Cowboy and canyon country in Arizona

In the second part of his Arizona series, Paul Thomas says honking trains and bandits, even snow, are forever in his memory of the US state.

I'd forgotten my childhood love of the old Wild West. Until I got to Flagstaff on our awakening tour of Arizona. And what an awakening it is for we onetime cowboys – and cowgirls too.

It swept me back to schoolboy hours locked to TV series on Roy Rogers, Gene Autrey and other sharp-shooters, as well as gun-totting sheriffs and bandits. Plus bands and booming big trains and locomotives, cars and colourful, over-size characters.

We left the stylish, heat-blessed life of Scottsdale and Phoenix and drove across desert, climbing to the red mountains and monuments of Sedona, a spectacular town where you could easily spend a night. For us, however, it was on to the cold light of day in the city of Flagstaff. Snow was piled high by the roads, the night temperature was freezing but the welcome was as warm as our earlier southern desert destinations.

Flagstaff is real western territory and its cowboy scenery, saloons and bars, pioneering scenes and deep whistling, mile-long vast trains through the town take you back a century or two.


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Males often wear hats, including stetsons, and Flagstaff sits on the immortal Route 66 which ran from Chicago to Santa Monica in California. Then huge three-engine diesels hauling thousands of tons of 100-wagon trains, plus big trucks built for dirt roads, also complete the boys' dreams.

While we stayed at a Marriott – a typical hotel for today – Flagstaff tourism director Heather Ainardi had recommended genuine city haunts which epitomised the past life and loves of this city – once a sprinkling of shacks and wagons.

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Tourists might not have found them but if you are one-time cowboys and girls with a wish to reawaken those early days, head for Flagstaff and you find a different America – not the sophistication of your Californias and New Yorks – just a genuine reflection of an amazing past.

For boys, western heroes, bucking broncos, saloon bars and beers, plus those deep moaning miles-long trains piercing through town have to set you alight. There are also museums telling of the past – from gun battles to the origins of the geology of the area.

Back downtown, the Tinderbox Kitchen is really a stylish restaurant – opened a couple of years ago by Kevin Heinonen and highly recommended with chef Scott, personal chef to Paul McCartney a few years ago. It's cool and was managing a wedding and many other guests when we dined there.

We also took in the world-famous Lowell Observatory with a telescopic close-up of the planets with millions of years from the past. Pluto is included – it was discovered among the stars right here in the 1930s.

Next evening was another highlight – dinner and country and western at Altitudes bar and grill which backs on to the magic railroad slicing through Flagstaff. Altitudes offers cut-price drink 'shots' whenever 80 incredible cargo trains a mile or more long with 100-plus trucks behind three massive diesel engines, pass by. Charming waitress Lauren Hanf introduced us to Ray Rossi's Delta Blues Band.

Then it was on to the legendary Museum Club, a national monument on Route 66. This is a cowboy nightclub, a one-time 1930s bar, brothel, bootlegging scene plus launchpad for numerous country and western stars like Willie Nelson, Ray Price and Merle Haggard.

Local group Try One On, a father and three sons, provided music for dancing which rivalled Strictly Come Dancing in its standards. Cowboys, some aged, danced number after number with girls – two-stepping, jiving, somersaults.

Next day early it was on to Williams where the Grand Canyon Railroad heads for the ultimate destination – the canyon itself. Parlour class tickets on the train give armchairs, breakfast and tea and sparkling wines on the way back – a grand view from the coach's platform plus musical and comedy entertainers.

Like so much in Arizona, this was professional and funny. Navajo Indian guitarist and comic Clarence Clearwater calling on us to whistle with his favourite numbers – then quipping western-style jokes – for example, what's the difference between in-laws and outlaws? Outlaws are wanted!

The final surprise was a raid by cowboys on horseback who brought the train to a halt, boarding with guns and rushing through our carriages pursued by the marshall. Jokes again – what's the hold-up?

But the ultimate experience of Arizona is the canyon itself. I had not been for more than 30 years but its impact was still paramount and Carefree hotel waiter Steve, an authority on the canyon, tells me some of the Havasupi Indian tribe still live here, old and a few young, but most have taken off for towns. They will host you but don't do drink, a recent intrusion that has troubled Indians, often happier on natural drugs like peyote, derived from cactus 'buttons'.

Here is nearly 280 miles of mile-plus deep canyon and up to 20-mile wide multi-coloured mountainous rocks and pillars, shaped over a billion or two years as the River Colorado split and opened up the biggest valley in the world. You can visit by road, rail or air. You can hike down over hours, staying rough in lodges, white-water raft the easier river stretches or fly down it by fixed-wing aircraft or helicopter, exploring the varying climatic impacts on this amazing land mass. Or just walk the rim.

The weather can change swiftly. We were due there for two days and the first was fine, sunny and a brilliant viewing day. The next day however was forecast rain and snow and so it was although we had taken the decision to track back south. I was sorry but a day's reminder of this magnificent monument I'd previously visited was supreme.

Four million people visit its south and north rims each year but still it is possible to be alone in this wonderful, emotional world of stillness, eight of the world's nine climatic conditions soaring from the valley bottom to the top, apparently in silence – and prompting for me the most emotional appreciation, virtually of my life, for a second time. Americans over-use the word 'awesome' – undervaluing its true meaning.

For me the Grand Canyon is just that. Silent. Millions of years stood still. Perhaps the most wonderful sight you'll ever see. So big, yet its vision so apparently close and clear you think you could reach out over its vast drops and touch each peak, miles away in fact. Only one word for it, truly. Awesome.

Next week: Out from Arizona to Las Vegas – and how to win there.

Arizona Tourist Board – visit the website at www.arizonaguide.com or telephone 0207 3670938.

America As You Like It (log on to the website at www.americaasyoulikeit.co.uk or telephone 0208 7428299) offers a five-night fly-drive holiday to Arizona from �1,040 per person, based on two sharing. The price includes return British Airways flights from London to Phoenix, six days car hire, two nights in Scottsdale at the Carefree Resort and Conference Centre (log on to the website at www.carefree-resort.com), two nights in Flagstaff at the Courtyard by Marriott (log on to www.marriott.co.uk/hotels/travel/flgcy-courtyard-flagstaff), return train journey from Williams to the Grand Canyon and a night at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel (log on to www.thetrain.com). Based on May 2011 departure.

Car hire – www.enterprise.com

Flagstaff information – www.flagstaffarizona.org

Lowell Observatory – www.lowell.edu

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