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Quietly gliding through the desert's dawn sky

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona | In Scottsdale it's all about the sky. During 330 cloud-free, sun-drenched days a year, visitors lie face-up on poolside loungers enjoying the nearly-always reliable rays. At night they take advantage of the clear desert air for a closer look at a firmament brilliant with stars. Stargazing is so popular that rooms at Scottsdale's Four Seasons Resort come with telescopes, and there are frequent visits by a professional astronomer with a larger device, happy to explain what's where in the night heavens.

But for those who tire of this passive approach there's also the option of going aloft in a powered parachute — a sort of two-seat tricycle with wings.

Just after dawn, when the air is still and the light dramatic, Arizona Powerchutes pilot-instructor Randy Long and I drive a short ways out into the desert. Long rolls the ultralight aircraft out of its trailer. The multi-coloured rectangular parachute from which the whole device will be suspended is carefully laid out in a crescent and attached with a web of lines. We don flight suits and helmets, strap ourselves in and, after one glance at the windsock (attached to a fishing rod poking up from the trailer), he revs the engine, the parachute fills and we're quickly off the ground.

The experience is very E.T. — like being on a bicycle in the air. The 65-horsepower, two-stroke engine powering a four-blade propeller caged behind the rear of the two seats is quieter than expected and the breeze from a maximum speed of around 42 kilometres-per-hour is pleasant. Throttle up and we climb; throttle down and we drop. The vehicle glides downwards at a rate of one in five, so even engine failure would only mean a slightly hard landing with no harm done.

Around us, several hot air balloons are hanging prettily in the air like clusters of ripe, glowing fruit. We circle, and exchange aeronautic greetings.

The early-morning light is horizontal, making the giant cactuses throw long shadows, and the air is dry and clear, showing everything from distant high ground to scattering rabbits below us in high definition. Regulations permit powered parachutes to climb to as high as 3,000 metres, but it's more fun to weave a few metres off the ground along the stony channels created by flash floods.

We spiral upward to climb over some power lines, and then head over to Cave Creek Regional Park. "That's the toll booth," says Long. "Just give them a wave." No entrance fees for us.

Winking dots of red are teddy-bear cholla cactuses in bloom, and there are flashes of blue from backyard swimming pools in the Scottsdale suburbs. Our landing, after 45 minutes of ambling round the skies, is brief and gentle.

Long frequently flies solo. "Sometimes I'll wake up in the morning and it'll be a great day, so I plug my iPod into my headset, get my favourite music, fly around and feel like I own the world."

Living and dead ghost towns in the desert

TOMBSTONE, Arizona | Arizona is a region of dry, open spaces where the main roads seem to run in straight lines for hundreds of kilometres and destinations are visible long before they are reached, only slowly crawling closer however hard the accelerator is pressed.

Maps show other, smaller roads that wind more interestingly, but, when asked about these, local people tend to look skeptically at you and your vehicle. "You'd best rent a proper truck," they say, "and take plenty of water in case there's trouble and you have to wait around." Despite Arizona's sandy horizons, to modern man it's apparently the lack of a mobile-phone signal that indicates true desert.

In these open spaces lie many of Arizona's original towns. They began as mining camps from the 1850s onward, springing up wherever gold, silver or copper was discovered and often dying out again just as quickly.

Tombstone, about an hour's drive south of Tucson, is amongst 130 ghost towns listed in Ghost Towns of Arizona by James & Barbara Sherman, and since it's conveniently on a modern highway (the I-10), seems a suitable starting point for a casual exploration of abandoned settlements. This is a ghost town for those not wanting to be too alone with the ghosts. On most days, visitors fill its dusty main street lined with low-rise wooden stores and saloons that seem to have been transported down the decades unweathered.

In its 1880 ­– 86 heyday Tombstone was the last word in lawless boom-towns. Founded on the 1877 discovery of four major deposits of silver, its first proper house appeared in 1879 and by 1881 there was wealth enough to support substantial civic buildings of brick and stone.

Its decline began when the silver mines flooded in 1886, and its residents now rely on tourism, trading on the notoriety of several gun-slinging former residents immortalized by Hollywood, such as Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and Johnny Ringo.

The nearest real ghost town, Fairbank, is only about 15 minutes' drive west of Tombstone on SR82. It grew as a railway depot, with a population at its peak of nearly 500. Fairbank's last residents only left in the 1970s. Its school survived until 1944 and has been restored, although one of the few other remaining buildings is marked as dangerous. "That's the teacherage," said the attendant looking after the school's well-preserved interior, filled with rows of the original wooden desks, "and the reason it's dangerous is rattlesnakes have nested under the floor."

The walk to the Fairbanks' cemetery, a kilometre along a narrow, partly overgrown path, scatters clouds of crickets and sends the odd lizard skittering away. It climbs past clumps of orange, poppy-like flowers to a low hill where a few sun-bleached remnants of wooden crosses and leaning rusty railings mark the tomb locations. Less glamorous than Tombstone's Boot Hill cemeteries and without a souvenir shop, it's also a great deal more atmospheric.

If ghost towns have ghosts they are in dozens of similar spots across Arizona, and, like me, enjoying the silence.


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