New Mexico is a very dry place. In a good year, the area around the Cerrillos Hills where I live gets about a foot of rain, most of it in the summer months. This has not been a good year: from January until June the sky loosed less than an inch.
Having spent two desperately dry winters in the shadow of the Cerrillos Hills and summers elsewhere, I couldn’t quite believe the rumors of summertime torrential rains and flash floods. Sure I saw the arroyos – dry river canyons – cut two-stories deep, but I had a hard time believing their creations were flash flood catastrophes. More often, geologic time runs slow and steady and this is how I imagined desert rivers would flow too.
I decided to spend the summer in New Mexico so that I could see the desert seasons come full circle. I needed to see these alleged soaking storms, flash floods and raging desert rivers for myself. This afternoon, I witnessed all three, and the experience was totally worth a summer of heat, wildfires and rattlesnakes.
Today’s storm came out of nowhere. One minute it was sunny, then it was a bit overcast, then rain was coming down in sheets. Rain is rare enough out here to warrant stopping what you’re doing to go watch it from the porch. But this time my porch was already soaked. This storm was something different. This was kind of rain that falls sideways and upside down, the wind-driven drops pelting so hard they hit and bounce back towards the sky. This was the kind of storm I had been waiting for all summer.
Squinting through the downpour, I saw a rushing, chocolate brown river raging across my driveway. I ducked in the Airstream to grab my camera and ran out into the rain, leaving Bowie asleep under the bed and rain-intolerant Dio curled in the open doorway to decide for themselves whether to follow me into the storm.
The driveway river is running fast and high enough that I would not attempt to drive across it unless I really had to. Now I see the need for the piled sandbags, rebar and concrete reinforcements. I turn upstream, away from the ledge at the edge of the drive and plunge into the fast running water without bothering to roll up my pant legs. Pants be damned; I have a waterfall to see.
I slosh upstream, towards the spot I’ve always planned on heading in the event of a storm like this: a spillway of red sandstone evidently sculpted by past floods, less than a quarter mile from my house. Wading through the fast water, I’m glad for my good river-walking sandals, but wish I had brought my hiking stick for balance. The violent current is knee deep, the water frothy brown, like a melted chocolate shake – the good kind, thick with cream – and nearly as cold.
Following the roaring, sloshing river between the high arroyo banks, water borne debris – sticks and rocks and I hope not rattlesnakes – pelt my submerged sandaled feet and wrap around my legs and I’m glad for the long pants, though they are soaked and filthy and probably ruined. I can hear the waterfall up ahead. I round a few bends in the river and I’m there. Raging water has transformed this usually dusty dry place and save for the familiar rocks crowning the falls, I hardly recognize it. Rain is pouring, thunder is rumbling, lightning is clapping and the waterfall is glorious, falling like rushing chocolate and churning madly at my feet.
In a moment, Dio comes bounding up behind me through the water, followed by Bowie, sloshing along the river’s edge. Ever-loyal Bowie can’t not follow me, but he’s peeved about interrupting his nap to come stand in a river in the rain. Bowie hates getting his feet dirty and he alternately lifts his front feet above the muddy waves, looking patently unhappy. Me, I’m grinning, thrilled to be soaked by rain, knee deep in rushing brown water, my pants probably ruined. Wild water in the desert! For what other reason had I spent the summer in hot, dry, snake-infested New Mexico?!
Then Dio, ever the explorer, launches himself across the river and catapults up the red rocks beside the falls. On top he stops and looks down at me expectantly, hoping I’ll follow. And so I do. And, of course, so does Bowie. And the view from the top is, as always, even better. From up here I can see more clearly than ever that as dry as this desert is most of the year, its contours are indeed shaped by the flow of fast running water. A flood in the desert! I had to see it to believe it.
The next 24 hours brought three more storms and two inches of water. In one night, it rained twice what we had gotten in the six months between January and June. Here’s hoping it continues. This desert, still in drought, needs all the rain it can get.