Creek Running North

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February 18, 2004


Go out to the treeless valleys, the arid ranges between the Sierra and the Rockies, and at certain times of year rainclouds will scut along before you. Monsoon clouds drift up against the Colorado Plateau from the Gulf of Mexico. Summer storms leak over the Klamath and Warner ranges into the Black Rock Desert. A hundred miles of sky between you and the horizon, and the clouds sit somewhere in between. Are they thirty miles away? Eighty? Wait for a flash of lightning, count the seconds until you hear the clap of thunder, and divide by five, and then give up. The sound will dwindle to inaudibility before it reaches you who keep time.

It may be two days since rain has touched the soil, or six hundred. I have walked parts of the Mojave where no rain had fallen for fourteen months previous. I have seen fresh puddles on the rock a quarter inch deep with no clouds anywhere in sight — puddles shrunk to nothing in an hour. A year of good rain clothes the desert in improbable yellow and orange, primrose and globemallow, indigo phacelia and pink five-spot and ghostly white prickly poppy, but such a year comes once a decade. More often, the sterile soil's expectant skyward gaze is unrequited. A drop will fall, or ten, a liter of water for every hundred square meters of ground. The sides of roads bear bright green crops of rabbitbrush, a windfall of runoff blessing a meter-wide shoulder fringe with moisture adequate for thirsty plants. Past that verge, the tattered husks of annuals. An occasional cactus. An expanse of bare mineral soil.

Look back toward those dark clouds between you and the vanishing point. They are wrung out by their passage over the mountains, but still hold enough moisture to rain gray sheets, wispy tendrils aching for the ground far below. You can drive beneath such clouds and never need to reach for the wiper arm: the desert air, greedy, sucks the water from the rain before it reaches the ground. This is virga, the evanescent desert rain that falls but never lands. You see the rain, its scent plays around your nostrils like the sagebrush, and yet your lips still crack and peel in the desiccated air.

Posted at February 18, 2004 10:25 PM | TrackBack


You're just hitting them out of the park this week, you know that? :)

Virga has long fascinated me. I remember as a child being entranced by both the drifting rain evaporating before it reached ground and the word itself.

Your evocation of a desert in the wake of rain brings back creosote-scented memories; I've got to make arrangements for a spring trip!

Posted by: Rana at February 19, 2004 11:02 AM

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