A grand driving break in America

by alfraduct

Leaving no cliché unturned, Johnny Tipler takes an Elise from Nevada to Arizona on an American road trip.

I’m driving out of Las Vegas in a white-hot Lotus Elise S2 in blistering 110-degree sunshine, and the radio’s playing homegrown band The Killers’ 'When You Were Young': "we’re burning down that highway skyline".

The architectural icons crowd in, Luxor’s pyramid, New York-New York’s Manhattan skyline, Excalibur’s Camelot muscling for attention along the palm-lined Strip. Célene Dion’s playing Caesars, with Davy Jones from the Monkeys just out and Elton next in. I’m a hedonist in bed with Mammon for the weekend.

I head out of Vegas on US Interstate 93. The anticipated four-hour run to my Grand Canyon destination takes a hit when I arrive at the Hoover Dam on Lake Mead 30 miles southeast of Vegas. Security scrutinises every vehicle at a roadblock before driving the 400 yards that spans the rim, so there’s a long tailback before terracotta cliffs meet grey concrete, and vertigo sufferers had best avoid glancing over the edge.

On the radio, America play: "in the desert you can’t remember your name", and the sky grows ominously dark. Visibility plummets, and I’m buzzed up for the oncoming sandstorm. Grains rattle on the windscreen and the lightweight car rocks with the turbulence. Forked lightning splits the livid purple sky ahead, silhouetting the hills, and I enter a sudden squall. Check that sign; it’s Big Wash Road.

Tall conifers and scrub oaks greet the approach to the Grand Canyon, and signs proclaim entry to the Kaibab National Forest. Suddenly, I’ve reached my Tusayan stopover and pull in to the cheap and cheerful Holiday Inn. I opt for dinner at the log-cabin-style Yipee-Ay-Yay steakhouse where sombrero’d Mexicans serve up Margaritas and I dare myself to choose rattlesnake for starters. "Eat an 85oz steak in an hour and get dinner for free", challenges the menu. I’ll take the quarter-pounder and pay as normal, thanks.

Nothing prepares you for the canyon: the red, orange and grey-blue strata, zigzags, buttes and pinnacles close by and as far as the eye can see. I'm there at 7.30am, and almost as many people take pictures of the Lotus (and of themselves by it) as they do of the wonder they’ve turned their back on. This is the South Rim, around 1,000 ft lower than the northern one because of the tilt of the plateau, but still a mile above the Colorado River snaking way below and mostly out of sight.

The trail follows the rocky defiles, swooping up and down, and it’s good asphalt. I pause at Grand View, where canyon tourism started in the late 19th century with pioneers making the 11-hour stagecoach ride up from Flagstaff. And now I'm on the US-89, in the Navaho Indian Reservation. It’s high, limestone country dotted with blob trees. Passing tin shacks and ad-hoc trailer parks, there’s blue sky and cotton-wool clouds, but rain sheets are draped over the mountains – right where I’m headed. Soon enough I’m in the cloudburst, rain cascading off the shale in rivulets.

Back west to get my kicks on the Route 66 to Flagstaff, the ‘Mother Road’ sinuous microcosm of American society till it was bypassed by Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway act of 1956, is lined homespun-homilies sponsored by Burmah Shave: "It would be more fun to go by air, if we could put these signs up there", split into four or five separate hoardings. Or: "the one who drives when he’s been drinking depends on you to do his thinking."

Between Seligman and Peach Springs the highway goes and does the direct-to-the-horizon on me, calling for a re-think of the velocity. Now I’m on a mission. For a moment out there in the desert I am Raoul Duke in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Dean Moriarty in On the Road – maybe not Thelma and Louise, but definitely Jimmy Kowalski in Vanishing Point. I switch off the air-con and go for it, 120 with more to go, and still the route disappears into perspective. The Grand Canyon’s visible over to the right, and the only access to the valley floor is from here, 19 miles down Diamond Creek Road. It’s also the site of the Skywalk glass-bottomed viewing platform that juts 65ft into thin air, 4,000 feet above the Canyon.

At Truxton, another comfort stop, a refill in a scenario from the ’50s, stores and garage plucked from the haze of the childhood memory bank. The Elise gets through four tanks-full on this tour. Each one costs around $25 for 91 octane – the highest unleaded rating you can get. The milometer read 2,376 miles when I picked it up, and it’ll be 800 more when I drop it off.

For a mile or so I pass through another rain shower at abated speed. There’s more majestic mountain scenery between Truxton and Hackberry giving way to Joshua Trees like crazy people frozen in time. Then its back on the Interstate After Kingman I’m back on the Interstate, though the only tangible difference with the 66 is that it’s dualled. As the sun goes down and the hills seem to slump, contours revealed in sharper focus by the shadows. The Elise rolls into a lonely truckstop, with big rigs outside the diner. No escaping the icons though. I play Little Feat’s trucking anthem 'Willin’' on the juke box: "driven every kind of rig that’s ever been made, driven the backroads so I wouldn’t get weighed".

The run from Hoover Dam to Vegas on the I-93 is wearisome because of the high-set beams of following SUVs in the Elise’s mirrors, but it’s swiftly done. As I crest the rise above the city, the plain below is an electric carpet of shimmering light. The Treasure Island resort hotel beckons, and I wouldn’t mind betting we’ll get some interest on the Strip tonight, me and the Elise.