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Anatomy of a desert storm

Monday, April 10th, 2017

“Let me say this before rain becomes a utility that they can plan and distribute for money. By “they” I mean the people who cannot understand that rain is a festival, who do not appreciate its gratuity, who think that what has no price has no value, that what cannot be sold is not real, so that the only way to make something actual is to place it on the market. The time will come when they will sell you even your rain. At the moment it is still free, and I am in it. I celebrate its gratuity and its meaninglessness.” – Thomas Merton, from Raids on the Unspeakable


Here in the desert southwest, we’re coming off an amazing winter of rain. The color green seems a color more appropriately likened to Ireland than the Mojave Desert, but the grass popping up between very happy creosote and salt bush doesn’t tell any lies: it was a good winter. The big, soaking storms are long gone as we transition into summer, but some spring squalls are still hanging on. Desert rain storms are really quite remarkable; they are swift, powerful, and incredibly rewarding.

You’re sitting on the rock in the late afternoon, enjoying the warmth of the sun, perhaps enjoying a beer after a long day of hiking. Dark clouds hang on the horizon, but they look like they are quite far away. As the wind starts picking up, you realize that your beer bottle might get blown over if you don’t take cover, and that perhaps those clouds weren’t as far as you thought.

photograph of mountain ranges and rain in nevada

Fortunately, you save your beer from a near complete loss, and as you do, you look towards the storm and realize there’s an incredible light show taking place behind it. Backlit virga hangs like tattered curtains and you stand there admiring the desert mountain ranges–which appear in various shades of blue–receding behind the squall. The wind begins to sandblast you and you start to feel the first drops of water hitting your face.

Soon, rain begins to fall in earnest, but this lasts approximately 10% of the entire length of the storm; the whole thing is really just a big tease. The clouds pass overhead, and you look towards the horizon from whence the storm came; any trace of the storm that just blew through has been hidden.  Then, you turn around, and discover what the storm has left you as it moves away into the distance.

photograph of a rainbow at sunset in the gold butte national monument

The sun is setting now, shining on the storm clouds which are no longer backlit. The trailing wisps of the storm catch the light, turning bright orange and pink, while the storm itself maintains its deep, menacing blue. You look above your head to see a rainbow arching overhead, completing this amazing sunset.

The entire thing lasts about 20 minutes and the landscape takes 25 degree temperature drop from start to end. Several times over the course of the storm you’ve nearly forgotten to take photos, but you make images, which you’re grateful for. But mostly you just stand in awe, thankful for what you’ve just experienced, and where you’re standing. This is meaningless joy, and it’s wonderful.

photograph of sunset after a rain storm in gold butte national monument