Americans say awesome a lot. Order a skinny white from Starbucks (I don’t as I’m on a one-woman protest against their tax policy) and the barista will enthuse ‘awesome’ when you request a nutmeg, marshmallow topping.
So our cousins over the Atlantic fast run out of expletives and superlatives to describe the truly awe inspiring treasures of their national parks, which celebrate their centenary in 2016.
Our guide measured spectacular views with a wow factor. Single wow for pretty damn amazing. Double wow for knock your socks off incredible. Triple wow for drop dead stunning.
So if I gave a double wow for the Grand Canyon – even on a dodgy day with clouds so low our much anticipated helicopter ride was cancelled – I gave a triple wow for Bryce Canyon and its crazy totem hoodoo rock formations.
The weird and wonderful landscape of amber colour rocks rearing as tall as a 10-storey office block looked as if a giant had dropped his collection of barley sugar sticks.
Far below our dizzyingly high vantage point a posse of tourists, ant-like on the valley floor, were making their way up on horseback along scarily narrow paths, following in the hoof prints of First Nation inhabitants and settlers.
The National Park Service was created in 1916 under the directorship of Stephen Mather, a passionate parks promoter. There’s now a huge tract of Wilderness named to honour him.
An insatiable appetite to acquire land for buildings, farming and mineral wealth was swallowing up vast tracts of wilderness that needed public protection.
The first call to ring fence lands from the rapid rash of development that was endangering Native American tribes as well as wildlife came from artist George Catlin in 1831 when he championed the concept of ‘a nation’s park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature’s beauty.’
It took four decades but Congress eventually created Yellowstone National Park, the first in America.
Conservationists campaigned while writers waxed lyrical about the spiritual values of the wilderness. And there are few who have breathed in the pine-scented air and marvelled at the sheer vastness and scale of these awesome – yes, that adjective again – sights who don’t feel dwarfed and insignificant by comparison.
Now the NPS protects over 400 parklands with more than 80 million acres stretching from coast to coast. So with only three under my belt I’ve got a long way to go. We concentrated on the American Southwest surrounding the Colorado River, travelling in the footsteps of intrepid settlers and Navajo tribes.
Our journey kicked off in Arizona, a desert land populated by spiky cactus where the cool of our luxury, extra legroom coach was a haven from the dust and heat. Our companions were all American, friendly, chatty and mainly retirees ranging from the military and scientists to office workers and farmers.
We crossed the famous Route 66, the original road trip linking Chicago to Los Angeles in the Twenties, and headed for the Grand Canyon as tumbleweed tumbled and storm clouds gathered. This was a bad omen for our much vaunted chopper ride, scuppered by deafening claps of thunder and fork lightening.
Instead we braved horizontal hailstones, trudging along the South Rim of the canyon, marvelling at views, sometimes obscured by scraps of clouds, way, way below to the Colorado River snaking its way along 277 miles. Like a rocky version of a Mary Berry cake layers of limestone, sandstone, green shale, granite and basalt – some two billion years old – make up the geological jigsaw of a canyon that took six million years to form. Now that is awesome.
But Bryce Canyon – named after Scottish immigrant and millwright who settled here in 1875 – topped even that with its amphitheatre of multi-coloured temples, pillars, domes and spires. Bizarre formations of monolithic rocks called hoodoos, oddities eroded by ice, snowmelt and storms lend this landscape an otherworldly air, a deeply spiritual site for contemplation.
Walt Disney and Gaudi’s Barcelona cathedral collide in a rock show that takes awesome to a new level. Excited tourists Ella, aged four, and her six year old sister Charlotte, reckoned it was ‘cool.’
While Grand and Bryce Canyons offer drama Lake Powell provides tranquillity, muted shades reflected in calm waters. We swapped coach for a leisurely cruise aboard Desert Shadow, exploring Antelope Canyon with its sheer sandstone walls. Veteran skipper Dave Welborn navigated sinuous twists and turns to execute a meticulous three point turn before racing the storm clouds for safe mooring.
Our travels brought us into contact with real life Cowboys and (politically incorrect) Injuns. The story of the First Nation is not a happy chapter in American history with their land and culture stolen, robbed of their language and dignity by ‘white eyes.’
Larry, a Navajo truck driver escorting tourists through the Painted Desert of the Indian Reservation of badlands and buttes, was a man of few words. What spoke volumes of a people forcibly relocated to reservations were the haunting images of stern elders, sad-eyed women and shy children in black and white photographs displayed in a tiny museum, and the tourist-dependent artisans selling their silverware, arts and crafts to keep alive a proud heritage.
As for cowboys David Little, lanky and laconic, fitted the bill. He had barely more words than Larry. I had to coax out every detail of his movie career in Southern Utah’s answer to Hollywood.
The 69 year old maintenance man works at Parry Lodge, Kanab. The colonial clapboard lodge was established in the Thirties by three entrepreneurial brothers who encouraged movie companies to use this location for hundred of Westerns over half a century starring the likes of John Wayne, Audie Murphy, Charlton Heston, Clint Eastwood and John Travolta in movies and TV series including Stagecoach, Wagon Train, Billy the Kid, Calamity Jane, The Lone Ranger and Laramie.
As a teenage schoolboy David and his classmates were cast as Cavalry soldiers protecting the settlers one day or whooping, tomahawk wielding braves attacking wagon trains the next. He’d be rubbing shoulders with the stars, and struck up a lasting friendship with James Arness.
‘I got to know him real well when he played the Marshall in Gunsmoke. He was a good man. He had his own plane and I’d drive him back and forth to the airport,’ he drawled.
What crazier way to end our Wild West odyssey than under the neo spotlight of Las Vegas? It’s a Marmite city. You love it or loathe. I knew I’d loathe it. But I was in a minority.
Whatever your view about mindless gambling on slot machines, open-all-night tacky entertainment, extreme exhibitionism and all the excesses of the weird and wonderful Las Vegas must be ticked off that bucket list. After all, Elvis sang its praises in Viva Las Vegas.
Brides and grooms flock to the welcome road sign for their wedding pictures, posing in 32C sunshine following a chapel conveyor belt quickie marriage the night before. Marry in haste, repent at leisure could have been penned here.
A tipsy punter spilt her Martini and lit up a cigarette at the chandeliered bar of our Cosmopolitan casino hotel. The barman explained the finer points of Vegas etiquette: ‘You can smoke anywhere except bathrooms, bedrooms or restaurants. But you can shoot up all you want. Welcome to Vegas!’
And our dependable driver, Jack Ryan, shepherding us through Sin City between boa feathered pole dancers, topless firemen flexing their pecs, God Loves You bible-bashers, drag queens and a striptease artist pleading: ‘Help me get my clothes back on’ confided: ‘The town’s like a slippery slope. It only takes one little push.’
The fabulous and the freaks, saddos in sequins, fake tans and fake smiles, lonely drunks, the poor pawning tawdry bling, billionaires in stretched limos, top flight entertainers, are well represented in this crazy town of extravagance and excess.
One enduring image was outside Heart Attack City, a diner whose neon tempted patrons with the promise that 350 lbs heavies could eat for free. An over-25stone woman so obese she needed a mobility scooter munched on a calorific burger and headed off into the night.
Gill travelled to the USA with Insight Vacations, (www.insightvacations.com 0800 533 5620). Insight Vacations offer a 7 day Enchanting Canyonlands trip from £2,875 per person and includes return flights, 6 nights B&B accommodation, a Welcome Reception, Highlight Dinner with views over the Grand Canyon, 3 additional dinners, a cruise along the spectacular Lake Powell, sightseeing, VIP door to door private airport transfers and the services of a professional Tour Director throughout. For more information please visit www.insightvacations.com.