Sunday 2 August 2015

Arizona: Canyons, cacti and rattlers in real Wild West

Published 19/11/2012 | 06:00

Joyce Fagan stands among Arizona's rocks and boulders that have been carved into tunnels by the passage of water through the ages.
Joyce Fagan stands among Arizona's rocks and boulders that have been carved into tunnels by the passage of water through the ages.

Imagine finding yourself scrambling down a scree-ridden hill backwards filled with cacti that are hundreds and hundreds of years old and you're constantly being told to be gentle with your step, not in case you seriously prick yourself, which is a distinct possibility, but in case you disturb a rattlesnake.

At the end of this hill, you're among rocks and boulders that have been carved into tunnels by the passage of water through the ages. You start picking your way gingerly through this treacherous canyon knowing that it's your only way out.

I'm talking about the canyons of Arizona – the Grand Canyon State of North America where I spent an unforgettable week hiking, climbing and kayaking my way through one of the hottest and driest states of America.

Just north of Mexico and east of California, lies Arizona; where everyone lives for the great outdoors, where native Indians own much of the land and where golf is more popular than in Ireland.

As I order my first Starbucks on Arizonan soil, a highly caffeinated employee, alerted by the Irish accent and the possible link with Rory McIlroy, informs me that Arizona has more golf courses than any other state in America. It's the desert state and yet it's covered in artificial greens? How ironic.

But before I get a chance to see these greens, I meet the indigenous people of this land, I'm here to see the real Wild West.

The indigenous people we met were the Hopi Indians. They lived in Walpi village. A day and a half was spent meeting people who still hold regular ceremonies to promote gifts of abundance from mother nature. Most Hopi Indians live on top of mesas; these are flat, arid mountain tops in the middle of nowhere. Standing on top of a mesa, your eyes have uninterrupted views of miles and miles of desert-mountains. You think if you look long and hard enough you'll eventually see a horizon of water or a green field, but it's not the case. While on top of this mesa, which is essentially their version of a village street in west Clare, we were invited into the home and workshop of Lawrence, a renowned artist and a Hopi Indian descended from the Mayans. Lawrence reassured us all that there was no need to fear an apocalypse come the end of 2012, as some do, but this man who tracks the stars nightly confirms that the Earth and all its inhabitants were going to be entering the fifth world.

The fifth world means we'll all be a bit nicer to each other and to the earth. Leaving their village and having met a very nice native Indian, I hoped Lawrence was right.

But Arizona isn't all about desert landscapes; there's the great Lake Powell. The lake has about 2,000 miles (more coastline than the West Coast of America) of shoreline and is a reservoir of the Colorado River. This vast body of water also doubles as a much-needed water playground for the locals of the West. Here we spent the night, departing from Antelope Point Marina (with captain Rusty), on board a lake boat tied up on a red sandstone beach. Again, with not a sinner to be seen for miles, we kayaked through what can only be described as inverted peninsulas here, but they're called slot canyons out there. The terracotta of the red sandstone cliffs sits nicely in the middle of a royal blue, perennially cloudless sky and the deep blue water of the lake – if you like photography it's like being a kid in a candy store as the sunlight bounces all around the lake illuminating everything in its path. We barbecued, or at least Chris, an ex-soldier catering for us, did, and we sat around our little camp fire and laughed the night away.

Other highlights included a stay at the ultra-fabulous Four Seasons at Troon North in Scottsdale, where eastern decor meets Western sophistication. If you're going on a trip to the canyons and want to spoil yourself completely after a hard day's grafting in the desert, this hotel will do the job. The food is sensational, too, and the breakfast has everything from juice shots to eggs Benedict and every bread and pastry under the sun.

But it's the canyon state and so canyons featured large; slot canyons, limestone canyons, red sandstone canyons, secret canyons – all sorts of canyons. There are many delightful things to do in these amazing creations of nature.

The absolute highlight of my Arizona experience involved a 5.30am start. A glorious day was spent in a limestone canyon that we had completely to ourselves. We set off in our group with an experienced guide from 360 Adventures, litres of water (it's a highly precious commodity out there) and some ropes.

The ropes were for abseiling down sheer cliff faces. In a canyon in Arizona it's not like taking a stroll through a forest in Ireland. If you want to make it through to the end of your hike, you'll need to climb over rocks, shimmy your way down between two boulders and manoeuvre your bones to the bottom of a vertical drop measuring many many feet in length. We arrived at our first major descent and it's not as if you can just take a run and jump for it.

Before we knew it, we were harnessed up and furnished with helmets. We've now got to get ourselves down to the bottom of the cliff face to continue our hike. I elected to go last – going for the watch-and-learn approach. Going last on the first rappel I decide to man up and go first on the second. As I'm set up for the second one, with heart beating loudly in my chest cavity, I start walking backwards until there is no longer any ground beneath my feet. When you rappel down these cliff faces there's no checking out what's beneath you before you commit. As I take my initial step backwards over the edge I come to the frightening realisation that it's a long, long way down to terra firma. But I made it. And what a buzz.

Our group continued on and soaked up the blissful sound of silence for hours upon end. When we made it through to the other end and back out into civilisation, everyone raved (calmly) about the serenity that had come over them. In silence (ours was a very talkative group) we drove back to our hotel.

For some reason the words of the Circle of Life from The Lion King reverberated around in my head during that phenomenal week spent in Arizona. The vastness of it all and the infinite amount of things to do really hammers home the fact that there really is more to be seen than can ever be seen, and more to be done than can ever be done. As the sun rolled high in the sapphire sky you realised there's more to America than New York, Boston and California. As they say in Arizona – "get out there".


America As You Like It offers a seven-night package to Arizona, including return flights from Dublin to Phoenix on US Airways, via Philadelphia, seven days fully inclusive economy car hire, one night at the Best Western Inn of Tempe, three nights on an Aramark Houseboat on Lake Powell, one night at the Toroweap Villas and two nights at the Four Seasons, Scottsdale from €2,180 per person in January 2013. Tel: 020 8742 8299

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