HOW THE WEST WAS WO NDERFUL; Saddle up & grab your stetson for a trip to Arizona.
WE are bowling along a desert road and I expect to see Clint Eastwood come riding over the hill at any moment.
It must be the scenery... it looks so familiar from countless TV shows and films. There are huge cactuses with raised arms like totem poles and hills that look as if they should have smoke signals rising from them.
You soon realise a trip to southern Arizona is a sure-fire way of re-living memories of the time you wanted to be Annie Oakley or Wyatt Earp, ride a covered wagon or fight off an Apache war party.
Or perhaps I'm harking back to my childhood because I've just seen the Gunfight at the OK Corral. A reconstruction of it, that is, close to the very spot in Tombstone where in 1881 Earp and Doc Holliday had their infamous shoot-out with the Clanton Gang.
If you like your West to be wild, Tombstone is the place to go. The centre has it all: boardwalks, saloons (yes, they have those swinging doors) and period shops - and the only traffic you'll see comes with horses in front.
You can gee up your inner cowboy or girl by watching the Tombstone Historama... a show with film and moving scale models that tells the area's bloody history. Don't be put off by the fact it's been playing since 1964. It's narrated by Vincent Price and is a gem.
Then take yourself off to the gunfight.
The half-hour show has actors in period costume playing out the events - ending, of course, with a shoot-out (www.okcorral.com, $13 for admission to both shows).
Most people coming to this part of the world will have flown into Phoenix, America's sixth largest city, a vast, sprawling hub with all the "big city" stuff you could want.
But the vast swathes of country are the real reason to come. It is hot all year round and you know you're somewhere very different to Britain when you hear someone say: "It rained last Thursday... but I wasn't here to enjoy it."
Head south-east from Phoenix and the desert starts almost at once. We've only been on the road for an hour and I'm humming tunes from spaghetti Westerns. That's not very appropriate, as it turns out - we're about to leave the cowboy-style trails for the Salsa Trail.
Arizona's history boils down to four Cs - copper, cattle, cotton and citrus. And the locals here have added a fifth - chillies. If you like tacos, burros and enchiladas, this is the place to be.
Restaurants scattered across 40 miles around Safford have got together to promote Mexican-style food. They're all family-run and pride themselves on their dishes, especially salsa.
It's quite the thing in the US these days. Apparently there is now more salsa sold than ketchup. And if, like me, you are a bit of a chilli wimp, don't worry. You can get hot - very hot - but the emphasis here is on the cooler green chillies. I didn't wipe my eyes once (www.salsatrail.com). You can visit a chilli-roasting farm and see freshly-harvested pods being turned into all the jellies, relishes and sauces you could possibly want (www.sansimonchile.
com). Each September Safford even has a weekend salsa fest with hot-air balloon rides, chilli- and jalape[+ or -]o-eating competitions, all set to the rhythms of traditional music. There is also a speciality to make Scots feel at home - deep-fried ice cream. I had to try it. And it was delicious.
While in the area, take a look at the ancient Native American pottery at the Eastern Arizona College near Thatcher. Even if museums aren't your thing, it's worth the trip. It's free to enter and you'll soon see the Native Americans of this area had an incredibly sophisticated culture (www.eac.edu/About_ EAC/Mills_Collection/).
Then you can head off into the country again, past signs to places with evocative names such as Jesse James Canyon, to dream of Geronimo and Co in the "land of the standing up rocks" - the Chiricahua National Monument. Entry is only $5pp and you get to drive through five miles of fantastic scenery. The huge rocks - many hanging at impossible angles - were formed from layers of ash dumped on the area when a volcano erupted 27million years ago.
The Sonoran desert has black bears and mountain lions, with air said to be so clear you can see for 100 miles. It was a sacred place to the Apaches - and it's easy to see why. It has a special feel about it. You can camp in the park or do what we did... have a picnic lunch and then go a four-mile downhill hike that takes you through many of the best bits. It was glorious.
For accommodation, you could check in to Sunglow Ranch in the foothills of the Chiricahua Mountains (sunglowranch.
info). It offers luxury, surrounded by miles of hiking trails, with well-appointed cabins and excellent organic food.
Other attractions include the Roper Lake State Park, an area of outstanding natural beauty, which has lakes, great birdlife, natural hot springs and where you can book a simple log cabin to camp out in for the bargain price of $50 a night (www.azstateparks.com).
Keep going towards the Mexican border and about 190 miles from Phoenix you'll hit Bisbee, high in the Mule Mountains - which at one time was home to the world's biggest copper mine.
You can put on a hard hat and miner's lamp and hop on a mini-train to go 1,500 feet into the side of the hill for a 75-minute tour of the former Queen Mine (www.queenminetour.com). They tell you all about how the copper was extracted and how hard the miners had to work. And when they turn the lights off the dark is, well, as dark as it can get.
As we left the Sunglow Ranch we stopped to see the grave of Johnny Ringo - an outlaw shot under a blackjack oak tree by an assassin in 1882. We were shown the spot by Jerry Sandery, a big, drawling rancher.
His family has been here since the early days and it was his grandfather who found Ringo's body on their land. Some folks reckon the killer was Wyatt Earp - but no one knows for certain.
As I stand by the grave, a buzzard flaps lazily overhead and I look up at those "familiar" cinematic hills.
My younger self would have loved being here. My older self did too.
What's the deal?
British Airways offer seven nights' fly-drive to Phoenix from around EUR620pp, based on departures this winter.
The price includes return fights from Heathrow and Avis car hire for the duration, based on two sharing. More information, or to book, from www.ba.com Detours Of Arizona do a range of one-day or multiday guided tours in the area.
Riding into town... three cowboys on horseback in Tombstone Allen Street, site of some of Tombstone's oldest buildings. The city dates back to 1879 Rock star... a balancing stone formation at Chiricahua National Monument A saguaro cactus, the state flower of Arizona, in the desert... with a storm brewing in the background