Gazing over the arid landscape near Kanab, in southern Utah, I have a nagging feeling that it looks familiar. Yet this is my first visit. The region’s rugged beauty is captivating. As we drive, I look towards a gnarled juniper tree corkscrewing out of pale orange rock shaped by millennia of erosion. Occasionally, tumbleweed rolls and bounces by the roadside.
At least to my inner child, the countryside reminds me of the cartoon terrain in which the devious yet hapless Wile E. Coyote was forever outsmarted by the beeping Road Runner. Reddish escarpments, stratified layers of exposed rock and distant mountains mean that today I’m glad to be a passenger rather than behind the steering wheel. This part of the USA is ideal road trip country but taking a break from driving allows me to appreciate the vistas and shoot video footage on my phone.
Filming, around here, is nothing new. During the golden age of Westerns, many a movie was shot in and around Kanab. That, I realise, is the real reason why the countryside is so recognisable. As a movie buff, I love making popcorn and then slumping into a sofa to watch oldies.
The Lone Ranger film and television series made use of the region’s canyons and valleys in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Charlton Heston and Rhonda Fleming spent time in the area working on Pony Express, one of the box office hits of 1953. The popularity of Westerns was already waning by 1975 when Clint Eastwood starred in and directed The Outlaw Josey Wales.
In the small city, which has less than 5,000 inhabitants, historical markers depict actors looking mean, riding horses and action-ready in gunslinger poses. Like little black lecterns by Kanab’s broad sidewalks, the markers state stars’ names and mention the movies that the actors filmed nearby. Many familiar faces peer out from photos shot on film sets decades ago, including those of Gregory Peck, John Wayne and Ronald Reagan.
In bold italics, each of the markers refers to Kanab as Utah’s Little Hollywood. Its big brother, the throbbing heart of the American movie industry, is approximately eight hours of direct driving southwest of here.
Numerous stars stayed at the Parry Lodge while in Kanab for filming. As mementoes, signed and framed monochrome photos with personalised dedications are displayed in the lobby and dining room. It’s said that The Duke himself, John Wayne, paid for the hotel’s heated pool. The property bears the name of the brothers who began attracting film crews to stay at their lodge.
The first film crew arrived in Kanab to work on The Deadwood Coach in 1924. Unfortunately, all the copies of that silent movie have been lost but its historic significance warrants a mention in the city’s Little Hollywood Museum. At the premises occupied by the museum, visitors have the option of donning Western costumes to be photographed.
Since The Deadwood Coach rolled out of town, Kanab has hosted crews working on approximately 100 films. And from 1955 to 1975 the television series Gunsmoke was filmed in nearby Johnson Canyon. The disused set can still be viewed from a distance.
Sagebrush sprouts from the upper reaches of the red, stratified rock that rises behind the Kanab Center, the convention hub located across the street from the Parry Lodge. The region’s striking geology is one of its key draws. Along with the nearby Monument Valley and Grand Canyon, the Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef national parks offer much for visitors to see and do within easy driving distance.
To experience what it’s like to traverse one of the region’s slot canyons, I join Dreamland Safari Tours Orion Bradbury on a trip out to Peek-A-Boo Canyon, around 15 kilometres north of Kanab. We turn off-road onto a dusty track and park a few paces from the gate-like entrance to the high-walled ravine that runs for just 500 metres or so.
Orion explains that rainfall in this part of Utah washes into canyons and causes flash flooding. The resultant erosion accounts for the smoothness of the red stone and explains why logs are wedged between the walls. Above us, he points out Moqui steps carved centuries ago by indigenous Ancestral Puebloan people to navigate the canyon walls. Further on circular patterns reminiscent of freshly kneaded dough are a legacy of seismic activity when the Navajo sandstone was young.
My guide explains this region’s high elevation and low light pollution are factors that result in star-spangled night skies. Regulations enforced in Kanab help minimise glare and glow in the night sky.
Historic connections to Hollywood stars and opportunities to experience stargazing after nightfall means Kanab is proving a stellar stop on my Utah road trip.
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