Roads to recovery

After a tough year, Alex Allen feels the need for fresh horizons — and on a drive through America’s soul-stirring canyonlands, he discovers the widest in the world

 

I was on my knees in the red dirt at the roadside, camera poised, trying to keep my hands from shaking. Behind me, Patsy Grandson, my Navajo guide, sat in the heated cab of our minivan. ‘Here they come,’ she said, killing the engine and headlights. Ahead, emerging like ghosts from a glowing, ember-red landscape, were two, three, four, white horses. ‘Mustangs — on their way to water,’ said Patsy, as I sat paralysed, not by the cold, but by the sight. Here I was, in the most emblematic landscape of the American West, among those towering tombstone-like columns of rock immortalised by the movies, watching a string of its most iconic animals troop by.

(Main image: Highway 163, crossing Monument Valley)

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Vermilion Cliffs National Monument 

In fact, I was roughly at the halfway point of America’s ‘Grand Circle’ drive, a week-long loop that tours the shimmering deserts, unfathomable canyons and mountain-framed prairies of Nevada, Arizona and Utah, while ticking off six of the country’s most dramatic national parks along the way. I was also two months on from the end of my treatment for cancer, a period of time consumed by medical scrutiny, and scary, swallowed-down thoughts. I’d wanted to take a trip to shake off the mental tethers that had kept me grounded for more than a year of my late twenties, and to make the most of my freedom from routine hospital visits. I couldn’t think of anywhere more fitting to do so than out on my own, on America’s most epic road trip.

I’d started in Las Vegas, giving myself just enough time to meet an old university friend. In November, the city was mad and sticky-hot — a psychedelic, 24/7 circus, where even time seemed to have lost its grip on reality. It was fun to wander on a ‘weirdo-watch’, and get kitsched-out in Bonanza, ‘the world’s largest gift shop’ (they’re not joking), but when the day came to jump in my rented Jeep and head out of town, I was ready.

I was on the road just after sunrise, the moon still visible as a perfect half-pill in a sky the blue of a motel pool. The mood was elation. As I streamed along towards my first checkpoint, across the Nevada-Arizona border in the city of Kingman, I could feel a weight lifting. With a local country-music radio station twanging from the stereo, and nothing ahead but desert, running to the suede-brown folds of distant mountains, I felt a rush of wonder and exhilaration close to a high. I was already hooked on the open road.

‘The one thing you should know about watching the sunrise in Arizona’s Monument Valley is that it’s cold. Breath-stealingly, finger-stiffeningly, face-achingly cold.

 

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Route 66 motel sign

Kingman flickered by like a ’50s film reel. It’s where an original section of Route 66 briefly splits from the thundering I-40 highway that overlaps it all the way from Oklahoma City to Barstow, California. This historic stretch, running from Kingman to Ash Fork, was a procession of chromed-out diners, retro petrol stations and motels decorated in bubble-gum shades of pink and blue. In Seligman, I pulled over for tacos at Delgadillo’s Snow Cap Drive-In — an eccentric, homespun place, with rusty old Chevrolets displayed outside. But the road wouldn’t wait. I had another 280km to go to my first overnight stop, and it was a biggie: the Grand Canyon. 

It is practically impossible to grasp, let alone convey in words, the scale of the Grand Canyon. It even defied the empirical capabilities of my camera. Every picture I took on the slow cruise east along the South Rim the next day, came out flat and inadequate. ‘Yeah, that’s what it looked like’ I could see myself telling blank-faced friends back home, ‘but, like, way bigger!’ In the end I realised the only thing to do was just commit as much to memory as I could: the low scud of rain clouds across the horizon; the flash of the Colorado River, just visible from certain angles; and the roaring silence of that big red hole.

It was also an opportunity to slow down and take stock, to appreciate just how far from home I did feel — in a good way. For the last year and a half I’d been almost umbilically-linked to a hospital. But now the major ties had been cut, there was a catharsis in the gobbling-up of distance. And there was also a feeling — despite the unending scale of the region — of a comforting familiarity. The handful of people I’d had encounters with, gift-shop owners, petrol-station clerks, diner waitresses, had been chatty and open. Every little cottage or cottonwood-shaded farm I passed felt like somewhere I could stop for directions, and maybe a glass of iced tea on the porch. But then things changed.

‘Emerging like ghosts from a glowing, ember-red landscape, were two, three, four, white horses’

The Navajo Nation is the largest Native American territory in the US, covering a vast swathe of the ‘four corners’ area (encompassing Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico). And I had absolutely no idea I had crossed into it until I began to spot the signs: placards on municipal buildings carrying the Navajo Nation seal, vehicles bearing an insignia that at first I thought must belong to an environmental agency, but later discovered was the Navajo Nation police. And then, on reaching the Monument Valley area, I realised I was the only non-Navajo speaker in a chattering grocery store queue. It was a moment of wonderful, unexpected, bewilderment.

 

Before I arrived, I’d imagined Monument Valley — as recognisably American as the Coca-Cola logo, or the red tab on a pair of Levi’s — as an over-commercialised film set. I was sure there’d be corny stagecoach rides, a fancy-dress cowboy to take selfies with, and hordes of tourists. Instead, the following morning, I found myself alone on Patsy’s minibus, as we rumbled to the valley entrance under a dawn sky still frosted with stars. I knew November was low season, but I didn’t think I’d get it all to myself. Yes, there was a visitors’ centre and gift shop, and a modest fee for taking your car along the 27km scenic loop, but beyond that, the site was untouched by tarmac, mascots or hot-dog stands. ‘That’s just one of the advantages of not being a US national park,’ Patsy said with a wry chuckle, as we stopped to take in a panorama of buttes and cliffs washed in the amber light of sunrise. Monument Valley belongs to the Navajo, and is sensitively managed for the benefit of those who still live and farm on the valley floor.

As part of the tour, which is the only way to get off and beyond the marked-out loop road, we stopped at a small homestead that consisted of two prefab houses, a chicken coop, a basketball hoop and a mud-splattered truck. There was also a traditional earthen ‘hogan’ house, which Patsy ushered me into, where a Navajo woman sat spinning yarn on a creaking loom. As the two women chatted, I self-consciously browsed the jewellery displayed along a shelf. ‘That’s a nice one,’ Patsy reassured me, of the buffalo-pendant necklace I eventually chose. ‘The buffalo is symbolic of humbleness, a reminder to take only what you need.’ In truth, I’d bought it to be polite. But it would end up becoming a treasured souvenir.

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A Navajo woman with a loom in Monument Valley 

My next stop, the town of Moab, a day’s drive north into Utah, was a humble kind of place itself — particularly given its location, as the gateway to both Canyonlands and Arches National Parks. I bedded down for two nights, just long enough to cover the main sights. In Canyonlands I took my 4×4 off-road, rattling along sandy, snow-dappled tracks that led to plummeting overlooks.

If I’d felt alone previously, it was nothing compared to what I experienced here. Whereas the Grand Canyon, and even Monument Valley, had had a sense of well-trodden familiarity, Canyonlands felt truly, eerily wild. Fearful thoughts began to nag. Who would find me if I broke down? The wolves? The wildcats? Spooked, I sped back to the safety of town.

In Arches, I was pleasantly surprised to find crowds. I tagged along with them around the wind-formed bridges and towers of rock, like a giant sculpture garden, and followed their cues on where to stop and gawp. It was nice to be part of a flock again. But it couldn’t last. I had a few more checkpoints to cross off on this greatest-hits road trip: Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks.

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Arches National Park

Frankly, and frustratingly, there simply aren’t enough adjectives (or column inches) to describe all three in a way that comes close to doing them justice. Each is as memorable as the next, from Capitol Reef’s ghost town of Fruita, to Bryce Canyon’s forest of stalagmite-like ‘hoodoo’ rock formations. In the end, it was a final standout moment that swayed it for Zion — the one that left the deepest lasting impression.

‘It is practically impossible to grasp, let alone convey in words, the scale of the Grand Canyon’

I was still on the fringes of the park when it happened. Up ahead, and to the left of the endlessly straight road, where the land rolled away in a series of undulating hills, I saw something moving. As I stopped and got out to take a closer look, the dry-cold wind bit at my face. Leaning on the fence post, I watched a herd of buffalo rumble towards me over the crest of a hill. There was something touching about the way they moved, heads bowed under their own weight, both formidable and vulnerable — living remnants of an older time, when they would have covered this landscape in their millions. This time, I didn’t bother to lift my camera. Just standing there and watching in silence as they thundered past, trailing a cloud of dust, was enough. After they’d disappeared, I turned back to the car. Like the buffalo, I too was pushing on, moving forward, trying to take only what I needed.

 

Credit: The Sunday Times Travel Magazine / News Licensing