Arizona dreamin'

Andy McSmith takes the road trip of a lifetime

Nothing prepares you for the size of the Grand Canyon. You may have a mental picture of hundreds of feet of perpendicular rock face on either side of the Colorado River - in which case, your imagination has created a fraction of the overall picture. The mighty river is a little groove so far down that it is invisible from the canyon's upper rim.

Nothing prepares you for the size of the Grand Canyon. You may have a mental picture of hundreds of feet of perpendicular rock face on either side of the Colorado River - in which case, your imagination has created a fraction of the overall picture. The mighty river is a little groove so far down that it is invisible from the canyon's upper rim.

If you take a helicopter ride through the canyon, which you can do at a cost of about £100 a head just by turning up with a credit card in a little town called Tusayan, you do, indeed, look down on a wall of grey rock stretching hundreds of feet downwards. But it is only a detail; it is the canyon's upper border, which gives way to great, jagged stone abutments, then vast slopes of the distinctive red rock from which the river takes it name, inclining gently down, interrupted by cliff faces measuring perhaps a couple of hundred feet, until they meet the huge riverside cliffs at the base below where the great river lies, like a trickle of green detergent.

Or in other parts of the canyon, instead of the sweeping slopes there are mountainous promontories cut by gorges from tributary streams, sticking out like angry battleships between parallel canals.

The canyon rims are so high that when we arrived, on Easter Saturday, the roads on the north rim were impassable due to bad weather. Having doused the children with high-factor sun cream and forced them to drink litres of water as protection against the desert heat, we arrived at the south rim during a ferocious snowstorm.

A sign at the top of Angel Bright's Path, the oldest path down the canyon wall, warns you that a lot of people have set out thinking they can walk down to the river and back in a day, only to end up in hospital, or dead.

My 14-year-old son and I set out down this path, hoping to go low enough at least to see the Colorado from afar. We walked nine miles in five hours, descended about four and a half thousand feet, had a picnic in a dry stream bed inhabited by lizards and moths, where a fearless squirrel stole an apple core from under our feet, and met a mule train of tourists returning from an overnight stay at the bottom. But one of the world's largest rivers could have been a travellers' myth for all we saw of it. The best way to take children to Arizona is to hire one of the monstrous houses on wheels known to Americans as RVs (recreational vehicles). Ours was 28 feet long, slept seven, drank gargantuan amounts of unleaded petrol and had a kitchen and shower room. The innards of these machines are more temperamental than your home fittings. We had to take a diversion to Randy's repair yard on Route 66 after our water heater and our gas rings broke down.

But, believe it or not, RVs are a doddle to drive, if you are not in traffic, reversing, or turning a corner - which most of the time, in the Arizona desert, you are not. They are so popular with Americans that on the main highway through almost every small town you see a sign directing you to the nearest RV camp. Some of the camps should be avoided, but if you find one that is ugly, badly kept, or expensive, all you need do is drive on. If you cannot find a site at all, the machine has its own generator and water tank to see you through the night. Anyway, campsites are so plentiful and spacious that we were turned away only once in 16 days. That was on one of our nights in the Grand Canyon National Park. The best camps are inside these government-run national parks. They have the most scenic locations, are immaculate and, not being run for profit, they charge little more than £5 a night. On the evening when all the Grand Canyon sites were full we had to go to a commercial campsite outside, which charged almost five times as much for a space behind a row of shops, charging extra for the showers.

Our older children were not grabbed by the idea of camping out in the open, particularly in a desert, until they had tried it. It was under pressure from them that we consented to spend two nights in Las Vegas. If you must go to Vegas, there is a campsite in walking distance of the Strip, and right by one of America's biggest indoor theme parks, run by a reputable firm called KOA. Our youngest thoroughly approved of it, because the facilities included a pool, a playground and a shop selling toys and sweets, none of which altered the fact that Vegas is a nasty, noisy, sleazy city, and if you want to be there, you may as well book into a nasty, sleazy hotel.

The older children were also not keen on the constant travelling. Beautiful scenery does not seem to grab the young much, when seen through the window of a moving vehicle. As another concession to them, we missed out a couple of places we would have liked to visit, such as Bryce Canyon, in Utah, and kept our mileage below 1,500. If we had been without children, we would have started in Los Angeles and run up more visits and more miles.

But once the vehicle had stopped, our city kids quickly discovered the joy of open space, the absence of crowds, the wildlife, the places to explore. Strange and beautiful places we saw included the famous painted desert. There is presumably a dry, complex geological explanation for its amazing display of tones and colours, but I rather prefer the explanation given us by a Navajo trader. He said that the god Cocopelli painted it.

Nearby, on an arid windswept desert, 5,000 feet above sea level, lie the scattered remains of an equatorial forest which was buried by a tropical flood in the time of the dinosaurs, turned to stone by the ash from a volcano, moved north by the shifting of the continents and pushed upwards by a succession of earthquakes.

For the second half of the holiday we were bombarded with requests to return to a place called Wahweap by the edge of Lake Powell, in north Arizona. We spend three nights there, in a camp staffed by Navajos, cooking meals on a barbecue because there were no McDonald's signs within 100 miles. The wild scrub, which is home to coyotes and jackrabbits, began at the end of the little piece of ground which was our parking space, and stretched as far as the eye could see. We had a near disaster on our first night, because our six-year-old son had found an interesting storm drain to explore, and went back to take a second look without telling us as the sun was setting. He was soon lost under a black, starlit sky, wandering through undergrowth taller than he is. He said later that he cried with fright at first, then decided to be brave and try to find his way back. Unfortunately, he headed in the wrong direction, and wandered over the state border into the wilderness of southern Utah.

Soon, park rangers were out with loudhailers and searchlights, and every English-speaking adult on the campsite was out with torches, searching the undergrowth and calling for him, but he thought he was imaging these unfamiliar, distant voices. At last, his 12-year-old sister heard something, far out in the scrub, and she and I ran through the bushes and brambles until our torchbeams picked up a diminutive figure coming towards us, beaming with delight that he had been found. He had been on his own for two hours.

This was far less frightening than when our 12-year-old took a wrong turn on the way to McDonald's in Vegas. There, where pimps were openly handing out prostitutes' telephone numbers in the street, neither the police nor the authorities at the entertainment centre where we had last seen her saw it as any of their business if a young girl was missing. It was the kindness of strangers which reunited her with us. What sort of parents lose two of their children in the same holiday, you must be wondering. Well, we have four children, two of whom have a propensity for wandering off, which is an increased hazard when we are on the move - but it does not happen often, I promise you.

RVs are not cheap to hire. Americans who take regular RV holidays find it more economical to buy one. Direct flights to Phoenix are also rare and expensive, which is why we took the stressful option of stopping over in Chicago. So there is no point in thinking that this is like a camping or caravan holiday at home, whose big attraction is the low cost. The joy of travelling by RV is that it takes you to wild places you would never normally visit, and introduces your children to the delights of days in the open with no shops, no television, no computers, no arcades, no fast food, nothing but open air and awesome scenery.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Andy McSmith travelled with United Vacations (0870-606 2222; www.unitedvacations.co.uk) and Cruise America ( www.cruiseamerica.com). Flights to Phoenix via Chicago from approximately £350 return; motorhome rental from £425 for two weeks.

For more information

Arizona Division of Tourism ( www.arizonaguide.com). Las Vegas Convention and Visitors' Authority (0870-523 8832; www.vegasfreedom.co.uk).

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