Have you ever seen a thundercloud from above? You don’t have to be a test pilot or an astronaut to do it. All you need do is hop on an airliner in July and fly across the middle of America. You’ll see their heads smeared like bug juice on the basement floor of the stratosphere. You’ll get to watch dazzling heads of cauliflower build on the base of anvils.
In the Midwest, major formations of cumulonimbi have more subtle relief than the thunderheads out west. The boundaries of the clouds are sharper where the daylight dusts them closest. It’s the silver-lining affect, but the relief achieves this fine resolution in only a few places along the clouds edges. There weren’t any of those in the Midwest as we took off on a Southwest Air flight from Midway Airport in Chicago, due to arrive at the Albuquerque Sunport in just three hours. There hadn’t been a major storm all summer, the worst drought since 1988.
What was rare in Chicago became more common as we took a heading over Missouri. Swelling cumuli muted the sunlight, which resembled the light from a stellar nursery occulted by a nebula of hydrogen dust. Sunset filtered through the murk, the light an admixture of neon and fluorescence. As we flew west, the clouds collided with one another, even though they should’ve been heading in the same direction. The affect had to do with the apparent motion of the clouds and the spatial relationships they appeared to have with one another as we flew by at 300 + MPH.
I had to look away just to allow them to change. Just a few moments would do, and then the shift in the position of the jet along with their rotation in the light altered them in a radical way. The farther west we flew, the darker they became.
What looked like night from the earth’s surface as we reloaded and took off from Kansas City dazzled like beach foam up here. To see clouds right up close, eye level, was like swimming with a whale shark, then drowning in an avalanche of powdery snow as we bore through a higher bank. There were so many structures, like the accreted geology of an exotic terrain. Weather is the chaologist’s dream, and her inspiration as well. The structure of clouds and weather must be subject to coefficients irresolvable through present equations.
Soon, we dove back down through them, and punctured their surfaces like we were diving through tidal waves, dipping through to the seafloor below. Inside the cloudstory itself, the sun machine-gunned in and out like a strobe. A bumpy wind fished us out the underside of the cloud-surf, where vast stretches of tan subdivision lapped the uprising of the Sandia Peaks that marked the eastern shore of Albuquerque. Copious rains, blurred by clouds, painted a nebulous limbo where low cloud and high mountain mirrored one another. The desert defied the drought back east.
THE DESERT RAINS
After landing in a drizzly Albuquerque, I drove north through Bernalillo, up 550 toward Durango. The whole way I was hounded by a schizoid sky, clear in the west and convulsed in the east. The colors were uncountable: white-silver, dirty rain cloud blue, cerulean blue, burning orange husks of horizon cumuli. Drapes of far-off rain smeared a quarter of the sky, impressionist-style. Distant escarpments were barely discernible, like images behind wax paper. The arresting green of the desert after a storm was punctuated by the queer pungency of ozone. As I drove north of Counselor, a crosswalk more than a settlement, the bruised sky opened, with waterfalls of steamy sun pouring crepuscular bolts through parallelogram windows silled in east and west by dark sheets of rain. Sleeping Ute popped off the horizon. There was so much to keep track of, not the least of which was driving.
While lightning crooked on the mesas north of Bloomfield, four ravens spiraled up on an unseen staircase. On the car stereo, the most supernatural stretch of Holst’s The Planets bayed. Then I put in Vaughn Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. This edged my drive over the line of entertainment, and into the realm of experience.
North of Bloomfield, NM, still on the way toward Durango, the land flattened and dried until I approached the La Platas near Durango. Heavy steel clouds coalesced over the peaks, and they left little space for sunset. The swirling gray tried to obscure the blinding yellow sky. As smoke and fusion mingled in a jagged cloud line that paralleled the peaks, it resembled an aurora, a flickering and shifting stream of light that never really lost its main channel.
I entered the mountains, and by then the rains had liberated the mesquite. Sweet pine displaced that soon enough. The temperature dropped to 63. The sun broke through a breach in the mountains as I veered west toward Cortez on 160. The clouds were ignited like the gas well I’d passed south of Bloomfield. Before I left the La Platas, I spotted a wide rainbow striking down vertically from the clouds like a banner.
I swooped into the valley that enclosed the tiny town of Mancos, where the ostentatious parade of sunset colors grew even more sultry—x-rated ambers and blue-purples, crimsons and burning reds, withholding blues and briny yellows. They violated the spectrum, it seemed. Was God a narcissist? Was she overdoing it just a bit? I thought back to the insular, mono-gray of a Midwestern winter, and what a perfect counterweight it provided to a southwestern sunset behind the breaking up of a storm.
Stranded archipelagoes of rain cloud held out against the sun here and there as Sleeping Ute re-emerged. An isolated cloud released the last of a dark pewter rain. It looked like the dwindling root hairs of an excavated pound of turf. The cloud managed a couple threads of lightning before the sundown chased it off. The temperature shot up 20 degrees since I’d climbed down from the mountains. I rode the northern skirt of the cliffs of Mesa Verde. As darkness covered the valley, the lights of Cortez yawned and stretched up to the base of Sleeping Ute.
I selected a Holiday Inn at random from the string of similar such mega-fauna along the main drag of Cortez. The clouds smothered and sacked the moon. God was austering Herself once again. This was easier to handle. The next day, I was to discover that just as the bright skullcaps of thunderheads have dark underbellies, even desert rain can bring a form of poverty.
Slurry bombers. That’s what they call them. The tanker planes drop fertilizer, dyed red, down on a forest punished by fire. A black storm marched in from the La Platas, as dark as sky can become without becoming night. Rippled chords of lightning flogged the brittle tree tops. Sun painted up the dried amber grasses in the same droughted meadow just west of the trees. For over an hour, the sun grappled with the storm like that. Four turkey vultures rode the gales, drifting east toward the mountains a mile or so, then dipping low again and returning to the same meadow I was in. A gaggle of 12 geese flew away from the storm. A second gaggle honked by. Humming birds got the last of their drinks in before the wind really picked up.
The lightning teased, the thunder threatened, the storm was always on the verge of hammering the meadow. The clouds smothered the La Platas whole. But the rain never came.
The next day, dry lightning was exploding the green pines, ripe with resin and pitch. The lightning struck the plain of Montezuma Valley, followed by a column of smoke. A strike here. A tower of smoke there. I was driving with a friend, and we decided to track down a fire north of Cortez.
Just like in a city, the smoke from a fire may make it seem close, but the fire can be much farther off. As we got closer to this one, the white smoke turned a whiskey-hue. I couldn’t figure whether the fire was consuming new fuel or just exhibiting new colors in the altering sun. But a burning house can turn a white fire black. A change in wind direction can turn a harmless fire into a holocaust. A small crowd gathered at the dusty turnout of the road just across the canyon from the fire, watching the flame lap the juniper-pinion woodland. Two fire trucks raced in, one for structure protection and one for brush control. It was hard for a city boy to believe, but out here, all the local firemen are volunteer.
Most of the fires are out in a couple hours. But one that struck that Thursday, just southeast of Mesa Verde National Park, kept getting bigger. It was on its third day when I decided to drive up the mesa to see what it intended.
To see what a wild fire can do, go to Mesa Verde. The Douglas fir, the gambel oak, the juniper and pinion, are all dead. It took several fires in multiple seasons to raze the forest, like the Pony Fire in August, 2000, that destroyed the vegetation on Wetherill Mesa. Sometimes two fires joined forces. The mix of abundant new growth, drought and lightning turned virtually the whole Park into a cemetery of wooden crosses. Fires of the size that decimated the timber of Mesa Verde have been known, along with the largest volcanic eruptions on earth, to create their own weather. The deeply furrowed canyons etched into the mesa top will take generations to come back, yet already, luxuriant stands of scrub oak are drowning the ghost forest of gambel limbs standing dead toward the sky.
I hiked up to the fire station at Park Point, the highest place in the Park. There, a 360 degree view of distant and unrelated mountain systems extended in every direction—the Abajo and Manti-LaSal Mountains northwest in Utah; Lone Cone, the Dolores Peaks and Mount Wilson north in Colorado; the La Plata Mountains to the east; the Hogback and Shiprock formations south in New Mexico; the Lukachukai and Carrizzo Mountains southwest in Arizona; and Sleeping Ute Mountain in the west.
As I topped out at the fire lookout at Park Point, the coal and industrial haze cut down my view. The fire I’d been tracking loomed south of the Park itself. Over the days, its immature plume had evolved into a brain-shaped cloud that resembled the true thunderheads forming all day this side of the La Platas. The smoke cloud had been generated from two separate fire strikes. It was black smoke, and more thickly modeled than the storm clouds adjacent to it. Its convolutions were more obvious and the billowy relief features lasted longer than the ephemeral cumulus. Over the short term, it was a stationary storm, like Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, but it moved just the same. By Sunday morning, it had been extinguished. It wouldn’t evolve into the same kind of monster that had destroyed the green of Mesa Verde. Ironically, it wasn’t the budding ghost forests of dead pinion, decimated by Ipps beetles, which proved the best tinder for dry lightning. Heavy rains led to new growth. A fire could die down, then a new tree thick with combustible resin could pop and explode, re-igniting the forest. The thicker and greener the growth, the more the fuel. A healthy forest didn’t mean a dense one, like it did in a rain forest. Again, this world out here was, in some ways, counterintuitive.
Later that season, on Labor Day weekend, a friend and I climbed a foothill overlooking Montezuma Valley and watched a new fire, about four miles west, that threatened his land. This one had been set by landowners burning an unknown material. Firefighters on the ground directed two slurry planes, a lead plane and an air attack plane, which would circle and dive-bomb the unseen fire that raged in Cash Canyon. Two helicopters rounded out the aerial compliment, dipping huge bags into nearby reservoirs to dump on the flames. There were crews on the ground from Cortez, Lewis, Mancos and Delores. Later, firefighters from Mesa Verde National Park, the Ute Mountain Tribe, and even a 20-person Navajo Hotshot crew that been driving by helped out. Everybody pitched in at times like these. The stakes were too great not to. Across the valley, near Yellow Jacket, a smaller fire, started by lightning, burned itself out by day’s end. But this one survived the sunset. It wasn’t until morning that we knew we were safe.
SMOKE FROM A DIFFERENT FIRE
As I left Montezuma Valley that Labor Day, droughts still raged in the east and west of the nation. Our plane touched down briefly in Kansas City, and as the plane rose again, small cumuli congealed from a membrane of water vapor that appeared like a slight haze when I peered through it to the patchwork of farms below. But when I looked at it from an angle as the plane banked, it was an opaque, white ocean stretched over the whole horizon. As we floated toward Chicago, the clouds swelled into long banks. Their structures and wrinkled topologies evolved in complexity. One cloud miles north shot straight up in a narrow column like a budding mushroom cloud. Farther east, a toadstool with a crooked stem may have been in an immature anvil. More and more of the cumuli grew into billowing columns shaped like solar flares. They reminded me of the pillars of true smoke I’d just seen off Montezuma Valley. We finally passed east of the ornately sculpted banks. I watched as their shadow sides protruded through the world-girdling mist like slanted stalagmites. They wouldn’t bring rain.
Fire and water, the elemental opposites, chiseled clouds that could be hard to tell apart. Clouds made of water were the primary source of ignition for wildfires. In turn, the fires could create enough smoke to seed storms. The more I studied the elements, the more it seemed that opposing forces generated one another. Water made fire, and fire could make water. I suspected alchemy at work, reversing my expectations. Perhaps fire and water were different aspects of the same force.
© 2014 by Michael C. Just