Grand tours: A regular old Arizona sunset with Zane Grey

Zane Grey's heroine in 'Call of the Canyon' leaves her heart behind
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The Independent Travel

Pearl Zane Gray (later Grey) was born in Zanesville, Ohio, in 1872. He reluctantly studied dentistry, at the insistence of his father, but his main ambition was to write. His first novel, 'Betty Zane', inspired by his pioneering forebears, was published in 1904. It marked the birth of a new literary genre, the Western, and Grey went on to write at least 60 more. This extract is from 'The Call of the Canyon', written in 1921, which tells the story of Carley Burch, who leaves her high-society life in New York to follow her fiancé, Glenn Kilbourne, to the Wild West. A silent-film version, directed by Victor Fleming, was made in 1923. Grey himself died in California in 1939.

At Flagstaff, where Carley arrived a few minutes before train time, she was too busily engaged with tickets and baggage to think of herself or of the significance of leaving Arizona. But as she walked into the Pullman she overheard a passenger remark, "Regular old Arizona sunset," and that shook her heart. Suddenly she realized she had come to love the colorful sunsets, to watch and wait for them. And bitterly she thought how that was her way to learn the value of something when it was gone.

The jerk and start of the train affected her with singular depressing shock. She had burned her last bridge behind her. Had she unconsciously hoped for some incredible reversion of Glenn's mind or of her own? A sense of irreparable loss flooded over her – the first check to shame and humiliation.

From her window she looked out to the southwest. Somewhere across the cedar and pine-greened uplands lay Oak Creek Canyon, going to sleep in its purple and gold shadows of sunset. Banks of broken clouds hung to the horizon, like continents and islands and reefs set in a turquoise sea. Shafts of sunlight streaked down through creamy-edged and purple-centered clouds. Vast flares of gold dominated the sunset background.

When the train rounded a curve Carley's strained vision became filled with the upheaved bulk of the San Francisco Mountains. Ragged gray grass slopes and green forests on end, and black fringed sky lines, all pointed to the sharp clear peaks spearing the sky. And as she watched, the peaks slowly flushed with sunset hues, and the sky flared golden, and the strength of the eternal mountains stood out in sculptured sublimity.

Every day for two months and more Carley had watched these peaks, at all hours, in every mood; and they had unconsciously become a part of her thought. The train was relentlessly whirling her eastward. Soon they must become a memory. Tears blurred her sight. Poignant regret seemed added to the anguish she was suffering. Why had she not learned sooner to see the glory of the mountains, to appreciate the beauty and solitude? Why had she not understood herself?

The next day through New Mexico she followed magnificent ranges and valleys – so different from the country she had seen coming West – so supremely beautiful that she wondered if she had only acquired the harvest of a seeing eye. But it was at sunset of the following clay, when the train was speeding down the continental slope of prairie land beyond the Rockies, that the West took its ruthless revenge.

Masses of strange cloud and singular light upon the green prairie, and a luminosity in the sky, drew Carley to the platform of her car, which was the last of the train. There she stood, gripping the iron gate, feeling the wind whip her hair and the iron-tracked ground speed from under her, spellbound and stricken at the sheer wonder and glory of the firmament, and the mountain range that it canopied so exquisitely.

A rich and mellow light, singularly clear, seemed to flood out of some unknown source. For the sun was hidden. The clouds just above Carley hung low, and they were like thick, heavy smoke, mushrooming, coalescing, forming and massing, of strange yellow cast of mative. It shaded westward into heliotrope and this into a purple so royal, so matchless and rare that Carley understood why the purple of the heavens could never be reproduced in paint.

Here the cloud mass thinned and paled, and a tint of rose began to flush the billowy, flowery, creamy white. Then came the surpassing splendor of this cloud pageant – a vast canopy of shell pink, a sun-fired surface like an opal sea, rippled and webbed, with the exquisite texture of an Oriental fabric, pure, delicate, lovely – as no work of human hands could be. It mirrored all the warm, pearly tints of the inside whorl of the tropic nautilus.

And it ended abruptly, a rounded depth of bank, on a broad stream of clear sky, intensely blue, transparently blue, as if through the lambent depths shone the infinite firmament. The lower edge of this stream took the golden lightning of the sunset and was notched for all its horizon-long length by the wondrous white glistening-peaked range of the Rockies. Far to the north, standing aloof from the range, loomed up the grand black bulk and noble white dome of Pikes Peak.

Carley watched the sunset transfiguration of cloud and sky and mountain until all were cold and gray. And then she returned to her seat, thoughtful and sad, feeling that the West had mockingly flung at her one of its transient moments of loveliness.

Follow in the footsteps of Zane Grey

How the West was written

Zane Grey was born in Zanesville, Ohio, but literary success enabled him to establish a hunting lodge near Payson, Arizona, in 1910. The surrounding Red Rock country south of Flagstaff inspired many of his Western adventure novels, including "The Call of the Canyon" (1921).

Flagstaff is often overlooked by travellers eager to reach the Grand Canyon ­ a two-hour drive north. However, its museums and colourful downtown area, as well as the spectacular scenery and ancient Sinagua Indian ruins close by, make for a worthwhile pause.

Concentrating on Native American life, the Museum of Northern Arizona is a contender for the best in the state. The Coconino Center for the Arts specialises in work by local artists; it hosts the Festival of Native American Arts from late June to early August.

Twin peaks

The serrated San Francisco Peaks on the horizon are regarded as sacred in both the Hopi and Navajo cultures. Mount Humphreys is the highest at 12,643ft, followed by Mount Agassiz at 12,350ft. Between the two is the Arizona Snowbowl (tel: 00 1 520 779 1951), a ski area from mid-December to early April, with runs named Boo-Boo and Bambi. The longest chair lift, going almost to the top of Mount Agassiz, stays open in summer as the Scenic Skyride.

Close encounters

Oak Creek Canyon runs along the 28-mile route south to the New-Age resort of Sedona. In 1981 Sedona was named "the heart chakra of the planet" by the author and psychic Page Bryant. In 1987 it hosted the Harmonic Convergence, when devotees paid for seats on Bell Rock to await its launch to the galaxy Andromeda. While no match for its mighty cousin, Oak Creek Canyon has sheer walls, gurgling streams, dense woods and vivid stripes of red, white, buff and black rock.

Getting there

Go in spring and autumn or, for good skiing, in winter. TWA offers return flights to Phoenix from £426 in September and October. British Airways return fares start from £513. America West flies to Flagstaff several times a day from Phoenix. Fares start from £125. Flights available through Trailfinders (tel: 020-7937 5400;