When I lived in Phoenix my final two years of high school and subsequent five years of college, I recall once or twice a storm of such incredible proportions that it invoked a sense of superstition, anthropomorphism giving voice to the wall of red sand that came in from the West.
This one thousand foot high curtain covered the Valley with intent, an ominous creature who year after year attempted to remove the pollution of this man-made anomaly. First the blasting sand to scour the buildings, cars, streets and manicured lawns. And then a torrential downpour to wash away the exfoliated skin of human creation, flooding streets, gullies, canals, and what remained of the natural washes and otherwise dry basins.
The evening news made victims of the people rescued by helicopter from the roof tops of their cars, having attempted to drive across a flooded roadway; and heroes of those who conducted the rescues. No one gave credit to this desert of ten thousand years whose implicit right it is to replenish herself not in subtlety, but in bold, dynamic flood.
It is a natural part of the ecosystem, an anticipated and joyous event that all but the modern city dwellers celebrate. Instead, they attempt to control it, ignoring that replacement of the original, fragmented and porous skin with concrete focuses and amplifies the run-off into unnatural channels ill equipped to deal with the volume. Two college degrees rendered useless in a single night as both civil engineers and weatherman Valley wide lowered their heads in shame, realizing they knew very little and could control even less.
In the subsequent years, however, the average, ambient night time temperature has increased by nearly ten degrees and the perpetual column of rising, hot air literally obliterates the moisture bearing clouds.
Two nights ago the desert unexpectedly came to life. I could smell the dust rising and an excited electrical charge. In the distance, beyond South Mountain, a few lightning strikes confirmed my body’s response to a childhood recollection. The spirit of the wind had returned.
In a matter of minutes, the visibility dropped to less than one hundred feet. I could not discern the color of the house across the street and traffic at the end of the block was visible only by the halo of head lamps emitted from cautious cars. My brother was nearly lost coming home from just one mile away, the corner street signs invisible.
I ran out to close the windows of my car and enjoyed the rocking motion for a few minutes as the wind erupted in seemingly random gusts. Back inside my parent’s home, the single pane, steel framed windows were no match for the fine particles which coated floor, furniture, and lungs.
Queen Creek, to the south of the Superstition Mountains was hammered with rain, the temperature dropping from 108F to seventy-something in just twenty minutes. Beyond South Mountain, just fifteen miles from downtown, it rained for an hour. But in downtown Phoenix the rain never came, void of the smell of moisture which usually accompanies this monsoon wind. The column of amplified heat was an impenetrable barrier that even ten thousand years of wisdom could not defeat.
Every year it gets hotter. Every summer, the average night time low and the number of nights which remain above 90F increase. Every year the rain moves further away from the heart of this place, depriving the residents of the very reason they moved here, a place of stark contrast and harsh, surprising beauty.
Only the ghosts of generations prior recall the cooler nights in the desert and smile for they know that some day, by subtlety or by bold flood, this place will be reclaimed and the rains restored.