As Robert Plant sang so poignantly in Led Zeppelin’s The Rain Song, “This is the mystery of the quotient. Upon us all a little rain must fall.” (album: Houses of the Holy, 1973)
He was full of it, of course. He should have been singing, “When it rains, it pours.”
I’m gonna whine
Yeah, weather is what it is. Yeah, we’ve got some crazy stuff going on in the world, weather-wise — but I’m here in the high country of New Mexico, where each season has its own brand of OMG what’s next. I’m not talking about climate change Armageddon weather, either. I’m talking about normal New Mexico weather.
Let’s take summer. Why not, since that’s what’s out there last time I looked.
Summer Act One
Summer is not identified by looking at a calendar. In New Mexico summer starts when it’s good and ready to, and that could be in May or June but certainly not at the summer solstice, because the solstice is right smack dab in the middle of Summer Act One, subtitled Hot And Dry.
Some folks in the rest of the country have gotten an idea of what hot is like recently and they’ve been shocked. Here that’s just normal summer. Pushing 100° during the day in the shade and 20° hotter than that in the sun. But heh, it’s a dry heat.
Dry heat at 100° and hotter means being so parched that each breath irritates the desiccated mucus membranes at the back of your throat. Plants wilt no matter how much you water them. Critters are so desperately thirsty they’ll eat any green leaf of any plant you’ve tried to keep alive. Flies and other persistent insects attempt to sip moisture from your burning eyeballs.
Even so, give me dry heat if I gotta have heat. Because Summer Act Two brings heat plus humidity delivered by monsoons.
Summer Act Two
Weather.gov says, “New Mexico and other areas across the Southwest U.S. are affected by the North American Monsoon System (NAMS) every summer, and the ‘Monsoon Season’ is designated as the period lasting from June 15th through September 30th.”
Maybe it rains somewhere in New Mexico in June but in all the years I’ve lived here, rain is not what happens then. Early June is for doing the rain dance, singing the rain song. But they don’t bring rain because rain usually waits for July 4 festivities. The weather gods enjoy nothing more than raining on your parade. Not this year, mind you. This was a year of drought, when by July 4 everyone was praying for a deluge.
Well, okay, not a deluge. Because deluge = flash floods.
Flash floods = mud and washed out roads and worse.
It’s all very exciting when black clouds dump pounding rain on you, with maybe a little hail to spice things up. It’s loud, let me tell you, and of course there’s the blasts from lightning that make you twitch and rolling thunder you feel in your bones. At this altitude (7000’ and over) temperatures will plummet twenty, forty or more degrees in minutes. In the morning you were sweating and dragging in humidity from yesterday’s rain, now you’re suffering hypothermia. No joke, hypothermia is a big risk in the summer in high country, not to mention being struck by lightning.
And swept away by flash floods.
The power of water is awesome. If you know anything about mining with water cannons (a.k.a. placer mining), then you have a good idea what flash floods can do. Water cannons shoot high-pressure streams of water that dislodge soil and rock material. Gold or whatever mineral is being mined can then be picked out of the sediment (slurry), incidentally causing significant environmental damage. The extremely high pressure stream of water can wash away entire hillsides.
Flash floods work the same way. Even a small flood can move heavy rocks. I speak from experience.
Here’s an aside, a cautionary tale about the first flash flood I experienced that came through my valley decades ago. It shouldn’t have been a surprise. My husband and I had seen the evidence of past floods when we bought the property, and study of the land and maps made it clear that our valley was the only outlet for at least ten square miles of land.
Meaning that when it rains hard uphill from us, any water that the soil can’t absorb runs on the surface heading downhill and then is funneled through the valley. Because of the way the drainage works, a droplet that lands on saturated soil 5 miles uphill from my valley could in theory end up in an ice cube in Southern California. Is that amazing or what?
Anyhow, we knew of the danger. At that point we were living in a camper trailer and almost all of the twenty six horses we’d brought with us from our Arabian horse business were happily running running free in the valley. Except for two young stallions (our senior stallion was still in California at that point), who, for obvious reasons, couldn’t be allowed to play with the girls. The two lived in a pen we’d put up on a nice flat area on the valley floor with some junipers for shade.
On the day in question Paul and I were in the trailer because it had started to rain. The sound on the roof was deafening, so that’s my excuse for taking so long to realize that water rushing down the valley was overflowing the arroyo bank. It was the roar of it that I heard above the rain on the roof that finally alerted me. The mares were nowhere to be seen and the two colts were nervously splashing around their pen in a few inches of water. It took just that one look for me to realize things could get really bad any second.
I grabbed a couple halters and ran to the rescue wearing flip flops. Because when it comes to an emergency with my critters, I tend to move first and think later. I waded into the stallion pen in water now knee deep, and damn, it was cold. I could barely stand upright. I managed to get the halters on – one of the colts was so freaked out he wouldn’t stand still – and handed the lead ropes to Paul, who was wearing a raincoat and tall boots that did him no good because the water was up to his knees now.
He took the colts uphill to the trailer, which we had fenced to keep the mares away from our stuff, and turned them loose there.
Meanwhile, I was staggering around in the water, soaked to the skin, marveling at how deep the water had gotten – now above my knees – and amazed at how hard it was to stand up against the current. Until something whacked me on my shins. Probably a branch — but you know, it could have been a rattlesnake, right?
I sloshed out of there as fast as I could without losing a flip flop, almost not making it to higher ground before a wave of brown water came crashing through the pen. Of course I was laughing like an idiot, but hey, we all get a little crazy sometimes.
About those rocks
Flash floods are a lot like placer mining with water cannons. They can dislodge and carry huge boulders downstream. They can tear out trees, not to mention human structures, and they’ll carve out new paths as they do it. The water moves so fast that six inches of it can knock a person off her feet, and why not? According to weather.com, “water flowing at 7 mph has the equivalent force per unit area as air blowing at EF5 tornado wind speeds. 12” of water can float cars.
So check this out: After the first of this year’s flash flood I found a 10 pound rock in the middle of my driveway, deposited there by a side flood that was in a channel about a foot in diameter. Just imagine if whatever hit me on the shins years ago had been that rock and not a stick… or whatever it was.
When it rains it pours = NOT the rain song
So that’s what Summer Act Two is like. It doesn’t just rain, it pours from the sky and then it floods along the ground. It doesn’t have to be raining long. It doesn’t even have to be raining where you’re standing for a flash flood to come barreling down an arroyo to knock you off your feet.
Mud and leaky roofs come from rain that falls from the sky right over your head. Flash floods don’t come from there but from the rain that’s pouring somewhere uphill. That’s why I look at weather forecasts several times a day during Summer Act Two. You just can’t be too careful. This kind of weather is what has always happened here in the Southwest but it’s still an awesome scary thing to experience.
I’ve experienced the awesome scary thing three times in the last week already (photo to the left was the first one) so I think it’s time to try the little rain now, what we refer to in New Mexico as a female rain, a gentle rain.
As for Led Zeppelin, The Rain Song is about more than rain, but still, you can practically hear that soft rain falling in the music. If I gotta have more rain this monsoon that’s what I want. Gentle, soft, female rain.
I love Led Zeppelin, but for sure Robert Plant wasn’t thinking about New Mexico when he came up with those lyrics.