Throughout most of our stay in Yuma, the city and surrounding plains and mountains stood under appallingly empty skies. Day after arid day I’d gaze at the vacuum over the Gila Mountains and imagine how the dot of a question mark would feel if it had been permanently denied the crook above it.
Sometimes the skies would be generous and treat us to pitiless brushstrokes of cirrus clouds. At the end of the day, they’d hang exhausted above the western horizon in faded grays, pinks, and oranges. Upon the horizon itself, barely noticeable, there’d be spread, like a bank of ashes, a distant range of Californian, and perhaps some Mexican, mountains.
Yes, rain was scarce in Yuma: the city averages 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, does have a summer “monsoon season.” Yuma’s monsoons are triggered by tropical air masses visiting from the Gulf of California. Thus, it did occasionally shower in Yuma, albeit briefly and lightly.
However, one late-August afternoon, with the temperature yet again in the low-100s, an unusually powerful monsoon struck our neighborhood, one of the most frightening storms I’d ever experienced. In minutes, the inside of an oven became the inside 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 end-over-end 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 following the monsoon, a green tint blossomed on the lower elevations of the Gila Mountains.