Travel: North America - Who says John Wayne is dead?

To the creak of saddles and the jingling of spurs, Garry Lloyd takes a rugged trip through Monument Valley in Arizona
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
John Ford must be directing this scene through a celestial bullhorn. Tall hats etch the skyline under the desert sun, as our horses pick their way around a crumbling sandstone ledge of Thunderbird Mesa, beside a vertical drop of 200 feet. It's best not to look down.

This is Monument Valley, on Arizona's northern border with Utah where, nearly 60 years ago, Ford shot his classic western, Stagecoach, and a clutch of later movies, immortalising the actor John Wayne. The awesome scenery hasn't changed in more than a thousand years and it still takes some rugged riding for disciples of the Duke to follow in his shadow.

Jingling spurs and the creak of saddles are the only accompaniment to our anxious traverse, led unconcernedly by the white Stetson of what must be Wayne's reincarnation, Don Donnelly, chewing a trademark toothpick, his grey mount, Steel, stepping confidently over rock scree on a serpentine descent.

A few paces behind is a figure with Hollywood good looks, in cavalry uniform, gold epaulettes on a Yankee shirt, straight out of central casting. Bob Marelli, a mounted policeman from Newark, New Jersey, has been a devotee of the Duke from childhood. He had his attire - after a Wayne character - personally tailored, and he's become known to us as Cap'n Bob. It is his second trip, and three of his police colleagues - one a motorcycle cop and two desk-bound lieutenants - have joined him.

At his heels shambles another rider in dusty brown chaps, and collar- length lank hair under a black hat. He could pass muster among the Hole- in-the-Wall gang, until you speak to him. Ian Drake is a computer analyst from Essex, complete with appropriate accent, who belongs to the British Cowboys Rodeo Association and began riding three years ago. "I never thought I'd be praying for my horse," he said as we negotiate a precipice.

The ride has attracted 29 of us from the States, Europe and Israel. Lawyers, policemen, engineers, estate agents, a store-buyer, a retired headmaster, an interior decorator, ranchhands, grandmothers, and a couple from a kibbutz. "We cater for all sorts," says Donnelly. "It helps if you've been on a horse before." The valley is mercifully free of 20th-century toys. "If you've brought any mobile phones, fax machines, or computers, you can drop them in the bin here," he says.

The landscape bespeaks scores of famous movies it has inspired, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Cheyenne Autumn among them. This is Indian territory, with the Navajo reservation inhabiting Monument Valley, ironically given to them as land the White Man didn't want and which is now a major tourist attraction. Its towering monoliths and mesas, once the bed of an ancient sea, were eroded by wind and weather into mystical shapes the Navajo have named the Ear of the Wind, the Eye of the Sun, the Bear, and Camel Butte. They now live in scattered communities, some in traditional dome-shaped hogans. They are silversmiths and rugmakers, tending their sheep - and the tourists who are now a prime source of revenue.

The valley spans 40 by 50 miles, stippled with black and purple sage, cactus, juniper and yucca. Jack rabbits bound among the brush. Our horses take us to the parts others rarely reach. We visit ruins, a thousand years old, which were once occupied by the Anasazi, cliff-dwellers who mysteriously abandoned the valley in the 15th century, leaving their petroglyphs for us to decipher. We camp at Pancake Flats, cavalry fashion, in orderly rows of tents big enough to stand in. They contain a steel chair, a canvas bed, a sleeping bag and - a nice touch, this - a sweet on the pillow. The valley is without water or electricity. None the less, a generator provides illuminated washbasins, hot showers and Portaloos in the open - "five-star camping," the Donnellys assure us.

The food from the chuckwagon tent is pretty good, too. Fruit, cereals, and cooked American breakfasts. We ride out for six hours, with a picnic lunch, or barbecue carried on pack horses. Snacks await our return, before dinner - salads, steaks, joints and poultry, with sweets from a French chef.

The lure of the West has brought Donnelly a lucrative living. He has much in common with the Duke. At 6ft 4ins he's the same height, with a matching drawl and years of experience conducting sorties into this wilderness. The only complaints I heard were of aching muscles. Most riders considered it a fantasy fulfilled, the experience of a lifetime.

As we ride out of the valley onto dirt roads bringing in busloads of visitors, other tourists leap out with cameras, little knowing the riders they photograph are as metropolitan as themselves. One demands of Donnelly: "Are you the original John Wayne?" He laughs and chews his toothpick.

Fact File

Getting there: The only direct flight from the UK to Arizona is British Airways' (0345 222111) daily departure from Gatwick to Phoenix. Fares are excellent at this time, if you book through a discount agent; Quest Worldwide (0181-546 6000) quotes pounds 276.

Driving through: Car rental works out at around pounds 25 a day, including insurance, if you book in advance.

Ride on: The ride (including food and camping) costs pounds 700 for five days, pounds 950 for eight.

Further information: Don Donnelly Horseback Vacations, 6010 South Kings Ranch Road, Gold Canyon, Arizona 85219 (001 602 892 7822)