You are sitting astride a large chestnut gelding called Sabino, wearing a Rolling Stones shirt, a pair of jeans and your flashy new cowboy boots. Although it is December, you need a curly-brimmed hat to keep the sun out of your eyes. There are four riders in your cattle-penning team, and you've been appointed "the cutter"; that is the guy responsible for leading the charge towards a herd of steers, selecting three and, with the help of the other cowpokes, ushering the mutinous calves into a small pen. You have ballsed it up twice already, and spent precious minutes chasing an uncooperative lump of beef all over the meadow. This time, it has to work. You take a deep breath, kick your heels and race off, yelling fit to bust, remembering to hold both reins in one hand and grip the front pommel for purchase, in the approved American style.
Two steers, accustomed to your waving arms, obediently trot off pen-wards but the third lowers its horns and regards you coldly. It is, frankly, sick to death of being badgered by an over-fed Limey tourist in a comical hat. If this steer could talk, it would say, "Fill your hands, you son of a bitch," like John Wayne in True Grit. But as you guide the reins this way and that, as though turning a rope steering-wheel, the little blighter gets the message, turns and trots off, like a grudging teenager, to its tryst with the wooden gate. It takes you 90 seconds to get all three animals locked up. The other riders holler. The feeling of elation lasts all day. It is not, frankly, normal behaviour for a Monday afternoon.
Welcome to Arizona, folks, where men walk tall but with a slightly hesitant gait – it's those heavy boots – and everyone's real friendly, where the landscape is ruggedly exotic but strangely familiar from a thousand Westerns, where you'll find old-style cowboy courtesy and alarming gun-shops, see road-runners straight out of Looney Tunes, and hear coyotes baying at night. You might come to Arizona just to check out a certain gigantic 277-mile-long hole in the ground (Arizona is, after all, called the Grand Canyon State) but, if you're wise, you will hire a car at Phoenix airport and go exploring. You should be prepared to drive long distances through scrubby desert and waving sagebrush, endure weird extremes of heat and cold and consume an awful lot of burgers, quesadillas and beers, but you'll have the time of your life. You are not actually required by law to embrace the cowboy ethos while you're here, but it's hard to resist the clothes, the shirts, the boots, the look...
I first encountered it in Scottsdale, a district of the state capital, Phoenix. One of the largest cities in the US, Phoenix is a damned odd place. You can walk for hours down its endless main thoroughfares (Jefferson, Washington, Van Buren) without encountering anything resembling a heart. You'll find the central public library, the YMCA, the Chamber of Commerce, the huge university campus and some promising-looking restaurants, but they all seem plonked down at random. The Heard Museum holds a fascinating collection of Native American art from the Hopi, Zuni and Navajo tribes, featuring hundreds of Kachina dolls with scary eyes and barmy costumes, but look for a downtown, an East Village, a Vieux Carré, a shopping centre or boho neighbourhood, in vain. All the shops, the bars, the street life have been, as it were, delegated to Scottsdale, 12 miles north-east.
Overlooked by the Camelback mountain, Scottsdale is basically a big shopping opportunity (it's got the biggest retail mall I've ever seen, in Fashion Square), but its tree-lined streets are full of charm and quirky bars – none quirkier than the Rusty Spur Saloon, the last genuine cowboy drinking-hole in Arizona, with swing doors, dollar bills speared to the walls, two-step dancing, good ol' boys in Willie Nelson ponytails, and a chap on electric guitar playing old Jimmy Rodgers country blues. I found it hard to leave after my third tequila with salt'*'lemon, but I had to buy some cowboy threads.
You can't walk 100 yards in Arizona without finding a western-wear emporium, but those with sense go to Saba's Western Store on Brown Avenue. It was founded in 1927, when customers used to arrive on horseback and wind their reins around a hitching-post. Its range of cowboy boots stretches 100 yards. Their white and black Stetsons are enormous. Their cowboy shirts are gratifyingly loud.
"Yeah, we git guys comin' in here from Yurp," said a very macho salesperson called Billy Bob, "an' we make men o'them. When they leave here, hell, they even walk different." Shrewdly noting that the dollar was, in world currency terms, languishing below the Matabele gumbo bean, I spent $165 on some fabulous West Wing boots, and $75 on a handsome black shirt festooned with skulls and roses, and did indeed walk slightly different all week.
Tourist information for Scottsdale refers to it as "the city", although it's no more than a small, mercantile suburb. It has, however, the lion's share of the best hotels in the Phoenix area. The Hotel Valley Ho isn't named after a local prostitute, but is a throwback to 1950s glamour, when Bogart, Monroe and Crosby used the place as a hideaway. The rooms are sprightly retro-chic with little patios that overlook the pool, the ZuZu restaurant is all abacus-bead curtains and stone cladding (think Barbie's Desert Holiday) and they do a fine eggs Benedict for breakfast.
A few miles away, the grandest hotel in Arizona is The Phoenician, a luxury operation with a driveway and grounds the size of a national park. Its six restaurants include Mary Elaine's, which has the US equivalent of a Michelin star, and in the grounds you can find nine swimming pools, 27 holes of golf and a 12-court tennis garden. True, they took 35 minutes to deliver a room-service cocktail, and misread my breakfast order so that enough fruit salad and scrambled eggs for 14 people arrived on a straining trolley, but it's a sumptuous destination.
My favourite Scottsdale hotel was the Hermosa Inn in Paradise Valley, on the edge of the desert. In the 1930s, it was the home of Lon Megargee: cow-puncher, bronco-buster, exhibition roper, stud poker dealer and the best of cowboy artists, whose paintings in Adventure magazine in the 1920s defined American dreams of the Great Outdoors just as Norman Rockwell's Saturday Evening Post covers idealised small-town decency.
The house is all Mexican and Spanish architecture, with original adobe walls lined with Megargee woodcuts. Lon's restaurant and the hacienda bedrooms have a solid, rustic feel to them: mine had a huge working fireplace, beside which to leaf through one's Zane Gray first edition.
You have to get the hell out of Phoenix/ Scottsdale, though, or you'd spend your week shopping and eating (and visiting a marvellously ramshackle 120-year-old bunkhouse called Greasewood Flat, where they serve green chilli burgers, tequila shots and Don Camino beers to "weekend cowboys" who arrive on Harley-Davidsons, where a grizzled country guitarist called Bad Bob Bouchard plays "Free Bird" and "Fields of Gold" and the locals dance outside, under a fabulous chandelier hanging from a tamarisk tree...)
As I say, you must go exploring, so you power up your powder-blue Ford Mustang convertible, and head south down the I-10. Driving through miles of desert, with the Picacho mountains on your left, the Santa Cruz river on your right and the spiky eminences of Saguaro National Park dead ahead; driving with the top down, watching mile-long freight trains endlessly passing by on their way north, seeing clusters of mobile homes playing at becoming a miniature village: now this, you tell yourself, is a trip.
My destination was a 3,000-acre dude ranch outside Tucson called the White Stallion, where I spent my blissful afternoon chasing steers. It's a former cattle ranch dating back to 1900 and started taking in guests (including "dudes," or hopelessly urban wannabe-cowboys) in the 1940s when one Max Zimmerman, a Chicago liquor-store owner, named it the MZ Bar ranch. Years later it was sold to the Towne family from Massachusetts, who wanted to change its name to the title of their favourite story, The Black Stallion. Unfortunately the branding initials, BS, stand for "bullshit" in cowboy circles, hence the eventual name – although there have never been white stallions at the ranch (their skin is too sensitive for the harsh sunlight). There have, however, been lots of film crews. Umpteen movies and TV series have been filmed at the ranch and its surrounding, cactus-strewn hills: Arizona, starring William Holden, Winchester 73 with James Stewart, right up to George Clooney's Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. (Remember The High Chaparral in the late 1960s? That too.)
For the last 40 years, the ranch has been owned by the True family from Denver, Colorado, who developed the guest rooms: their son Russell can often be found cooking breakfast or dinner for anything up to 100 guests in their 45 rooms, or signing them up for cookouts, rodeos, hayrides, nature walks and, if you're romantically inclined, the Moonlight Bonfire with Cowboy Singer. I was intrigued to discover, among the professional Arizonan horse wranglers, that the most typical cowpoke was Michael from Glasgow, a veteran of the Royal Horse Artillery turned ranch-hand; and that the most apple-cheeked, blonde American hay-slinger in the tack room was Debbie, a London solicitor on a career break. Intriguing also to hear that there are 15 full-size golf courses within 20 miles of this back-to-nature wilderness – more than Scotland.
A local ranch-owner called John L Loftis III told me the paradox of modern rural America – that while the cowboy population is dwindling, the number of Americans who want to pretend to be cowboys for a weekend is growing. "When you gotta rope 'em, brand 'em, de-horn 'em, castrate 'em and all the rest for a living, it's hard work," he said. .........
o"You're gonna get hurt and hurt again, and you can't stop to complain. No wonder cowboys would rather open dude ranches."
Nobody with a scintilla of romance in them could miss the Old Tucson Studios, a film-studio mock-up of a Western town, circa 1880, and the setting for a thousand movies. You mosey up the dirt-track main street, noting Rose's Cantina, Wily's Medicine Wagon, McLintock's Mercantile store (where they filmed the John Wayne movie, McLintock) and the Grand Hotel with its elk- and moose-heads. Spanish film music, the kind that starts with guitars and ends with trumpets, issues from loudspeakers. Actors prowl the boardwalk to add to the atmosphere: snake-oil mountebanks harangue you, bumptious teen gunslingers square up to each other (there's a public shootout daily at 1.45pm) and three young women show off their can-can dancing skill in the saloon.
Peter Mangelsdorf, the general manager, admitted that the studios' natural audience was nostalgic baby-boomer males, but added that the recent release of the films 3.10 to Yuma and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford had invigorated the market. A dozen new film projects have booked the studios. Spare weekends are filled with businessmen on corporate team-building exercises. Imagine the smell of cordite in the air when it's all over...
I headed on to Tucson itself, and was delighted to find it was gratifyingly small-scale for an American city. Unlike Phoenix, it has charm to burn. It sits, or basks (Tucson is warm and sunny all year round) in a 500-square-mile valley surrounded by five mountain ranges and by heavens it's old. The land was settled by indigenous Americans 10,000 years ago, making it the longest continuously inhabited region in the Northern hemisphere. This may explain the warmth you feel when cruising down Congress Street or the groovy Camden-Town-ish shopping precinct of Sixth Avenue.
A few skyscrapers are the only nod to modernity. You can admire the 19th-century adobe houses in the Barrio, the old business district, and the El Presidio Historic District, unchanged for 100 years. You must check out the green-tiled splendour of the Congress Hotel, where John Dillinger, the original "Public Enemy No 1" holed up when escaping from the G-men in 1934. The residents I met are proud of its lack of obvious tourist attractions: "We don't have a Disneyland, we don't have an ocean. But you can hardly swing a squirrel without hitting a hiking trail," I was told.
More and more visitors come every year and the local population has grown to a million. With Tucson's artisan shops and gleaming white cathedral, its air of relaxed, unhurried, small-town welcome, I'm not surprised.
Head north from Phoenix and your view of Arizona changes drastically. Suddenly, you're driving through tall pine forests. The desert scrubland yields to fabulous mountains. The cacti disappear. The air is clearer. You can't have the roof down any more, because it's too cold up there. And you notice any strenuous activity up north leaves you unusually short of breath. Then you remember the road signs along the Interstate 17, as you flashed past ludicrous town names (Bumble Bee, Horsethief Basin, Badger Springs, Dead Horse Ranch) warning that you're now 3,000ft above sea level, then 4,000, then 5,000 and 6,000 and 7,000ft. You realise that central Arizona is on a slant, that its landmass is like a ramp heading up to the Grand Canyon, and if your lungs aren't in tiptop condition, you'd wind up gasping as though scaling Everest.
The trek to the Canyon has many incidental delights. One is Sedona, the exquisite beauty of which demands you break your journey and spend a day exploring it in a rough-terrain 4x4. The mountains are a riot of colours, pinks and orange and puce, in layers, each mountain more beautiful than the last; many travellers have claimed Sedona is the most beautiful town in America, and you can see why.
The town, though, isn't a town, it's a sequence of shacks, shops and retirement villas on either side of Interstate Highway 17. They give the place a temporary feel, especially when under the lee of those immemorial hills. The best hotel is off the beaten track: L'Auberge de Sedona, where you stay in lovely wooden lodges with open fires and heavy wardrobes, and sip your bourbon outside, listening to the Oak Creek river running by.
Sedona is renowned as a centre for cut-price metaphysics. In 1981, a famous psychic called Page Bryant dropped by, said she'd experienced seven "vortexes" of unusual spiritual energy in the roads around the town, and called Sedona "the heart-chakra of the planet." Ever since, it's lured New Agers looking for a vortex to stand under (all seven are marked with a squiggle on local maps).
North from Sedona you find the hillside ghost town of Jerome, a former silver and copper mining town which went bust in the Wall Street Crash and is now mostly inhabited by artists. It looks a scrappy place, but has some very fancy shops. I spent far too long there, wandering the streets, buying saucy postcards at a former brothel called the House of Joy, and breakfasting in the English Kitchen, the oldest restaurant in Arizona. You must not miss Jerome: 500 people live there; two million visit every year.
In Flagstaff, where the snow-covered San Francisco Peaks loom over its tiny old quarter, I checked into the Weatherford Hotel, a ramshackle but charming estaminet with a wraparound veranda, evidently pinched from New Orleans. I later discovered that few tour operators send tourists to the Weatherford because of the freight trains that sound their ear-splitting, grinding-metal klaxon all through the night. I thought I'd be comforted by recalling Paul Simon's song, "(Everybody loves the sound of a Train in the Distance"; by 4am, I reflected that only masochists like the sound of the bloody things close up. Flagstaff has a nice 1950s diner, the Galaxy, some flourishing gun-shops (in Arizona, you don't need a permit; just keep it in a holster and make sure it's visible when a cop pulls you over, OK?) and a jolly bar called the Mogollon Brewery in the historic centre, where they distil vodka. Try the prickly pear version, which tastes, surprisingly, of pear drops, but avoid American vodka, which tastes of Rinsaid.
There was only one place for my journey to end – the same place Thelma and Louise wound up, in mid-air. But how do you explain the Grand Canyon to someone who hasn't seen it? Should I tell you about the final journey in the Mustang, how the rain came on just outside Flagstaff and bucketed down while huge trucks en route for California hurled sheets of water over the windscreen, how the rain ceased and the base of a gorgeous rainbow showed in the distance, and in my peripheral vision the unimaginably massive Colorado plateau began to unfold itself like a waking giant, and the distant landscape took on an unearthly, moonscape quality that made me shudder, but just then the other leg of the rainbow appeared to my left, and I had to wonder if I'd perhaps been a bit hasty about giving up believing in God at 15, and suddenly there was a roadside "Scenic View" sign and a walkway populated by Navajo Indians selling beads, and I parked nearby and had my first, very partial sight of the colossal rocks, the 2,000ft drop, the river snaking along below, and I thought, "Gosh, that really is something", although I still had no idea what would be lying in wait at journey's end, and I got back in the car and drove another 30 miles or so into the Grand Canyon National Park on a never-ending road to something called the South Rim, where I parked the Mustang at last and stretched my legs, still innocent of the immensity nearby, and I clamped my new cowboy hat further forward on my brow against the icy wind, and took 30 steps forward and could feel my jaw gradually but inexorably dropping to my breast and my heart pounding like jungle drums as I walked nearer and nearer to the South Rim, and I watched as the canyon rose up in front of me at last, and it was like inspecting a new planet, seeing the great dwellings and statues and public sculptures of an unknown civilisation of Titans, some of the dwellings resembling a gigantic tiramisu dusted with chocolate powder, some of the sculptures like huge dancing jellyfish with dustbin-shaped heads and vast tutu-shaped bodies, and all these mighty structures seemed, absurdly, to be alive and brooding and waiting for something to happen, a gigantic subterranean queue of stolid monuments waiting patiently for resurrection?
And as I stood there wrestling with the impossibility of ever finding words to describe this amazing sight, the bits of rainbow that had accompanied me from Flagstaff actually came together in the sky, like some cheesy symbolic welcome in a sentimental movie... I don't know how they arrange such things in Arizona. All I can say is, Billy Bob was right. You sure as hell are different when you leave.
The writer flew from Heathrow to Phoenix with British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), which is the only airline with flights between the UK and Arizona. BA has six flights each week in either direction, with Boeing 747 aircraft. Return fares start at £366, with Premium Economy available at £803. The flight time is 10 hours 40 minutes outbound, 9 hours 50 minutes inbound.
To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce My Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).
Phoenix Sky Harbour international airport is located very close to the city centre, about midway between Phoenix and Scottsdale.
The writer's car hire was arranged with Alamo (0870 191 6992; www.alamo.co.uk). Seven days' rental starts at around £124.
Hotel Valley Ho, Phoenix (001 480 248 2000; www.hotelvalleyho.com). Doubles from $178 (£94), room only.
The Phoenician, Scottsdale (001 480 941 8200; www.thephoenician.com). Doubles from $242 (£127), room only.
Hermosa Inn in Paradise, Phoenix (001 602 955 8614; www.hermosainn.com). Doubles from $361 (£190), room only.
White Stallion Ranch, Tucson (001 520 297 0252; www.wsranch.com). Doubles from $369 (£194), full board.
Hotel Congress, Tucson (001 520 622 8848; www.hotelcongress.com). Doubles from $89 (£47), room only.
L'Auberge de Sedona, Sedona (001 928 282 1661; www.lauberge.com). Doubles from $245 (£129), room only.
Weatherford Hotel, Flagstaff (001 928 779 1919; www.weatherfordhotel.com). Doubles from $77 (£41), room only.
Best Western Squire Inn (001 928 638 2681; www.grandcanyonsquire.com). Doubles from $97 (£51), with breakfast.
Rusty Spur Saloon, Scottsdale (001 480 425 7787; www.rustyspursaloon.com).
Saba's Western Store, Scottsdale (001 480 947 7664; www.sabaswesternwear.com).
Heard Museum, Phoenix (001 602 252 8848; www.heard.org). Open daily 9.30am-5pm; $10 (£5.30).
Saguaro National Park, Tucson (001 520 733 5153; www.nps.gov/sagu).
Old Tucson Studios, Tucson (001 520 883 0100; www.oldtucson.com). Open 10am-4pm daily; $16.95 (£9).
Crystal Castle, Sedona (001 928 282 5910).
Designs by Segretti, Jerome (001 928 634 8275).
Nellie Bly, Jerome (001 928 634 7825; www.nelliebly2.com).
House of Joy, Jerome (001 928 634 5339).
Grand Canyon National Park (001 928 638 7888; www.nps.gov/grca).
EATING & DRINKING THERE
Greasewood Flat, Scottsdale (001 480 585 9430; www.greasewoodflat.net).
English Kitchen, Jerome (001 928 634 2132).
The Galaxy Diner, Flagstaff (001 928 774 9694).
Mogollon Brewery (001 928 773 8950; www.mogbrew.com)
Arizona is covered in Lonely Planet's Southwest USA guide (£14.99), but Moon Publications' Arizona Handbook ($18.95) is available locally and has more detailed coverage.
Arizona Tourism: 001 866 275 5816; www.arizonaguide.com