The Colorado river scythes through the Grand Canyon’s 446km with a staggering sense of drama, punctuating the sheer rock faces with a succession of whirlpools, waterfalls and rapids. It’s all well and good taking photos from the safety of the viewing platform, quite another thing to get up close and personal – less “ooh” and “aah”, more “woooo” and “aaagh”. It’s a journey that, under normal circumstances, should take weeks, done Deliverance-style (at least the first bit of the film) on rubber rafts. We’ll be doing the best bits in a day. No oars – just big outboards and aluminium-frame rafts. I’m tacking this US mission onto the back of a work trip; I’ll just have time to shoot up north from Phoenix via Route 66, see some sights, hit the rapids and then fly home to London on Sunday evening.
My flight from New York to Phoenix gets me into Arizona for lunch. I use the plane ride to make a playlist that’s heavy on Willie Nelson, and book out a muscular-looking Dodge Charger on arrival. I purr out of Phoenix, heading straight for the Grand Canyon. It’s not a complicated route. What I didn’t bargain on, though, was the scale. It’s like driving into the set of a cowboy movie – one that stretches further than the eye can see.
I overtake scores of camper vans on the long, straight road to the national park. After stepping out of my air-conditioned cocoon into the dry Arizona heat, I spend a vertiginous half hour perched on a rock with my camera, at first trying to take a panorama that does the vista justice, then just staring in mute admiration.
I’m staying at Hualapai Lodge in Peach Springs, a Hualapai Indian reservation two hours to the north. Driving into the sun, I turn onto historic Route 66. The further I go, the straighter, flatter and emptier the road becomes, as it bifurcates the huge plains. I hop out of the car to take more pictures, lying on my belly to get the right angle. In 15 minutes, I only see one motorbike. It throbs past, its sunburnt rider grinning ear to ear and waving a cheery salute.
Time for some serious rafting. I’m up early and have a long breakfast, getting good and jittery on far too much coffee as the other guests file in, all excited about the day ahead. We get onto an old school bus and bounce down a gravel track to the river. The Hualapai own the only road leading to it. If you don’t have permission to go through their land, you have to climb down the long way.
We are split into groups for different rafts, and given life-jackets and a safety briefing. We’ll be going 69km along the river, stopping for lunch on the way, before helicoptering out. The Colorado river is no gentle playground: some 425 cubic metres of water rushes down the canyon every second, accelerating as it hits boulders on the riverbed and forming standing waves, white water spraying up as it coalesces over pits. The rapids are big, wet and intimidating, and are scored on a scale of one to 10.
On every side there are huge slabs of rock, which seen at eye level are quite simply staggering. Every so often there are mammoth dents in the walls of the canyon at head height, caused by boulders as big as trucks gouging ever deeper as they bounce down in big water.
I’m disappointed about not being able to help paddle the raft, but the motor adds a new dimension. Rather than taking the fun out of it, it means we can choose our line and leap up the water like salmon, shooting over the top of each rapid and powering through to the next jump. Our first one is ahead. I sit right at the front of the boat and hang on tight.
The aluminium-frame raft leaps up the central wave of the rapid. There’s a moment of equilibrium, of what seems like perfect silence, and then SMASH – we slam down the other side, deep into the raging foam. A wall of white, icy water shoots into the air and up my nose, drenching, choking, buffeting and very nearly knocking me from my (increasingly precarious) perch. The guide, from his position at the other end of the boat, nods. “Yep, that was Diamond Creek. Probably rates about a three… We’ve got a seven coming up.” He grins, guns the motor and we spin off down river.
There are four rafts in total and another for backup. Our convoy continues on, past a group of rafters doing it the old‑fashioned way. They give us friendly waves before hosing us down with ice cold Super Soakers. Chattering and splashing water at one another, we whoop and yee-haw our way to more rapids, stopping at a waterfall to explore a few caves and dry out a little. I make the mistake of telling Randy, our guide, that I am here on a thrill-seeking mission, from which point he seems to steer the boat in such a way that at the next rapid – a five – what feels like the entire river pounds into my face and chest, dumping me without ceremony straight into the bottom of the boat, where I splutter and flounder like a freshly caught fish. It is, of course, great fun. Then we zoom off for “the big one” – a seven – the last rapid of the day.
It stretches over 100m, punctuated by great lumps of rock, strong eddies to both sides and roaring walls of foamy spray. The support boat has parked itself at the start to take a few pictures as we shoot past. We are dunked and almost submerged in turns, into alternating light and darkness, loud and quiet, before popping out the end like a champagne cork. We heave ourselves out and come part way back up the side to watch the other rafts and wait for the guys on the support boat. But they’re stuck. The engine won’t work. Steeling ourselves, we go back up the rapid and drag our raft up onto the gravel next to them. Swapping our spare engine, we get them started and then do the rapid again.
We motor along, gazing at the mountains in the distance. “That one over there – we call it the Bear,” says Randy. “I can’t tell you more than that, because it’s not winter and the Bear’s story is a winter one.” He doesn’t speak again for a while. I wonder if he’s like this at home. Lunch is shared in relative silence, everyone drinking in the views and the feeling of pleasantly exhausted dislocation.
Journey’s end is a few miles down river, at a broad stretch of water. We’re ferried back to the top of the canyon and to a small local airport by three helicopters. From there we take a bus back to the lodge. I drive to Scottsdale, arriving in time for dinner at Sanctuary Camelback Mountain, a spa hotel popular with locals and, more importantly for me, boasting a crisp and very welcome Sancerre on its wine list.
Next morning, I’m up at dawn in the cool, clean light to try out an off-road Tomcar, the daredevil love child of a go-cart and a G-Wagen. We tear off in a convoy of three vehicles, along dusty stagecoach trails in the hills and up to old Native American ruins, where we look at different flora, learn how to survive in the desert using just a knife and a cigarette lighter, and I discover that there are some types of cactus that can hook into your flesh through your shoes and socks.
The last stop is a firing range a little way out of town, where I try my hand at a Glock 17, an AR-15, an AK-47 and a terrifyingly powerful Desert Eagle. It’s a satisfyingly manly end to the weekend. I pick up a few shell casings – souvenirs for various nephews – then make my way back to Phoenix for my red-eye to London.
In London I’m met by grey skies and dense traffic – a far cry from Arizona’s blazing sun and swift river. The Great American Road Trip? I may not have managed the full Hunter S Thompson, but I’ve ticked a few off the bucket list.