The first drops of rain begin a gentle patter as soon as I get out of the car, a staccato of plinks on the windshield. No surprise; I didn’t exactly get an alpine start for this hike. In fact, I spent the morning watching the clouds building over these mountains, stacking up and collapsing on themselves like an overdone meringue. When the ferocity of the sun blazing down on the lowlands became too much, I got in the car and headed this direction.
I start hiking, dog in front ranging through the ponderosas in search of the ever-elusive squirrel. The rain falls gently, a cool sprinkle, antidote to another hot summer day in the mountains of southwestern Colorado, to a dry spell that has run on far too long. The landscape opens up its pores, drinks in the much-needed moisture. The forest begins to burst forth in the intoxicating perfumes that rain draws out. Sage, sharp and medicinal, piercing the air like it just woke up from a dusty nap. The faint aroma of vanilla wafting from the puzzle-piece bark of the ponderosas. The dirt coming to life, mycelium and mud in microscopic agitation.
Normally in the summer I’m more diligent about getting out before the monsoons hit. I’ve been caught in drenching thunderstorms miles from the trailhead enough times to learn that it’s wise to plan accordingly. But this summer has been different. Drought change things.
What began in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains as a winter so dry it was novel—we’re still mountain biking in December!—never self-corrected. Instead, the days stretched into weeks, the holidays came and went, daylight winnowed and then returned, and one day winter was over before it had ever really arrived.
Hope was held out for a wet spring. The kind of sloppy, slushy, grey spring that makes you yearn keenly for beach life or trips to the desert. Enormous wet snowstorms and confused robins looking out of place amid moth-sized flakes. Don’t put your boots away yet. It’s gonna be a doozy.
But it wasn’t. A storm here and there, nothing of the magnitude required to dig us out of the deficit of winter. Month after month of less-than-average precipitation continued. Skies cleared, summer came early, and our crumpled landscape of mountains and valleys grew ever more parched.
The sun began its tyranny over the land, each day spilling over the eastern horizon into the same clear blue sky, over and over until the monotony of it seemed cruel. Overbearing, blazing, merciless globe, its blinding brightness sucking the land dry. The wildfires followed, sprouting up all over the region, plumes of smoke rising ominously on the horizon, their haze casting a pinkish light on the sidewalks. The small patches of snow that remained in the mountains vanished, and rivers shrank down to pokey trickles. Trails exploded into powdery dust with each footfall. News reports spoke of exceptional drought, wells gone dry, and ever-increasing fire restrictions. I watched my lawn turn into a barren patch of dirt and weeds.
An undercurrent of unease settled in. It seemed like relief would never arrive.
And then, finally, the rains appeared. Not every day, and not nearly enough to pull us out of the drought. But sufficient to occasionally douse the scalded landscape, bring the temperature down and offer some life to the stressed flora.
And instead of avoiding the rain like I have in the past, I began to seek it out.
On this day, it’s not long before the patter picks up and I’m drawing my rain jacket tightly around me. We hike. A sibilant murmur grows as rainfall increases on the forest. Soon rumbles of thunder start to volley back and forth across the sky, rippling and crackling like giant boulders mashing into one another. The smells grow sweeter, rivulets pour down my sleeves and the storm gains strength.
We end up huddled under a low ponderosa. Here in the leaky umbrella cast by its long needles, we watch the storm reach the apex of its strength, the symphony of rainfall and thunder pulsing like waves until it’s a beautiful crescendo: a downpour.
Eventually, the curtains begin to draw and the storm passes.
We walk back to the car, skirting mud puddles, and are thoroughly soaked when we arrive. I finally feel cooled off.
It’s a small escape. But back home, it’s still hot, and smoke—caused by wildfires burning all across the West—continues to act as a steady reminder that a single storm isn’t the antidote to months of abnormal weather.
Life in a drought in the age of climate change imbues the days with uncertainty, throwing an anxious shadow over the future. It forces the hard lessons we all need to swallow, the ones about nature holding all of the cards, the gravity of scarcity, the perils of human trifling and how much every living organism depends those trifled-with systems to function.
Most of all, it reinforces the few things in life that are truly precious. Who knew a drop of rain could be so valuable?
Photo by Katie Klingsporn