So, um, no one told me it was monsoon season in the park. I guess I should have known by the daily, torrential downpours but I thought it was a fluke. I grew up in Connecticut where rain maintains a polite volume and distributes itself in moderation throughout all twelve months. Arizona rains are a little less egalitarian. Here, river’s can come and go in an afternoon and thunderstorms can surround you on all sides and leave you dry as, well, a desert.
Unlike creeping East Coast storms, Arizona storms make bold entrances and with 20 mile visibility you can see as many as four separate storms in four separate directions at one time. You can see exactly where the rain is falling, what way the wind is blowing it, and lightning can strike simultaneously from every corner of the sky.
I was out hiking the Blue Mesa trail when I learned all of this. It was a perfect hiking weather, clear and bright with enough cloud cover to keep me cool. I’d been encouraged, as all park visitors are, to get off trail and seek hidden corners of the park. This was a far from cry the Smokies’ “Do no be on/go off/look at/think about the trails of this national park” but The Petrified Forest attracts a smaller crowd than the Smokies and part of the appeal of this park is finding solitude. I didn’t need to be told twice.
I’d been eyeing the blue and white tepees since I arrived. They looked utterly unlike anything I’d ever scaled. As it turns out, they are utterly unlike anything I’d ever scaled. I’m accustomed to mountains being solid but not so in the painted desert my friends. Arizona mountains do not conform to such cliches. Arizona mountains would rather crumble beneath your feet than adhere to the notion of solidity. And so it was that I scaled a mountain that was quite literally crumbling beneath my feet. Every step sent a soft, crumbly layer of mountain sliding down to the canyon floor. The ground felt like bits of pottery and the tepees are, indeed, composed of bentonite, a type of absorbent clay. When I reached the top I looked down at the steep trail of clay bread crumbs that marked my journey upward and wondered how I would get down this earthen slip and slide alive. Was this how it felt to climb Everest? To constantly fear that what seemed solid was actually about to drop you into a hollow abyss never to be heard from again? Oddly, I was more exhilarated than scared. This moment, standing on top of this shaky mountain, is the first time I’ve ever seriously considered hiking Everest. I get it now. I get why people risk life and limb on perilous ice bridges to stand on top of a hunk of ice coated rock. It’s a puzzle, like any hike, and you just have to know where to put your feet.
Just as I was envisioning my future self scaling Everest (sorry Mom and Dad), I was brought back to the reality that I am a tiny, fragile speck of stardust lucky to be ten feet off the ground let alone 29,029 feet by a flash of light and a clap of thunder. A late afternoon monsoon was encroaching on all sides. To the west, a storm was casting lightning bolts directly in front of the vivid, pink and orange sunset. To the east, a gigantic rainbow arched across the sky. Behind the rainbow was a different thunderstorm. In the north, yet another storm raged with lightning striking at least once per minute.
Anywhere else on earth and I’d be either looking for shelter or stripping down naked to dance in the rain. But this is sweet, saucy, temperamental Arizona and just because there were three thunderstorms happening at once, that didn’t have any bearing whatsoever on the weather directly above me. I stood dry as can be atop a crumbling, blue rock mountain surveying my domain like an untouchable Greek goddess. The air was electric, the winds were blowing, and the sky was going to burn itself down before a single drop of rain touched my head. I watched the pink and white lightening cross the sky until there was almost no sunlight left. Finally, when it was almost dark, I felt a drop of rain and my 100% touchable self headed down to the canyon floor. I was standing on top of a hibernating mud slide, after all, and I’d pushed my luck quite enough for one day.
But there was always the next day! Remember what I said about the being able to see a storm coming from 120 miles away? Yeah, so, that only works if you have visibility in all directions. If you’re hanging out underneath an awning next to a cliff all morning while you practice juggling and stare down lizards you will most definitely be caught in a surprise downpour.
I raced for my car and made it to The Painted Desert Inn just before the skies truly opened up. What followed were waves of rain, torrents of hail, and a bolt of lightning that struck the top of a mountain less than a mile away. I saw the burst of flame as it hit the earth’s surface and screamed when the thunder bolt exploded the world in it’s aftermath. The fire alarm at the inn went off, car alarms went off, and my ears were ringing. The dozen of us gathered at the inn stood on the covered balcony looking out over the desert as what was once cracked, dry land flooded with water. My heart raced as the thunder rolled from one eardrum to another. I don’t fear thunder storms, in fact I revere them, but I had never seen the earth look so Jurassic. I shuddered. I have never been a fan of dinosaurs.
I stood outside for over an hour as the storm passed through. Stay temperamental Arizona, we like you this way.