Crossing the northern Arizona desert on horseback was always going to be tough. But, like the mystical carved maze that
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THE chief giant in Welsh mythology, Ysbaddaden, used to terminate useless discussions by striking away the pitchforks that propped up his heavy eyelids, which then dropped like great steel shutters. End of conversation. A cowboy does much the same thing by resettling his hat low over his eyes and leaning back, staring ston-ily at the distant horizon. Ain't no sense in argifyin' with a mule.

We had proposed a trip across northern Arizona on horseback, carrying minimal gear and a few handfuls of rice. Our cowboy adviser said that we needed a train of packmules laden with beans, oats, axes, entrenching tools and an armoury for use against rattlesnakes, Gila monsters and the homicidal lunatics one expects to find daily in deserts - Indians, for instance. "They shoot first and ask questions afterwards." Arizonans love saying that about strangers: it proves that they are real tough, living on the last frontier. As for the horses, which we had bought from a livestock sale where they were destined for dogfood, we should return them. Mine was a cheerful but unbroken innocent and my travelling companion Rick's was a hyperactive neurotic, haunted by memories of past abuse: hardly the animals to traverse cactus-peppered desert, the rugged high country, and barren wastes of the Indian reservation.

We went anyway. We had no money or desire for an invasion force, and horses learn. They take to travelling rough country like babies learning to walk, discovering the natural talents shaped by their evolution. And surely our own peculiar human talents evolved, not in the artificial environments we have created, but out there where our ingenuity is challenged every moment. Muddling along with nothing but bits of stick and a brilliant ability to evalute their perceptions, people have got by with far less equipment than we proposed taking. Exercising our inventiveness makes us feel twice as alive: in the harsh and beautiful vastness, the things that give us life - both physical and spiritual - become clear as the desert air.

Sun, water, corn. Consciousness of water is never far from your mind: you can smell it from miles away. At first we kept near the Verde River, a dirty trickle in a spectacular candy-striped gorge. Fear of flash floods, those lethal walls of water generated by unseen distant rainstorms, drove us up the dry, craggy hills. Rattlesnakes saluted us, and we them; mule deer and coyote slunk under the gnarled mesquite thorn that claws its life from stones; and the red rock, like the dried blood of the earth, throbbed with heat as our horses learnt about cactus and the size of the world.

You can see a long, long way. "It's like looking on the face of God," said the cowgirl we met searching for her stock: with 12 head on three square miles of convoluted canyons, they are hard to find. My little horse discovered her cowpony blood, shoving the cows along with her nose as we scrambled down precipices, learning the practicalities of Western ranching.

The Grand Canyon cuts vertically through sheets of rock that extend laterally for hundreds of miles. From the air, you can see the fringes of these horizontal projections as bands of different-coloured hills. As we crawled slowly across these, the vegetation changed. Stony wastes of red-brown pebbles grew a variety of cactus: prickly pear and little hedgehogs, antlers of staghorn and jumping cholla which used us to disperse its clinging infants. From the yellow floodplain of the lower Verde, where scarlet cardinals flitted be- tween giant cottonwood trees, we hit a band of dreary grey hills where only creosote bushes grew, interspersed with impenetrable thickets of green-skinned pale verde trees. An orange plain, rich with thorn trees and scuttling life, deepened into vibrant maroon sand. We loped along in swirling dust clouds until we too were the colour of rust.

Everywhere, like a subtle, underlying drumbeat, were traces of the country's older inhabitants, the bands of Indians who had built close-packed villages of mud, dug irrigation channels into the fertile dirt, and moved on after a couple of hundred years. Who they were and where they went are questions only their descendants can really answer.

Modern life, though, sits uncomfortably on this clear, grand land, scarring it with wires and trailer homes. Easterners dreaming of owning a patch of God's own country buy 10 acres of waste, and barricade themselves against the heat and the prickles; a few fall in love, dissolving the boundaries between themselves and their beloved land until their houses are hard to find. In a deep-cut, red-rock canyon we met a braided, beaded midwife who said she was abandoning the trailer she had saved so hard to buy, and was moving to the high country to camp forever. "It's National Forest, so living there is illegal," she said. "But they won't find me." With three children and 40 animals this was hard to imagine - until we got there.

After an interesting night when scuffling skunks danced over our feet and the horses went walkabout, we climbed the 2,000ft cliffs that ring the south-east edge of the Coconino plateau. For days we travelled over a golden ocean of grassland whose wavecrests bubbled with round, brown rocks, whose slopes were shaded with juniper and scrub oak. Huge herds of elk drifted like cloud-shadows over a wilderness of wildflowers. High above the desert plains, it was breezy and glorious; suddenly we seemed to be flying effortlessly, for the horses had understood the game and there was no more cactus. Even our worries about water dissolved as we found stocktanks, excavated hollows where rainwater collects, that the National Forest instals to allows minimal ranching and encourage wildlife. Nobody had told us about these; but there was nobody there. We did see a posse of cowboys once, when we were camped in an abandoned ranch-house made of rough pine boards, but they appeared not to see us, as if we had become part of the landscape.

How much the land affected us became obvious as we plunged into the dark forests of ponderosa pine that clothe the edge of the plateau. Sombre and monotonous, they ensnarled us in gloom dissipated only by the ludicrous antics of hunters gathering in the woods for the annual elk cull. They knew about the dangers of the wilderness and had brought everything they could to ensure normal life continued, in party mode: arc lights, loud music, crates of beer. They themselves had carefully camouflaged their faces with green paint.

We fled. Along the Mogollon Rim, the 150-mile-long rampart of cliffs bounding the plateau, runs a much-recommended trail made by the US Cavalry when they moved in to crush the local Apache. It was waymarked and dull, a strange diasappoinment. The ponderosa hid the magnificent view. We turned again, plunging into the crazy network of canyons that rise to the Rim. Each steep canyon was clothed in a different hue: ivory-sheened aspen, scarlet-leaved maple, brilliant larch or great oak hung on the precipices we scrambled up and down. One day we made five miles in eight hours' riding, camping among smoke-blue spruce where wild turkey foraged, and hail fell.

Yet in this true wilderness we never felt threatened. Hopi Indians say we have psychosomatic centres corresponding to the chakras of eastern philosophies. The top one, which is in the crown of the head, links us to the creator and the patterns of life on earth, allowing us to remain in harmony with them. Greed and arrogance close this communication channel: we lose touch with that sense of belonging to the earth, and destroy both it and our ourselves.

And indeed it was a brief closing of the tops of our heads that led to our downfall. A supportive friend came to meet us at a lake in the middle of nowhere, with a truckful of exotic food, beer, friends and dogs. Smug with congratulations on what, if we were truly honest, had not been that difficult, we allowed Rick's mare to tangle herself in a rope and hurt herself very badly.

We were appalled. To have asked her to come so far, over such terrible country; to have wooed her uncertain trust, and then betrayed it on a tame picnic site, plunged us into the sort of self-examination that is only possible when you have stripped life to its simplest elements. Touch- ingly, she never blamed us; now that she was crippled she knew she needed us. Horses give us good reasons for loving them.

We couldn't even allow her to rest and recover; we had to move on, as there was no grass on the lake shore. We crawled slowly onward, out of the forest where mountain lion prowled at night, and with the last of the trees the land opened up into a nothingness of brown. Sage-brush. Sand. Emptiness. On the horizon, like a mirage, danced the flat-topped buttes and mesas of Navajoland. Such vast spaces settle the mind, healing us and horses.

We had set out knowing that journeys, the sort the soul yearns for, are not just sight-seeing trips: they throw a fresh perspective, teaching you things you may not have wanted to know, but which when assimilated expand you. In that soft-breezed emptiness I felt chastened, stretch-ed, and glad to be alive. Our goal was to reach Hopi land, the mesas where the migratory Pueblo bands (perhaps the ones whose ruined settlements had dotted our path) had congregated, knowing them to be the spiritual centre of the universe. There we wanted to find a carving of a maze we had read about. Its paths are thought to represent a voyage of rebirth according to mythologies that link mazes in Crete, Tintagel and Scandinavia, as well as Hopi country. In retrospect, the stages of our journey bore an uncanny resemblance to the experience of being in the maze. Its paths wind the traveller tighter and tighter until he feels entombed. Then, suddenly, he emerges through an unwinding into the light. Thus the enforced moving of our injured horse we later learned was the only treatment that could have saved her from permanent injury. The spiritual binds that the accident pin-pointed, self-recrimination and guilt, were to find catharsis in the final, most daunting part of the journey: crossing a piece of the Painted Desert and half Navajoland to reach the Hopi mesas.

Navajo are the most numerous and successful of native American tribes. Originally hunters from the north, they have learned to grow corn, tend sheep, weave blankets and fashion silver. "They're still nomads at heart," a Hopi told us. "They take what they want, even knowledge." Navajoland is bigger than Wales, a high plateau of sparse golden grass. They live simply, in separate homesteads, working out how to retain their values in a country whose values are totallly opposed: they eschew competition, and traditionally only acquire wealth to give it away. Nomads have no use for possessions: the journey of life is what interests them.

White Americans tend to admire the Hopi, but they often despise and distrust the Navajo. But as we cantered over their clean and lovely land we met only friendly, decent people with a subtle wit. The horses provided an easy starting point for conversations in which spiritual matters were discussed as readily as horse prices or hauling water, often in the same breath. The women were kind; I felt at home, able to reveal preoccupations that meet with embarrassed incomprehension here, and find them accepted. The journey, with its opportunities for solitary reflection, had prepared me for that; what I was not expecting was to be suddenly and blessedly released from the burden of guilt and grief, rekindled by the horse's injury, that I thought I'd carry forever.

The cliffs of the Hopi mesas, the three- fingered rim of a higher plateau, rose crumbling and mysterious as we went on, pursued by a mustang stallion eager to add our mares to his collection. The land grew bleaker and more barren. Yet the Hopi, living in tight-knit villages of mud, believe that when this world ends in destruction, salvation will lie there. Their elaborate ceremonies unite the tribal clans in representations of their history and the harmonious interactions of the forces that govern life. They are trying to hold the world together.

Despite their solemn mission, the Hopi are a merry and open people. On a fleeting visit years before, I had found them erecting a tepee at a crossroads. "But you don't live in tepees," I objected. "No," they said, "but most tourists think all Indians do, so they'll take pictures of it and go away without bothering us." They were right.

Camped below the mesa one freezing night, Rick awoke, apparently dying: grey, inert, in terrible pain. Keeping the top of my head firmly open, I wandered off until I was lost, and in searching for directions found myself talking to the son of a medicine man. The following day I dragged Rick to visit my guide's father on his corn patch. He was frisky and unsolemn, patting my bottom appreciatively as we talked. He thumped Rick about, leaving him speechless with pain, and set us gathering corn. Hopi corn is dark blue, and holy. Holiness is part of everyday life: it means that you are aware of what gives life, and to treat it with care.

Rick soon recovered. (In Britain, we found that this man had reinflated a totally collapsed lung, a feat which takes major surgery in a technological society.) We then set off on the last leg of our journey to find the mysterious maze carving. It was on a rock, we were told. But which rock? The cliff was covered with rocks. It was Rick's horse who, trusting and gentle as she now was, led us to it. She stopped suddenly but determinedly. Under her nose was the eight-inch carving. I fancied I could see us, ant-sized, trotting through it, and then it struck me what had happened - we had.

! This article is based on Lucy Rees's book 'The Maze' (Bantam Press pounds 12.99).