Whether you want to chase storms, scale the Grand Canyon, dig up trouble at a meteor crater or just search for extraterrestrial life, it’s all on the dusty doorstep of Flagstaff, USA
I was on my way from Phoenix to Flagstaff with wind chimes instead of fuel. It seemed Native Indian craft stalls occupy most rest spots. But it’s worth the wait. Gas station attendants can “fill-‘er-up” complaining about price increases while you can nod along, secretly knowing you’re getting it half-price compared to back home.
You also have to embrace the rough weather of the Wild West. Like most portions in America, the weather is bigger than the UK’s. It rained McBuckets en-route. I had to rely on cat’s eyes returning my headlamps' prayerful shining to avoid any freewheeling through cacti.
Arriving in the North of Flagstaff the road joined onto the brightly-packed Route 66, a path that goes through the east and west of the city. The famed highway is what Las Vegas would look like if it were steamrollered and stretched 2,250 miles from LA to Chicago. No more so than here where motel, hotel and Holiday Inn are all advertised every 50 yards.
Choosing accommodation on the go can bring rewards like cheaper pricing, especially on the outskirts of big cities. It’s also fun playing Top Trumps with three-star hotels lying opposite each other (a Jacuzzi-style whirlpool bath often being the deal breaker). But avoid anything below three-star - they’re loosely the same price but severely lacking in cleanliness. I checked into the Fairfield Inn, part of the Marriott chain, a motel set-up with luxury feel.
The next day the weather was burning the land. In the sunshine, Flagstaff feels like a village being melted by desert, so hot you could cook your breakfast on the patio. But after settling for a bowl of Lucky Charms I headed 30 miles east to Winslow, hitting a few dirt roads, to arrive at the world famous Meteor Crater, a few miles south of exit 233, off i-40.
After paying $15 for entry, I reached the summit and overlooked a hole so deep it made the postcards look like a footprint. Formed around 50,000 years ago with an impact 150 times the scale of Hiroshima, it’s a must-see sight, empty and the same rusty colour as most of the surrounding area. My fitness was questioned as I attempted to take in all observation points, museum, short movie, and purchase souvenirs from the gift shop. It really made me respect the small scale of the National Trust.
Being home to Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff’s nightlife is lively. The talk of downtown is Collins’ Irish Pub (2 N Lerous St). However, the city lies next to the largest Native American Reservation so when I walked in, the DJ, bar staff and majority of revellers were Native American so it didn’t feel very Irish until someone bought me a Guinness.
There’s more than a flavour of the Old West in Flagstaff, but its biggest draw is the city’s links to early Hollywood. It may have featured in Nicolas Cage’s film Next, but the city’s film-roots are with silver-age glamour. The downtown Monte Vista hotel was very popular with big screen stars like John Wayne in the 1950s (his favourite room was apparently 402) and the hotel even had a scene from Casablanca filmed in it.
The next day I drove the two-hour trip to the Grand Canyon. Although cheap to enter the national park and drive around the south side rim, it was dangerously apparent that the car could Thelma and Louise off a cliff at any moment. After parking safely, I strolled in one of the many gift shops. Most of the reading material is on suicide at the landmark - a book was in the basket until the lady behind the counter described how a Canadian man had met his end two days previously. But when it came to my own dose of vertigo, it was unforgettable. Being called one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World doesn’t do it justice. The distance is limitless, with red rocks and trees akin to ants dramatically scattered over a picture of inconceivably scorched beauty.
If you are driving around Flagstaff, chances are that your eyes will pick up white-domed observatories that scatter the sides of highways. Duly investigating my own glances, I visited the famous Lowell Observatory, the site where Pluto was discovered by 22-year-old UFO enthusiast Clyde Tombaugh in 1930, the only American ever to discover a planet - that was until recently when scientists declassified poor Pluto to a worthless rock. On this tour, the guide asked an American sightseeing group who the first American in space was. One young boy speedily replied “Superman”. Beat that science!