EVER wished the earth would open up and swallow you?
That’s how it feels when you cross the rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
President Theodore Roosevelt described it as “beautiful and terrible and unearthly” and said it was without parallel in the world.
To a visitor from little Britain, it’s mind-boggling.
A vast chasm a mile deep, stretching far beyond the horizon, layered with multi-coloured rocks, the Colorado river crashing far, far below.
If you’re up for a helicopter trip, there’s a heart-stopping moment when, skimming the trees, you face the void.
Right on cue, Maverick Helicopters pilot Ryan played us Tom Petty’s song Freefalling.
The canyon winds for 277 miles – about as far as from Sheffield to the south coast. At its widest it spans 18 miles.
The UK’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis, wouldn’t reach the rim.
Marvels like this, the Yosemite national park and Route 66 used to be accessible only to the intrepid or the very wealthy. Now specialist tour operators bring California and the wild west within reach of most of us.
Titan Travel picked me up from my Sheffield home by taxi and within 24 hours I was in a cantina in the Mexican old town of San Diego, eating a spicy fish burrito the size of my thigh.
Everything about the USA is huge but food portions are gigantic. There’s a decent pint of beer too – they call it ‘craft brewing’ and it’s trendy in San Diego and San Francisco.
San Diego, the start of our ‘California and the golden West’ tour, is a charming city with an expansive waterfront and a fleet of historic ships led by the aircraft carrier USS Midway, which served 1945-1992 and became a floating museum. Moored nearby are Russian and American submarines.
The oldest part of downtown San Diego, the Gas Lamp quarter, is buzzing with music bars and restaurants. But there’s hardly time to take it in before we’re moving on.
Titan’s slogan is “inspiring travel” and they deliver. But that means vast distances – 2,500 miles by coach and nine hotels in our 15-day visit.
Heading through cactus-studded hills from California into Arizona, we called at Palm Springs, last resting place of Frank Sinatra.
Ol’ Blue Eves, Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe were among a galaxy of stars who loved this fashionable desert resort, now a sun-scorched oasis of upmarket shopping and dining.
By the time we get to Phoenix it’s sundown.
The next day we’re off into Navajo Indian country, stopping among the amazing towering bluffs of the Red Rock National Park.
As we head for the artistic colony of Sedona, hundreds of bikers thunder past on customised Harley Davidsons on their weekend ride.
After our afternoon in the Grand Canyon, bedtime found us in the town of Flagstaff, our first sight of Route 66.
Once known as the Main Street of USA, this road brought generations of California dreamers all the way from Chicago to the West coast until Interstate 40 opened in 1985.
A short stroll down Route 66 from our hotel was the Galaxy, a classic US roadside diner, all chrome and neon, with portraits of 1950s and ’60s rock and pop stars.
Hot and spicy chicken in a bun isn’t the healthiest option, but they pile on most of your five-a-day in salad.
Trainspotters enjoyed our next morning stop at the historic rail depot of Williams, where amiable gun-toting cowboys horse around in a lighthearted wild west show.
Then it’s Route 66 again and the remarkable settlement of Seligman.
Angel Delgadillo, the guardian angel of Route 66, was born here in 1927 and witnessed the exodus of Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.
He ran a barbers shop and his brother had a bar. Then the I40 opened, bypassing small towns, and their trade vanished overnight.
Angel founded the Historic Route 66 Association of Arizona. Now the community is a living museum: classic cars in glorious dilapidation line the one main street, with ancient street signs and memorabilia. Angel’s shop is packed with oddities and he’s busy meeting and greeting tourists.
Then we’re off to Las Vegas.
Gangster Bugsy Siegel backed a winner when he launched a gambling operation at a Nevada desert hotel in 1946 and laid the foundations for this amazing freak show of a city. But he didn’t live long enough to hit the jackpot. He was shot dead in Beverly Hills in 1947, a murder never solved.
Back in Vegas, by breakfast time the casinos are buzzing, punters staring at the bandit machines as the numbers roll. Disappointingly, there’s no crashing of coins to signal a jackpot. They pay out a receipt.
Sit feeding cash into a machine and someone brings you free coffee or booze. Wander round sightseeing and you get nowt.
High-rollers throng the poker tables, while outside homeless people, maimed and limbless ex-service personnel and emaciated folk with no health insurance beg on the streets.
Our movie-themed hotel, Planet Hollywood, was larger than life. My room included a glass case full of wicked daggers from the Steven Siegal movie Under Siege 2.
It was the only hotel room on our tour with no coffee machine. They don’t want you wasting time in your room instead of the casino.
Vegas is stunning. Where else could you see the Eiffel Tower, a pyramid and Venice’s canals with gondolas all on one street?
Hardly the height of good taste, though.
Stars playing the hotels included Donny and Marie Osmond, the Cirque du Soleil, Rod Stewart and Celine Dion.
It’s an expensive town, even if you don’t bet.
Thousands gamble on matrimony. Every hotel has a wedding chapel. In ours, it was next to the Pussycat Dolls Burlesque show.
As we wave goodbye to Vegas and what’s left of our money, it’s game over for now.
n Part two next week: Yosemite, Monterey, San Francisco and Hollywood.