The Event of Summer

By the third week of July, the ferocious heat of early summer―dry, crackling, moisture-sucking―eased up, and the “monsoon season” of regular rain showers―some brief and weak, others sustained and powerful―commenced, typically in the form of local, convective thunderstorms. 

The pattern was predictable.  Mornings in the Mesilla Valley consisted of empty skies or, at best, skies fleeced with vague, unthreatening, high-altitude cirrus clouds.  By early afternoon, cumulus congestus clouds, caused by rising columns of warm, moist air from the gulfs of Mexico and California and the eastern Pacific Ocean, began to form over such regional mountains as the Franklins, Organs, Floridas, and the Sierra Juárez.  Brilliantly white, these burgeoning clouds recalled, in their shapes and textures, heaps of mashed potatoes, ballooning mushrooms, and exploding cauliflowers.  As the afternoon progressed, the clouds climbed higher and higher, and their bellies began to darken with raindrops.  When the clouds assumed anvil-shaped heads, the tops of which reaching ten miles above southern New Mexico, west Texas, and northern Chihuahua, they were fully-developed cumulonimbi, now prepared to release their wet payload. 

Rain in the green world―that is, most of America―is often merely weather; rain in the Chihuahuan Desert was an event.  Iron-gray curtains of rain spread from their mountain cradles and swept slowly across the valley floor, bearing lightning, thunder, and winds that often kicked up―with a queer juxtaposition, it always seemed to me―towering clouds of dust at their feet, dust fleeing for its ethereal life.  As always, the initial drops to hit the ground briefly perfumed the desert air with the unique Southwestern fragrance of moistened dust.  Then, rain, miraculous rain.  Rain was occasionally so heavy that it reduced visibility to a quarter of a mile. 

From our property, I often viewed several storms patrolling various sectors of the vast valley at once, wreaking havoc.  If our house was in the bull’s eye of a storm approaching, say, from the south, the north wall of the house would often be coated with flies presumably seeking shelter. 

Most of the storms that began in the afternoon ended by evening.  Some, however, extended into the night or began in the night, their lightning offering dazzling displays near and far, often in eerie silence.  

In the storms’ wake, the valley filled with the cloying, tarry odor of wet creosote.  At sunrise after a stormy night, Anthony often looked like a summer morning in Connecticut: fogbanks, puddles everywhere, and our lawns, such as they were, greening before our eyes. 

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