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Amazing Arizona Part 1

In part one of a series on his adventures in Arizona, Clive Nicholls finds the sightseeing almost spiritual – despite being mistaken for Bill Clinton

It's still dark when my guide Larry picks me up. Just a mile down the road we are soon where we want to be.

The sandy soil is crisp underfoot as a sharp frost binds the surface together. Larry, a full-blown Navajo American Indian, checks his watch, nods and within seconds the first rays of sun break over the horizon and cast a wondrous light over the scene before me. This is so much more than sightseeing – it’s almost spiritual and, amazingly, we have the place to ourselves.

We’re in Monument Valley, Arizona, and right now it must be the best place in the world. Stunning rock formations, crisp, clear light and an American Indian in his homeland showing me the best spots. It’s not until an hour later that we have to share this magical treat with others: the Navajo start bringing in food and water for their animals and the first visitors begin to arrive.

They should have set their alarms; they’ve missed the best time of the day. The peace, tranquility and utter beauty of Monument Valley is something that I’ll treasure for the rest of my life.

With such a dramatic landscape it’s no surprise that Monument Valley has featured in dozens of films. Director John Ford used the location for ten of his films starting with Stagecoach in 1939 and almost every big name movie star has appeared here, from John Wayne and Clint Eastwood to Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks.

Let me take you back a few days to the start of my Arizona trip. Even picking up the hire car at Phoenix Airport was fun. The rental company had all the cars in my price range lined up for me to take my pick. I opted for a white Nissan. It looked pretty ordinary but as I headed out into the nighttime Phoenix traffic I realised that it was a great choice – it was a peach to drive, so smooth, so easy, and it will be my best friend for the next ten days.

After an overnight stop in Phoenix, I was off to Winslow in the morning. Following the route of the old time Pony Express it was a great drive – more than 7500ft in places but it flattens out as, 170 miles on, I roll into Winslow. Yes, that’s the one:

“I’m standing on the corner in Winslow Arizona and such a fine sight to see.

“It’s a girl, my Lord, in a Flatbed Ford slowin’ down to take a look at me.”

… the words of Jackson Browne and recorded by the Eagles in one of the best-known tracks of all time, Take it Easy. My first stop, you betcha, it’s the corner.

It’s still there and so is the Flatbed Ford, and I can’t resist standing on the corner for a few minutes. It may be corny but I’ve just got to do it.

Winslow is welcoming. The people here want you to enjoy their town. The Old Trails Museum, the tiny Church of the Mother Road (Route 66) and the historic La Posada Hotel tell the story, but for me, you’ve just got to go and stand on the corner in Winslow Arizona

I’ve got a big day tomorrow; the Petrified Forest, Painted Desert and the drive up to Monument Valley, 300 miles in all.

I’ve brought my own satnav with me. It’s cheaper than hiring one or taking a gamble that the car has built-in navigation. I tap in the Petrified Forest National Park and head off down the I40 to Holbrook. There’s an incident and the Interstate is closed at Joseph City but the satnav quickly recalculates and brings me in at the south entrance of the National Park. How does it do that?

The people at the visitor centre are brilliant – they make me feel like I’m the only tourist that day. In truth there are only a handful of other visitors around but I still feel special. The petrified trees and logs have taken a couple of hundred million years turning to stone and the colours are amazing. I ask if I can spray them with water to bring out the colour for the pictures. No problem: they hand me a spray, and Bob’s your uncle. They don’t know I am working for a magazine – they’re just so helpful.

With their advice I plan a route through the 230-square mile park. I stop off at the Blue Mesa, The Teepees, cross the Old Route 66 to Chinde Point. Wherever you look it’s spectacular and you’re never rushed, with stunning scenery, and few visitors .

Just before lunch I set off on the longish drive to Monument Valley. The roads are clear, the scenery is wonderful and my little Nissan is a pleasure to drive.

I stop for petrol and get mistaken for Bill Clinton in the garage shop. Yes, we’ve both got white hair and wrinkles but he’s got a fleet of cars and an entourage and I’m driving a rental and heating up a sausage roll in the garage microwave – an easy mistake to make.

The drive is brilliant; I have another 200 miles to go but with little traffic and the scenery it’s just fantastic.

As I near Monument Valley the vista becomes more dramatic. I stop for pictures but I want to get there before sunset so can’t hang about. I’m staying at Goulding’s and get there in time to visit the supermarket and buy a Chinese for my dinner before enjoying a glass of wine and watching the sunset at Monument Valley from my lodge overlooking it. Life doesn’t get much better than this.

Next month I’ll travel south-west to Flagstaff, Kingman via Route 66, Lake Havasu City and down to Yuma on the Mexican

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