Friday, July 3, 2009

Hell-On-Earth Weekend

Independence Day 2009 is tomorrow and I have named the weekend closest to the holiday as "Hell On Earth Weekend." Allow me a couple of minutes to ruminate about early July in central Arizona.

I have been living in Arizona for sixteen years now, soon to start my 17th year at the end of the month - I moved here July 31, 1993. In my first full day in my new apartment the high temperature was 113 degrees. I thought to myself, wow, they weren't kidding in the least about this desert heat. It was blazing hot even at 9am in the morning and by mid-afternoon, a somnambulant, claustrophobic veil of heat blanketed everything with its stifling intensity. Even the doves outside my bedroom gave it up and hightailed it to some shady bit of shelter. Not knowing any better, I took a short walk outside and quickly noticed there weren't a lot of other people walking around. As I looked up into the hazy, glassy sky and listened to the surreal buzzing of the cicadas in the palo verde trees, I felt that the heat is so overwhelming it seems even time stops in its tracks. I walked around my new-found home town and thought about how different this place was from my previous home, the San Francisco Bay Area, and from the small town in western Pennsylvania where I was born. I understood that my new home would have a lot of challenges and opportunities but I also knew it would never be boring.

Residents of this area have come to realize that the wonderful, mild weather we enjoy during most of the year comes with a price, and that price is summertime. Starting in mid- to late-May, when the temperature starts edging up to triple digits, and lasting through the vast wasteland of June, July, August and most of September, summer will come and sit on you like a Sumo wrestler with a bad attitude. It rules your life and determines when, where and if you will venture outside. Summer is vegging-out time for us Phoenicians; in other parts of the country, winter is when you stay inside the most because the weather outside is so harsh and outrageous. Here, we spend most of our time indoors during summer.

And it's not like we get a lot of breaks or respites from the searing heat. It took me quite a while to get used to the fact that many times, it can still be above 100 degrees at 10pm at night and surprisingly windy, too. Friends in other parts of the country sometimes ask me what it's like to experience that, and I always tell them the same thing: get a hair dryer, turn it on high, and point it directly at your face. That is EXACTLY how it feels outside, and I'm completely serious about that. There are summer nights when it does not even dip below 90 degrees at any point, and scientists tell us that in about 20 years the nighttime temperatures won't even get below 100 degrees. This is the so-called "heat island" effect, where the buildings and roads and asphalt parking lots of the ever-expanding Phoenix metro area (the 5th largest in the country) will retain and re-radiate so much heat at night it will keep the temps in triple-digits 24 hours a day.

The only breaks we do get from the heat are from the delightful meteorological freak-out called the monsoon, which is the distinguishing feature of summer in Phoenix. It is a seasonal shift in the direction of the prevailing winds which normally come from the west, but during the summer they swing around to come from the east and bring with them a lot of humidity and the possibility of violent thunderstorms and rain. It's quite an amazing process how monsoon storms happen. The blazing sun blasts the desert floor to the south of us with heat and immense, rising columns of water vapor form enormous mountains of moisture-laden clouds, which you can see piling up on southern horizon. As long as the sun is out its heat props up these huge thunderheads, but in the evening when the sun sets all of a sudden the energy is gone and these huge thunderstorms collapse in on themselves. The wind pushes out of the bottom of these clouds in what are called "outflow boundaries" and as they sweep across the desert floor sometimes create an amazing apparition called a "haboob" or a dust storm, It is quite majestic and startling when you see a gigantic orange cloud of dust hugging the surface and pushing up from the southeast. It can envelop the entire valley in minutes and reduce visibility to several dozen feet. These outflow boundaries also trigger the moist, unstable atmosphere to form thunderstorms.

Alternately, the monstrous thunderclouds can form above the Mogollon Rim northeast of the valley, powered by the same solar energy, but when that energy is removed the storms collapse and come roaring down the Rim into the valley like runaway freight trains, bringing sudden, very powerful thunderstorms. I used to think they were fun until last year when an incredibly violent, three-hour thunderstorm took out the ash tree in my back yard, which was nearly a hundred feet tall had been there over 40 years. The only good things the storms bring are some welcome rainfall and a much-too-temporary 20-degree drop in temperature, which we enjoy for as long as we can.

But along with the rainfall the monsoon season also treats us to some amazingly beautiful sunsets, and as the sky fills with dust and all different kinds of clouds at many different levels, the setting sun illuminates and transforms it into an astonishing tapestry of red, yellow, orange and magenta, framed by a royal blue background. Often you can see distant thunderstorms in stark detail low in the sky, laced with bolts of lightning, which will sporadically illuminate portions of the clouds in startlingly beautiful colors. These light shows in the clouds are my favorite aspects of the monsoon season, and they always leave me amazed at their power and beauty. The desert seems to be like that - it can be a very harsh, unforgiving environment, but the dangers and inconveniences it presents are usually offset by scenes of breathtaking beauty which never fail to excite the imagination with wonder, no matter how many times you see them.

So, Hell On Earth weekend is here again. Actually for me this is a marker in the long, hot, dusty slog that is summer in the desert. It's an indication that time is passing, and the cool temperatures of autumn, while still a long way off, are starting to come a little bit closer. The summer solstice was about two weeks ago, and in a little while you will start to notice that it's beginning to get dark in the evening a little bit earlier than it has been. As we continue the arduous, slow crawl toward Halloween - the date that long-time Phoenix residents regard as the true beginning of the cool weather - we realize there are going to be some uncomfortable times to get through. But get through them we will, and when the mornings start cooling off enough for me to take some bunnies outside for fresh air and I can start to open up the windows at night, I hope I will have the presence of mind to stop, look around, and enjoy this amazing desert wonderland I have chosen to make my home.

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