Grand tours: Wherever I lay my hat ...

Writers' adventures in literature. Richard Grant travels across Arizona's wide open spaces
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The Independent Travel

Born in Malaysia, Richard Grant came to England when he was six. After university, the experience of being broke, unemployed and living on a grim London council estate persuaded him to flee to the wide-open spaces of the American West. For 15 years, never having spent more than 22 days under the same roof, Grant has followed the lives of America's nomads, from camp ground to truckstop, roadhouse to motel. The following is an extract from his book 'Ghost Riders – Travels with American Nomads'.

Born in Malaysia, Richard Grant came to England when he was six. After university, the experience of being broke, unemployed and living on a grim London council estate persuaded him to flee to the wide-open spaces of the American West. For 15 years, never having spent more than 22 days under the same roof, Grant has followed the lives of America's nomads, from camp ground to truckstop, roadhouse to motel. The following is an extract from his book 'Ghost Riders – Travels with American Nomads'.



I get up before dawn and drive east, across the Colorado River and into the sprawl and billboard landscape of Yuma ("Foxy Vegetables Welcomes You!", "Visit The Yuma Territorial Prison"). The motel parking lots are empty. The trailer parks and RV camps are deserted, all three hundred of them. In summertime the population of Yuma shrinks by 50 per cent, from 120,000 to about 60,000.

I was here in January and the city, if that is the right word for it, was clogged and seething with nomadic retirees in motorhomes – "snowbirds", as the locals call them, a term that describes their southerly migration in winter and hints at their white plumage. There were vibrant encampments on these abandoned lots, a chirpy, wholesome, neighbourly, Eisenhower-generation feeling in the air – golf clothes and cocktail parties, bridge tournaments and shuffleboard contests, coffee klatches and quilting bees – and it is strange and eerie to see all of it gone, all of it evaporated by the heat.

Towards the end of March, as the temperature climbs into the nineties, the spirit of migration moves through the flock. They pack up their satellite dishes and cocktail shakers, roll up their Astroturf lawns, and point the RVs north, chasing the perfect 80-degree day up and down the continent. The Mexican fruit and vegetable pickers, who work the irrigated farms around Yuma, have gone north too, chasing the harvest, and so perhaps have the troubadours and low-rent prostitutes who used to appear at their camps on payday.

At the edge of the farms there is a line of transition. The bright, garish, incongruous swath of green ends at the last irrigation canal, and the native buffs, duns, tans, greys, khakis and pinks take over. Linear, rectangular space gives way to smooth, untrammelled space – nomad space – wide flat desert valleys and isolated, sawtoothed mountain ranges, with stands of tall, armed saguaro cactus growing on their flanks and foothills. The valleys measure twenty or thirty miles across, and out in the middle of them there are whirling columns of dust. They twirl and undulate and skid across the valley floors, gathering speed, until they blow apart and disappear, and another dust devil forms somewhere else.

Nomad space: too far from the river to irrigate, too dry for crops or cities to take root. This is a harsh, marginal, wide-open landscape, with long horizons and a paucity of water. This was the homeland of the Sand Papago, or Hiaced O'Oodham as they called themselves, the last free-roaming hunter-gatherers in the lower forty-eight states to be brought to heel, at the close of the nineteenth century. Fifty years earlier this had been the westernmost range for the Western Apache raiding parties, attracted by the emigrant caravans travelling to the California goldfields. Even today, with the richest, most powerful, and most technologically advanced nation state in a history behind it, sedentary civilisation has gained little more than a toehold on this stretch of desert. Every thirty miles or so, the interstate will reach a flyblown gas station, with a noisy air-conditioner and a few ramshackle trailers parked around it – a settlement dependent for its existence on passing travellers. I get stranded in one (Sentinel, Arizona) for two-and-a-half hours, because the proprietor is sleeping off a hangover and my tank is close to empty. I consider waking him and reconsider when I see the National Rifle Association stickers, the scrawled promises in red ink to shoot all intruders and the scrawled boasts about intruders already shot.

"Why would anyone want to live out here?" wonders a Californian truck driver, in the same predicament. Apart from a few surly outcasts, huddled around their air-conditioners and beer-coolers, modern Americans, like Sand Papagos or Apaches, treat this desert as a place to be travelled across, a place where it feels wrong to be stationary. At ten-fifteen, when the grizzled, wincing proprietor finally appears, driving the fifty yards between his trailer and the gas station, the temperature is already 100 degrees in the shade and rising steadily.

Further east, as the interstate approaches Tucson, the mountain ranges grow taller and more impressive, rising out of the desert to eight or nine thousand feet, with a dark green mantle of pine around their summits. When storm systems track across southern Arizona, these "sky island" mountain ranges capture most of the precipitation, leaving the deserts around in a rain shadow. The mountains release water as snowmelt and run-off, encased within the banks of unreliable rivers and streams.

When it does rain on the deserts or the plains, it tends to be dramatic and unpredictable: a thunderstorm boiling up and dumping its contents on a small, localised area of land, rather than blanketing the whole region in rain. Grazing springs up in one place and shrivels away in another. Dry gulches roar into flash-flood, then return to dust and sand. Capricious rainfall patterns, temporary shifting zones of vegetation, seasonal temperature extremes, far-flung and unreliable water sources, what Pierre Hubac calls "divagation of local climates" – these too are characteristics shared by nomad lands all over the world. Historically, these were the lands ceded to the nomads by the emerging sedentary states, and nomadism was the logical way to stay alive on them.

From 'Ghost Riders – Travels with American Nomads' by Richard Grant (Time Warner Books UK, rrp £16.99). Readers of 'The Independent on Sunday' can order the book at the discounted price of £14.99 (including p&p within UK). Call Time Warner Books UK on 01832 737525.

Follow in the footsteps

Dusty dreams?

Apart from the Grand Canyon, Arizona's other great visitor attraction is the Tucson area, where you can explore the nomad lands in the national parks, Saguaro or Tucson Mountain District. Huge 50ft-tall cacti set against the backdrop of a dusty desert sunset is just one of the fabulous nature experiences this area offers.

Getting there

Visit the nomad lands and the Grand Canyon with American Independence (0870 241 4217), which offers an 11-day holiday including return flights, car hire and room-only accommodation from £1,165 per person, based on two sharing.

Malin Rising

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