Driving the desert: My Arizona road trip
By Helen Wright
And just like that it was Autumn. Well, almost. With the UK summer now stretching to October, the leaves were barely brown on the trees. But for me, the summer was over. My relationship of eleven years had amicably and painfully reached a natural end. An ill-judged, brief fling had left me low on confidence and even London, my favourite city, was getting me down. I needed a break and wanted to go somewhere totally different to make a fresh start.
British Airways had just started flying directly to Arizona, the sixth largest state in the USA. Most people could win a quiz night point for knowing that Arizona is home to that cavernous beauty, the Grand Canyon, but I was soon to discover there is a lot more on offer in this underrated and beautiful state. Sun worshippers pay attention – the sun officially shines in Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona, 85% of the year – and that is more than in both Florida and Hawaii. Plus, it’s 6000 miles away from the UK so as far as I was concerned, it was perfect.
FRESH AIR; FRESH START
When people ask what my favourite place I’ve ever travelled to is, now I often cite Arizona. It’s met with a variety of responses; ‘The Grand Canyon?’, ‘What’s there?’ or ‘Oh… right’. Most are surprised and that’s because, like many beautiful corners of the USA, this quietly proud desert land is overshadowed by louder and prouder neighbouring states, all clambering for tourists’ affections. There are no neon lights, impossibly tall buildings or theme parks. The beauty here resonates through every peak, creek and canyon, which at night are majestically framed by the setting sun. Leaving England, I was expecting a loud, brash Yankee welcome to lift me out of my low mood. Instead, I found the calm I didn’t know I needed and more than enough energy to thrill my wild heart. Arizona changed my view on America. But, most importantly it changed me.
FROM THE BEGINNING
Nine hours and 40 minutes from London and I had landed in Phoenix, rented a car and set off to my first stop. Snaking though the winding roads that lead to Sedona, I was amazed by the stunning landscape bursting into view. Dry, desert plains it was not. Instead, I could see nothing but towering green pine trees and giant rocks as orange as a TOWIE tan. I weaved between the lush landscape with glistening creeks to my left and the setting sun on my right. I knew instantly I would like it here.
Eager to stretch my legs, I decided to park up and explore one of Sedona’s most popular hiking trails – the Little Horse trail. It’s a relatively easy walk with spectacular views across the landscape. Each turn offers a different vista, I probably could have done it in half the time if I wasn’t stopping every few minutes to take photos.
Later, I was delighted to find the beauty of Sedona also extends to its buildings which are designed to compliment the natural beauty rather than detract from it. Even burger mega-chain, McDonalds, had to follow the rules, meaning that if you go for a Big Mac here it’s the only Maccy Ds in the world where the famous ‘golden’ arches are turquoise. The classic yellow and red was deemed far too garish to comply and after it opened last year, the restaurant has become a low key tourist attraction in itself.
Many people believe the vortex energy in Sedona is beneficial to healing and spiritual renewal so in the wake of my break up, apparently I’d come to the right place. I wasn’t sure if I was quite in touch with my inner hippy, but it was already better than the stuffy London Underground and my air-conditioned office so it definitely had a positive effect on my mood. The city is a unique mix of natural wonders, new age spirituality and classic Americana. A great introduction to a state that really stands out.
The big One
Back in the car I’m keen to get off the tourist track, but a trip to Arizona would not be complete without a peak at its most famous landmark. I drive to the town of Williams, a tiny former mining village which mainly consists of country dive bars and cake shops. From there, I board the Grand Canyon Railway – a classic train journey which leaves daily from Williams, transporting guests to the heart of the Grand Canyon. The train has been operating since 1901 and I doubt very much the view from the windows has changed. From the observation car I really begin to gauge how vast and beautiful Arizona is.
The train stops at the south rim of the canyon outside historic hotel, El Tovar, which has dominated this vista since 1903. From here you can follow marked walking trails to view the canyon on foot or use the free National Park Service bus to take in the view from different spectacular locations. As the sun sets I travel the 2.5hrs back to Williams, staying overnight in the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel – which is handily, right at the end of the line.
Up bright and early, I set off for a 4hr 20 minute drive to the city of Scottsdale. To break up the journey I plan a stop in Prescott, a non-touristy town which is a nice example of classic America and also home to the oldest rodeo in the USA. I’ve always been fascinated by the rodeo tradition so I buy myself a western hat and spend a few hours in the bleachers with a corn dog for lunch, cheering on the (quite frankly) crazy cowboys. To a Brit on the run, the whole festival of the rodeo is fascinating. The crowd sing the National Anthem to open the show and members of the armed forces, from anywhere in the world, were invited to stand up and accept a thunderous applause. I was overcome with emotion.
Just two hours from Prescott and the city of Scottsdale is an entirely different kettle of fish. Surrounded by mountainous landscape, I discover that Old Scottsdale is a surprisingly slick boutique town with a host of interesting architecture and stylish locals. I lucked out by staying at the legendary Hotel Valley Ho, a retro-cool resort built in 1956 by Edward L. Varney, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, the master of modern architecture at that time. His influence can be seen across America but Arizona has some marvellous mid-century buildings created following his vision. A short drive from here is the ‘winter home’ of the man himself, named Taliesin West – or otherwise known as my 1937 (and 2015) dream house.
Hoping to explore Scottsdale’s western roots, I’d been itching to pull on some cowboy boots and take a trail ride across the Senoran desert. With just me and my horse under the wide skies and mountainous terrain I felt a rush of happiness. My problems at home felt insignificant with such epic beauty and opportunity ahead of me. The sunset was possibly one of the best I had ever seen. Whether it was the sky or the metaphor, the American Dream was in force and I was sold. Strolling in the pink glow I had found a new source of energy and inspiration.
In the evening I was spoiled for choice – dinner at trendy eatery Virtu (you have to try the charred octopus!), slick cocktails at The House and then some live music with a good dollop of old country charm at the Rusty Spur, a former bank-turned-cowboy-bar, packed with personality. I had fallen in love with Scottsdale and was sad to leave. For someone looking to escape the gloomy British weather in search of eternal sunshine and friendly faces, this was ticking all the boxes. And if that’s not cool enough, Stevie Nicks was born here.
Watch the video on why I LOVE Scottsdale here!
Heading south to go west
On route to Bisbee I had a few hours on the open road and a bit of time to notice how much fun I was having. There were times when I didn’t pass another car for half an hour or more. I was really on my own but I loved it. I had dreamed of wide skies, a warm breeze on my face and country music to soothe my wounded heart. Arizona had all that and more. Cruising along highway 92, I was awed by the calm beauty of the sprawling landscape. The desert glows in the gold light of the low sun as though it had been coated with honey. There was nowhere better I could have travelled and nowhere I’d rather be.
First-timers to the USA often ask me about driving here and whether it’s difficult. I can honestly say I love driving stateside. The roads here are wide, simple and mostly traffic free. I didn’t have a GPS (just an old-fashioned map) and it was fine. There’s not much in between the towns except for the odd farm, saguaro cactus (and probably a Target Superstore). The imposing saguaro cactus is indigenous to the Sonoran Desert which spans Arizona, some of California and Mexcio. It can take up to 100 years for them to grow one arm. So the old boys out there with three or four arms, they’ve witnessed a few sights over the years.
I stop to take selfies with nothing but my car and the horizon. Both cars that passed me stopped to make sure I was okay, fearing I’d broken down in the 100’F heat. For a solo Brit with half a tank of gas and a fragile heart, the kindness of strangers lifted my spirits and gave me a boost (I also felt a bit silly…)
In Bisbee, I stayed at an allegedly haunted hotel, the Copper Queen, (another test for my nerve). I survived the night with no creepy goings-on but the visitor comments book makes for a spooky read. Escaping across the road for coffee, a University Professor introduced himself and said ‘no one eats breakfast alone in Arizona’. He insisted I sat with him and his colleagues. On a tour of the Bisbee Queen Copper Mine, I met two elderly ladies on their own road trip. Both their husbands had passed on and they’d teamed up for the ultimate adventure. Full of life, anecdotes and humour, they were inspiring in every way. There were other people I met on the road: a couple who rent their home in Seattle and live in their RV, millionaire businessmen who looked like everyday cowboys and ‘Jo-Ann’ who had never left Arizona ‘and never planned to’. There was such a mix of life here, my woes back home had been long forgotten. I had settled in.
After Bisbee I headed back the way I’d come, stopping at the city of Tombstone where the Wild West era is firmly stuck in time. The old west’s most legendary battle, the 1881 Gunfight at the OK Corral took place here and a re-enacting of the deadly feud can be seen here every day. It’s truly an odd place which pops up out of nowhere in full animation of its colourful past. My favourite was the Bird Cage Theatre – which seemed to be a museum about prostitution, essentially, but has a fascinating history regardless and some authentic memorabilia.
I stayed overnight at the Apache Spirit Ranch (now renamed the Tombstone Monument Ranch). An upscale ‘dude ranch’ on the edge of town with quirky cabins laid out as a replica Wild West Street and the opportunity to go riding twice a day. The eccentric then-owner challenged me to a lasso throwing and whisky drinking contest – ultimately, he won on the ropes and I won on the Bourbon.
THE ALL-AMERICAN ROAD TRIP
Almost two weeks later, I was headed back to where I’d began my adventure. Apart from the friendly faces I had passed along the way I had never spent so much time on my own. I had driven almost 2000 miles solo and it had given me a whole new attitude – I was ready to take on the world now. Arizona is big; so big it could fit the whole of England, Scotland and Wales inside it. I was amazed to find of all the breathtaking landscape I’d passed, only around 17% of land is privately owned. So instead of rows of immaculate identikit houses, monster shopping malls and bland millionaire mansions, most of Arizona is decorated with national parks and forests, state trust lands and Indian reservations – meaning if you’re looking for somewhere beautiful to enjoy some space, these are your coordinates. In Arizona I’d found a dream destination, and I’d found myself. Hey, maybe I am in touch with my inner hippy after all.
For more information on Arizona see visitarizona.com
UPDATE: I went back to my soul destination this year! Catch a glimpse of Sedona and Arizona in my U.S road trip video here