Santa Catalina Mountains, Arizona
On the nape of 9,157-foot Mount Lemmon, highest peak in Tucson’s Santa Catalina Mountains, a wooden gate holds a piece of pipe and a cast-iron fry pan lettered in white: Door Bell Gus & Dave. Posted hours indicate visitors are welcome, so I bang on the pan.
“Come on up,” says a voice.
My wife Karen and I climb a rock stairway to the top where a dog greets us.
“This is Gus-the-Dog,” says fire-spotter David Medford, wearing green trousers and a blue U.S. Forest Service t-shirt. “You’re welcome to look around.”
We step inside a 14-by-14-foot shack perched on the lip of a cliff. Built in 1928, Lemmon Rock Lookout Tower is the oldest fire lookout still in use in the Coronado National Forest. Since 2010, this has been Dave’s home for the five months of the summer fire season.
“You’re doing the Ed Abbey thing,” I tell Dave, seeing his knotty-pine kitchenette and single bunk. A copy of The True Story of Smoky the Bear rests on his nightstand.
Three walls of windows allow a spectacular view of the Pusch Ridge Wilderness and the mountains beyond, the sky islands crowding this corner of Arizona, all crumpled khaki beneath a darkening ocean of sky. Dave shows us how to work the Osborne Fire Finder, a Lazy Susan-like device that dominates the center of the room.
“We also track monsoon activity,” Dave adds, as reports begin coming in on his radio. “Right now we have lightning strikes in the Whetstones, Rincons, Santa Ritas, Pinalenos—the whole forest is getting activity, and I’m stuck out here on a rock watching the show.”
“Do you know if it’s monsoon?” I ask.
“It’s up from the Gulf.”
For the past five years the National Weather Service has used a calendar to signal the start of the monsoon season: June 15. (Previously, the NWS marked the date as the first of three consecutive days when the average dew point reached 54 degrees or above.) Today is day two of the official monsoon season.
Technically speaking, a monsoon—from the Arabic word mausim meaning “season”—is not a thunderstorm but a seasonal shift of wind; for us, one that arises—most meteorologists now say—from the Gulf of Mexico and the Gulf of California. As the desert heats up in the early summer, the rising continental air mass creates a thermal low that draws in oceanic air laden with moisture. The usual westerlies dip south and circulate into our region as southeasterly winds—a pattern that once had meteorologists believing our monsoon moisture originated only from the Gulf of Mexico.
Now things begin to happen. Miles-wide columns of rising hot air penetrate the upper layers of cool, wet air, boiling over and into brilliant thunderheads that corkscrew upward tens of thousands of feet and generate raging snowstorms high above the bone-dry landscape. Updrafts accompany terrific downdrafts. Dust billows, sometimes lifting into giant, 100-mile-wide, apocalyptic storms called haboobs. Lightning flares. If we’re lucky, rain will pummel the ground. If not, hope evaporates, the thunderheads trailing wildfire and dust beneath purple rags of virga like so many dried-up promises.
These localized, sometimes violent thunderstorms are better described as chubascos, a Spanish word for “squall.” Our summer monsoon wind brings a season of chubascos.
I hear a groan of thunder in the east. The wind shoulders in as clouds like black irises glom onto Mount Lemmon. Could it be happening? The first monsoon thunderstorm of the year and we get to watch it from Lemmon Rock Lookout?
The bell sounds and another couple arrives. “This all came in only a few hours ago,” one of the women says. “It’s all new, unexpected.”
We introduce ourselves, and then thunder cracks above us like a sudden rockfall. Julie and Nancy clear out. “You’re braver than we are,” Julie says, following her friend back down the steps.
Gus ducks inside the tower and Dave goes to work with his binoculars, stepping out to rimrock. His radio squelches with noise and voices and I scribble down what I can make out: “One hundred fifty-three strikes . . . Happy Valley . . . Marsh Station.”
“Rumbling good now,” Dave says.
“My lightning detector was going nuts,” his radio says. “I had to turn it off.”
Karen is nervous and wants to leave. She has no desire to hike with lightning striking at her heels.
“But we’re safest right here,” I say, unconvincingly, “with all the spotters and the radio giving us updates.” I remind her of what Dave had told us earlier, how he gets hit by lightning every year but feels nothing inside the tower. “He called it, ‘Exciting.’”
“You can spend the night,” Dave offers.
I’m charged by the idea, but I know Karen is probably thinking: And sleep where, exactly?
The rain comes as we hike back to the car. Below us, the mountainside funnels the storm into Lemmon Creek, which becomes Sabino Creek, which empties into the Rillito River on its way to the Santa Cruz and Gila and Colorado rivers before joining the sea from where it came. I can see the entire jumbled, sinuous route from the bridge in my mind, played out as a game of Pooh sticks. If the ocean created clouds in order to explore the land, it also created rivers for the return home.
Other hikers scramble past us for their vehicles. We slow our pace, reveling in wet summer skin like a pair of red-spotted toads. Where we pause along the trail overlooking the storm-shrouded Wilderness of Rocks, another hiker asks us where we’re from.
“Right here,” I say as he hurries by. “Can’t you tell?” I turn my face to the rain and raise my arms.
First monsoon chubasco at the edge of the planet.
From our high vantage point, the monsoon as a living, breathing conveyor, carrying the geologic organism of rain: Mexico slides into Arizona, which in turn rushes back into Mexico in a pulsing, thrashing penetration of elementals—air and water meet fire and earth.
Hydrologically, this is the top world. The monsoon rains do not end with a cloudburst over our heads. They are part of a dynamic process that extends from the sky to the very mantle beneath our feet. The mountains are falling, and rising again—granite spires and monoliths erased by water’s hydrogen bonds one grain at a time, shifting and altering whole landscapes, metamorphic core complexes to undersea sediment, the Santa Catalina mountain island to the floor of the Sea of Cortez.
The rain-swept stones we stand on at Lemmon Rock will one day rise as dunes in El Gran Desierto on their way to becoming the next mountain archipelago.
Water is a holy thing in the desert. I’ve come across stone pools in sun-cracked, shadowless borderlands like the Cabeza Prieta that were no larger than a baptismal font or carved marble stoup. Shallow tinajas scattered among hundreds of miles of sand like grace sprinkled from anaspergillum. Seeds screwed into my socks would germinate just at the sight of them. The desert raises water to the level of a sacrament, blessed by wind and the bone dust of those who have come and never left, those who have knelt and wet their brows with water enough for two fingers.
You can always recognize the desert dwellers when the rains come. They never run for shelter. Their doors fly open and they leap into the downpour, sometimes even flinging themselves into washes and rivers in wild abandon.
For me, our season of chubascos powerfully illustrates Mexico’s influence on the state. We all drink the water in Mexico. From our culture of food and fiestas, language and history, to the very weather itself, Arizona is Mexico.
“Chubasco” is an excerpt from Chasing Arizona: One Man’s Yearlong Obsession with the Grand Canyon State (forthcoming in 2015 from University of Arizona Press), a 20,000-mile joyride that takes the reader across the state to 52 destinations in 52 weeks. Ken holds degrees in biology and creative writing from the University of Arizona and lives with his wife in a 1890s stone cottage near Bisbee. Visit the author’s website at www.kenlamberton.com.