He squatted, looking north, resting his back on a thick mesquite trunk along the arroyo’s south bank, the single shot .22 boy’s rifle across his knees. It was late afternoon, past the time cottontails or jackrabbits would be seen lying on the shady side of chollas or palos verdes. Earlier the few he had seen scampered or bounded away at his approach. Now, the shadows were long and developing contrasts among the canyons and foothills of the Santa Catalinas.
A slight breeze shifted then accelerated enough to raise dust off the arroyo’s wide sandy channel. The fluffy dust aloft and the sun’s slanting rays blended into a pastel translucency illuminating and shadowing the mountainside’s ridges. The air at thunderhead height was clear and contrasted with the towering clouds’ vibrant whites and varied grays. As he watched, the white cloud tops rose, the gray bottoms seeming to spread in place as the air eased into a yellow-green tint.
Along the dry El Rillito creek bed the cooling winds were intermittent, stuttering before the approaching front. A dust devil had “dervished” and expired. Ahead of the nearing clouds, the dusty wind accelerated, now carrying teasing hints of moisture and an occasional drop amid aridity and dust. Within minutes, the winds carried the moist creosote aroma that only first raindrops impacting desert-dry plants and soil could generate. He wrapped his T-shirt around the 22s short metal barrel.
He breathed deeply, his anticipation now heightened by the delicious aroma’s promise. The lightning show was next expected, with thunder reverberating and echo-rolling around the valley’s stark mountainous rims. He most wished for the first huge monsoon raindrops that hurt your face if you looked up, and to feel the exciting direct cracks of nearby lightning strikes and their bouncing, rolling thunder.
His experience, as limited as his pre-teen life, nonetheless told him this gusting activity would likely pause, then resume with vigor, or entirely pass. He checked the gun’s safety, got up and began trotting south towards a nearby ocotillo and adobe casita to try to have the advantage of both staying dry and being near the mountain sounds and heavier rain he hoped would soon follow.
He found shelter under the shack’s metal porch, squatting again, hoping to hear the unique percussion of hard rain on its corrugated iron surface. Facing the Catalinas he waited, each inhaled breath nearly intoxicating. Then it started . . . the thuds of pelting rain approaching, then the sudden and sustained crescendo on the metal roof . . . More than an hour later, day now darkening, with only occasional drops now falling, he put on his slightly damp shirt and began his long walk south to his home south of Old Main.
That long-ago storm . . . violent with wind, lightning, cloudbursts, and glorious tumultuous bank-to-bank hissing and occasional roaring of the Rillito, was still a strong memory, that of a participant who mildly regretted not having been able to capture more of the storm’s magnificence. He had settled for deep delicious breaths of damp desert air.
He returned more than half-a century later, driving mostly via paved roads and over a short rutted desert trail to the now weary and less isolated old casita, its adobe walls crumbled, cracked and fissured. Its corrugated roof, absent all but one wall’s support, was a rust streaked lean-to and rusty where nails had pulled loose. Unchanged were the gusts, felt through his open driver’s side window, of a monsoon on the way . . .
He returned to the pavement and proceeded northward past the arroyo, up into the lower foothills to an isolated spot. He removed the obstructive Handicapped tag from his car’s mirror so he could better see the sky and mountains. The whir of all the electric windows lowering was modulated somewhat by the wind and sand gently striking his parked, northwest-facing SUV. He waited, watching the horizon, this approaching storm seeming less a wonder. He pondered the growth of the city upwards into the hills, with civilization’s additions giving them depth and contrast perceivable even without sunset lighting from the west.
The thunder this evening sounded softer, muted perhaps by the stucco softness of the structures which now contributed to defining the foothills. There was no rolling, just an occasional thunder echo, also dampened. He wondered how much of the sharpness of close thunder was attenuated by his aged eardrums and how much by civilization’s acoustics on the once empty hills. This monsoon flurry passed as a dusty freshet weakly giving rise to the “eau de damp earth and creosote.”
The clouds west of his location thinned and opened as he watched. New light slanted through their openings and over the mountains. A broad rainbow formed across the foothills, both ends anchored in misty panoramas of tile roofs and pastel walls. He continued to watch the fading illumination’s shifting shades and the lights of the foothill homes as they engaged darkness.
He raised his windows, ending his return, and started his car. Its automatic high-tech beams reflecting off moist mesquites, he turned south, downwards towards the ever-sprawling city’s gentle mantle of cloud-reflected city lights. He soon stopped at a Trader Joe’s on Campbell near the Rillito. He bought a frozen rabbit.