Wherever I look there they are, giving me a jaunty wave, or displaying a shrug with their long extremities, and generally emanating a happy, feel-good vibe. They’re the tall, multi-limbed saguaro cacti, which carpet the desert state of Arizona like tulips do in Holland; fuzzy-looking, stately green plants that can grow up to 40ft high.
They are, of course, not quite as adorable as they look, covered as they are, in sharp, thorny spikes, but as shorthand for realising I’m now in the dusty US desert, they really do the job.
In fact, Arizona contains parts of four different deserts, the largest being the Sonoran in the southwest (the only one in which you’ll find saguaros).
The state itself covers nearly 114,000 square miles, which encompasses a decent stretch of the Grand Canyon, and is known for its striking, contrasting landscapes, hiking trails, forests, and even ski slopes.
My boyfriend and I are taking a classic road trip, exploring the region’s extremes of nature, starting in Scottsdale, just east of the state capital, Phoenix.
We discover it’s a charming, walkable place with a historic downtown.
This is cowboy country; there are sculptures and statues of broncos, buffalo and native Americans peppering Main Street.
Many of the shops and boutiques are still designed like the 19th-century wooden or adobe buildings which would have made up a small town in the Old West.
There are also art galleries and jewellery stores galore, but my favourite find is the Rusty Spur Saloon, where we stop for lunch.
A rough and ready, yee-ha style bar, there’s live country music in the corner, and cowboy chilli on the menu, and that’s good enough for us.
When I find out that Clint Eastwood has visited, my joy is complete.
A surprising – and welcome – discovery is that Arizona produces its own wine; many of the state’s hundred or so vineyards are based around the Chiricahua Mountains, four hours south, and a few of them have tasting rooms in town, where you can sip and sample.
I’m taken with a fruity Syrah at the LDV tasting room (ldvwinery.com), and a spicy Sangiovese at nearby Carlson Creek (carlsoncreek.com).
The next day, and, yes, perhaps to clear the cobwebs, we set off on a desert hike.
One of Phoenix’s must-dos is the mighty Camelback Mountain, where a couple of steep trails take you up to 1,280ft, but we start more gently, with a two-hour walk around the Gateway Loop which only rises to a more manageable 650ft.
We’re surrounded by veritable armies of saguaro, along with many other types of cactus, some short and barrel-shaped, others like furry little shrubs.
The scenery changes when we get to Sedona, two hours’ north.
Here, it’s all about the kind of red rocks you’ve seen in a hundred Westerns, which form a stunning backdrop to this tiny town, offering panoramas layered in ombré shades of scarlet, terracotta and orange.
Sedona is famous for its spiritual vortexes – places where the earth’s energy is at its strongest, which many people believe can help with healing and meditation.
Many of the town’s shops reinforce this view, selling crystals and offering chakra readings.
Whether you are willing to immerse yourself in this or not, one of the best things to do while you’re here is take an off-road Jeep tour (pinkadventuretours.com), which we duly do.
We marvel at the incredible rock formations, including some with terrifying names such as the Road of No Return, and drive along the Broken Arrow Trail, where several westerns were filmed.
The next morning, we head to the Chapel of the Holy Cross, a stark, modernist chapel built right into the rocks, offering phenomenal views across the rust-coloured landscape.
It was built in 1957 by local rancher and sculptor Marguerite Brunswig Staude, helped by Lloyd Wright, the son of iconic architect Frank (whose summer house, Taliesin West, is in Scottsdale).
Then we head to Flagstaff, another hour north.
The temperature plummets as the elevation rises and we can see snow-topped mountains rising in the distance.
Eventually we arrive in the quaint, quirky little college town, 7,000ft above sea level, whose historic downtown is bisected by a stretch of that famous American highway, Route 66.
A stroll around highlights a couple of things Flagstaff has in abundance: street art – there are beautiful and creative murals on many of the buildings – and craft breweries.
Flagstaff’s ski resort, with a season which usually runs from November to April, is known as the Arizona Snowbowl, and is just a short drive out of town; if you’re seeking further thrills, head to Flagstaff Extreme (flagstaffextreme.com) for ziplines and treetop adventures.
Flagstaff also has the honour of having been named the world’s first International Dark Sky City, in 2001, thanks to its low light pollution.
At night, the stars are clearly visible, and we decide to get a closer look up at Lowell Observatory, whose huge telescopes allow us to peek at the moon’s craters and Orion’s Belt.
Next morning, after a hearty breakfast at the eclectic Toasted Owl Café (everything, from the crockery to the curtains, is owl-themed), we visit the Museum of Northern Arizona (musnaz.org)to discover more about the region’s history and geography.
It displays hundreds of fascinating artefacts which belonged to the local Native American tribes who have lived in Arizona for around 15,000 years.
Afterwards, we head back south, to the buzzing university town of Tucson.
Just outside it is the beautiful Mission San Xavier del Bac, an 18th-century church established by Spanish priests.
The town itself is also full of interesting architecture, from Fox Theatre, a 1930s cinema which still shows movies, to the old Spanish colonial style courthouse, topped with a mosaic domed roof.
My favourite, however, is the Congress Hotel, which was built in 1919 next to the railroad which still runs through Tucson.
The story goes that at least two of the rooms are haunted…
But it’s nearly time to bid this beautiful state goodbye, and we finish off with a visit to the compelling Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (desertmuseum.org), an outdoor, living park and zoo where you can learn more about the landscape and the animals who live here.
We spot cute little prairie dogs, which periodically stick their heads out of their burrows, meerkat-style, to see what’s going on, and a couple of javelinas – they’re like miniature wild boar – sunning themselves under a tree.
Then we’re waved off, after our epic Arizonan adventure, by more of those friendly saguaro.