about life on the reservation.
Smoke from the fire penetrated all of our clothes and hair. That night we slept in a communal hogan – a traditional Navajo mud-hut shaped like an igloo, with a stove in the centre and a hole at the top for smoke to come out, and sleeping mats around the circle.
Driven outside by Roger’s snoring, Amanda and Suzie instead opted to take their sleeping bags over to the dying campfire to sleep beside it instead.
Awoken at 5.30am by the movement of others around the hogan, I crawled outside in time to see the sun rising and its light playing beautifully on the rock once again.
By 7am we were off, feeling dishevelled and dirty from the lack of a shower, and headed for the Grand Canyon. It was late afternoon when we arrived at Mather Campground, where we began to pitch our tents. Amanda and I had ours ready quickly. Suzie had taken hers away from the group and into an enclosure of bushes that gave her slightly more noise insulation. Norma and Roger were struggling with their groundsheet, and Marie ended up doing most of theirs. I felt very much that they had chosen the wrong tour – there are others that are aimed at those who don’t want to do everything for themselves, but this one was very much about participation. After pitching the tents, we headed off toward the handy local shuttle bus that runs along the South rim of the canyon, between the campsites, viewpoints and hiking trails. A number of us disembarked the shuttle at the top of the Kaibab Trailhead, which took us downward into the Grand Canyon.
After walking a short way down for the view, I took the shuttle onward to meet the rest of the group at Yaki point in time for sunset. There are no words to describe the colours of the light inside the Grand Canyon as the sun went down. They included blue, red, purple, brown, orange and yellow. Its textured surfaces reflected each other like a cloudy, rough sea. The North rim of the canyon was visible, 10 miles away, although depth perception was distorted by the light and it didn’t seem nearly that far. We stayed, sitting on the ledge at the edge of the canyon, until the sun was no longer visible and it was almost dark.
The following morning, after packing up our tents early (I packed up Norma and Roger’s), we piled into the mini van and began the long drive back to Las Vegas. I sat up the front again, and Marie told me more stories about her adventures at Burning Man. We stopped for lunch at the small town of Seligman, Arizona, which is along Route 66, and is filled with kitsch memorabilia. On the state border between Arizona and Nevada, we stopped at the huge and famous Hoover Dam on the Colorado River.
Late that afternoon, after a drive along the Las Vegas Strip, Amanda and I checked back into Planet Hollywood for one last night in Vegas. We were too tired to repeat our first night there, where we had stayed up for over 30 hours, and I was conscious that I would be driving us all the way to California the next morning, so we took it easy, ate dinner, had a few drinks in Planet Hollywood’s Heart Bar, and retired to watch the Bellagio Fountain from our bedroom window. We had seen more in the past four days than we would ever have managed to if driving the same route ourselves. The Grand Canyon and Monument Valley are among the most impressive natural sights I’ve ever seen, and it would be difficult to top them, but the next part of our trip, Yosemite National Park, almost did. Keep reading for that next week.
Western USA Road Trip!