Throughout most of our stay in Yuma, the city and surrounding plains and mountains stood under appallingly empty skies. Day after arid day I gazed at the vacuum over the Gila Mountains and imagined how the dot of a question mark would have felt if it had been permanently denied the crook above it. Sometimes the skies were generous and treated us to pitiless brushstrokes of cirrus clouds. At the end of the day, they hung exhausted above the western horizon in faded grays, pinks, and oranges, in shapes mirroring the modest mountains, like a bank of ashes, below them.
Yes, rain was scarce in Yuma. The city averaged about three inches a year. I couldn’t imagine how roofers or car washers made a living there. Well, perhaps just car washers. Because Arizona, like New Mexico, did have a summer “monsoon season.” Yuma’s monsoons were triggered by tropical air masses visiting from the Gulf of California. Thus, it did occasionally shower in Yuma, although generally briefly and lightly.
However, one late-August afternoon, with the temperature yet again in the low-100’s, a muscular monsoon struck our neighborhood, one of the most frightening storms I’d ever experienced. In minutes, the inside of an oven became that of a dishwasher. Over an hour, several waves of thunder, lightning, rain, hail, and winds gusting to 50 miles-per-hour raked our neighborhood. Torrents spilled from the roof of our house. Plastic trash dumpsters and sheet metal fit to behead a person hurtled down 24th Street, which had become a river.
Three hours later, the sky was still dark, thunder rumbled in the distance, and a light rain fell. Our front yard was a swamp, the nearest intersection a lake. All around east Yuma, paloverde were uprooted or ripped in half. Near our house, a massive, fenced-off catchment basin, previously bone dry, was now engorged. Arroyos in the sandy desert were re-sculpted, their banks steep and re-sharpened to a keen edge, the fine grains in their beds exquisitely waved. And the heat, now heavy with the cloying odor of creosote soup, returned. In the days that followed, a vast green tint appeared on the lower elevations of the Gila Mountains―a stunning transformation in this static land.