Visiting Arizona's famous Boneyard is the realisation of a lifelong dream for a plane lover, writes Tim Stewart.
Jets, missiles, UFOs, giant cactuses and cowboys. The southwest of the US has got it all. It's a great place to live out a lot of childhood fantasies. I suppose for some people these fantasies can fade but I've clung on to mine for dear life. Which was why my husband and I set off from Las Vegas on a 2000-mile road trip through Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah accompanied by the sounds of Lee Hazelwood and his tales of The Nights.
Two days later, just north of Las Cruces, New Mexico, it felt like we were sliding down the face of the earth in a U-2 spy plane photo. The sun was threatening to set behind the San Augustin pass as we raced towards White Sands National Monument near Alamagordo as fast as we could. Dotted across the sloping plains were military facilities dedicated to missile testing. It gives the whole area an atmosphere of apocalyptic doom.
White sands is a desert within a desert. It's also the largest gypsum dune field in the world. Gypsum is a rare form of sand that looks just like snow. It feels more like a hallucination than a national monument. We had hit it just as the sun was setting. It was stunning. Rolling dunes in a million shades of lavender, pink and purple melded into the desert sunset.
It was a theatrical end to our nuclear-themed day. We'd started off just south of Tucson that morning, visiting the last remaining Titan II missile silo with a missile still housed in it.
To face the terrors of my childhood was a trippy experience. The technology that kept us on the brink of mutually assured destruction throughout my youth was alarmingly rudimentary. Big clunky metal racks, rotary telephones and teletype printers were more Apollo era than the Reagan era I had expected.
After seeing the control centre, you can stand topside and look down on the beast and marvel at how terrifying it would have been to see this thing blast off. The bunker down below, suspended on giant steel springs, was so well insulated that the personnel would have had to call another base to check that the missile had actually launched.
Tim Stewart in front of a Convair B-36 "Peacemaker". Photo / Tim Stewart
Arizona and New Mexico are fantastic places to go if you're interested in American military machinery. Besides the missile base, Tucson is also home to the famous AMARG (Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration) facility: the "Boneyard".
Those aerial shots of decommissioned B-52s stretched out in rows in the middle of the desert? The planes are here, along with another 4287 aircraft.
One of the interesting things you learn on your tour through the base, led by an Air Force vet with an encyclopaedic knowledge, is that 75 per cent of the aircraft here are not scrap. They will probably fly again in some form or other. This is kind of mind-blowing when you see 50 immaculate P-51 Mustangs from World War II sitting there waiting for their turn.
Next door to the base is Pima Air and Space Museum. This is my favourite museum in the world. Thanks to the 0 per cent humidity and scarce rainfall, all the planes are sitting out there in the desert sun looking as good as the day they were in service. I'm talking Cold War-era bombers, like the B-29 Superfortess shining in all its chromed glory in the desert sun, alongside B-52s and Russian MiGs.
There are all kinds of bizarre gigantic cargo planes and insect-like cargo choppers. We took a little break in the shadow of a C-97 Stratofreighter's massive wing to drink some water - it gets hot here and you can get a little carried away if this is your kind of museum. It's easy to do - there are something like 300 planes here.
The Boneyard and Pima Air and Space Museum together have over 4500 aircraft. Photo / 123RF
You can also cover a lot of ground in a day in this area. A 500km drive slides by effortlessly when you've got the appropriate soundtrack on the stereo and you're doing a steady 130km/h along immaculate, wide, straight highways.
In fact, I found the driving one of the most appealing parts of this journey. Particularly when a pit stop at a nondescript service station yields an amazing red chilli tamale and a gigantic translucent hot pickle for four bucks. It looked to me like the owner of the store's mum had made a fresh batch of red and green tamales every day for him to sell. Beats a sausage roll any day.
So off we cruised into the horizon. Lee Hazelwood was telling me about his boots and how they were made for walking, and I was putting one of mine flat to the floor.
Next stop: Albuquerque.
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies twice daily to Los Angeles from Auckland, increasing to three daily services from December to March.
Further information: See DiscoverAmerica.com for more on visiting Arizona.