Douglas Adams said it best: "Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is." So hats off to the intellectuals who can wrap their heads around the lives and deaths of stars, realise the chaos and logic that dictated the first milliseconds of existence. Their brains are as complex and brilliant as the cosmos they make sense of.

In another life, many moons ago, I was determined to be one of those great thinkers. Armed with my degree in Astrophysics and a modestly successful stint in amateur astronomy, I too was going to shake the foundations of science by unravelling creation's greatest mysteries. I'd attempted to disprove Einstein's theory of Relativity when I was 12 years old, so I felt it was only a matter of time.

Somewhere along the way, the cosmos decided it wasn't to be, and instead of staring up into the heavens, I spent my evenings gazing pie-eyed into beer pots. The wonder never goes away, though. 20 years later and I can still pick out the stars and constellations, point out galaxies and nebulae and red giants to disinterested friends as we dawdle home from the pub at closing time.

So when my travel itinerary changed at the eleventh hour and I had to spend a night in Arizona, there was one place I had to visit. Flagstaff is a little over two hours drive to the north of Phoenix, a railroad town, barely 130 years old and a popular stop-off on Route 66. Kicking up dust by the train tracks in Downtown, flanked by an unambitious skyline, the drawl of lazy traffic passing through, I could have been anywhere, just another forgotten outpost over the horizon. Cast an eye to the east, and Route 66 stretches through the city, untroubled by shadows, its spine bleached dry by the gentle desert sun. To the west, however, the highway leads to the foot of a wooded bluff. 

Flagstaff is often 20 degrees cooler than Phoenix; while temperatures further south soar past 100F, summer in Flagstaff is bearable. That also meant my visit on a Spring day was clear and brisk, and that snow is always likely in Winter - not quite what you'd expect from a desert state. It also means clear night skies are a near-certainty - perfect for those who wish to explore the universe.

Later that night, as I was driven around the tight noose of roads that let up the bluff, the sky was clear of clouds and rain but a thin haze arced across the stars, robbing the night of its glory. The brightest stars were visible and I could still hitchhike my way from horizon to horizon, recognise the myths and legends and recall their stories.

Less than a mile away from Downtown Flagstaff, as the road signs explained, is "The Home of Pluto" and "The Expanding Universe". This is Mars Hill, settled by Bostonian businessman Percival Lowell in the late 19th century. Fascinated with the red planet, Lowell built an observatory on the hill and spent years scouring the surface of Mars through the Clark Telescope. Fuelled by the work of others, Lowell promoted the existence of canals on Mars, published his drawings of thousand-mile long structures on the planet's surface as proof of intelligent life beyond the Earth.

While Lowell's claims found few supporters in the scientific community, it did little to dampen the slew of astronomical endeavours that followed. Lowell's programme to determine whether a mystery planet lay beyond the orbit of Neptune led to a young astronomer named Clyde Tombaugh discovering Pluto in 1930. Lowell's assistant, VM Slipher studied the light of stars and galaxies, the groundwork for our understanding of an expanding universe and a cosmos created by the Big Bang. IN the 1960s, NASA used the Lowell Observatory to create maps of the Moon; the astronauts of Apollo 11 visited Mars Hill to study their own landing site.

Beneath a tapestry of gods and monsters, of galaxies and globular clusters, the Clark Telescope is still in working order, an object of splendour in its own right that delights thousands to visitors to Mars Hill every year. I simply wanted to see the night sky as some of the planet's greatest minds many had viewed it. This sleepy town, lost in the desert on Route 66 has done more to advance our understanding of the cosmos than any number of billion dollar institutes. I never realised my dreams of changing the world, but in Flagstaff, I was humbled to share in those of the pioneers who had.


Disclosure: Paul stayed in Flagstaff courtesy of The Inn at 410. He isn't required to state what a brilliant, cosy B&B it is, but he's delighted to nevertheless.


You can get the USA included as a stopover in the Globehopper RTW