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The Daily Wildcat

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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Southwest rain worth the hot wait

    It took all year, but we finally made it.

    No, I’m not referring to the end of the semester. I mean we’ve finally reached that tantalizingly brief window of the Tucson year – the moment when our usual sunny days give way to a seemingly endless procession of crisp, overcast ones.

    Over the last few days, after a frustratingly prolonged heat wave, our skies have finally begun to mist over with that familiar glaze again. Our sky – normally as icy blue as an Africa ðfirmament -ÿturns a dense, cloudy white, like a particularly milky-looking glass of eggnog. The desert wind whips through the bushes, often bringing a blinding cloud of dust along with it.

    We Tucsonans grow so used to the debilitating heat and eye-straining brightness of our summers that we forget how unique and breathtaking our rainy days are. When I leave Tucson, they’re among the memories of this town I’ll cherish most.

    You can go to Seattle, where rain is more common than the coffeeshop, or head down to the tropics where coffeeshops are as rare as sunshine, but you’ll never encounter a rainy day quite like we get here in the Southwest. They’re as unforgettable as they are rare.

    That rareness is what makes them precious. Since it almost never snows here – I’ve lived here all my life, and I can count the number of “”snow days”” I’ve enjoyed on the fingers of one hand -ÿwe have to make do with our “”rain days.”” In Tucson, those days are as uncanny and unsettling as they are ordinary and unremarkable in other cities.

    Stepping out of a Walgreens this morning, feeling a stray raindrop pelt my uncombed hair, I glanced over at the mountains and sucked my breath in. The combination of the deathly white clouds and the ominous blue of the mountains sent a primal chill through my body.

    I had a sudden epiphany. Humans have been building cities in the Southwest for a hundred years and more. Yet they have never managed to banish the eeriness and silence and space of the desert.

    We do our best to forget about it. Driving through Tucson, passing the strip malls, out-of-place palm trees and Christmas lights, you’d be hard pressed to feel yourself in the middle of a desert, with all the desolation and loneliness that word implies.

    Rainy days bring that sense back to me, with a vividness that feels as powerful as the mystery and horror of the jungle seemed to Conrad’s narrator in “”Heart of Darkness.”” Sometimes they whip themselves up into thunderstorms, and really remind us of how helpless we are beside the power of nature.

    Tucson drivers are so unaccustomed to rain that we don’t quite know how to deal with it. Unexpected showers send our cars into ditches and washes. We turn on our bright headlights and squint into the windshield. We shudder at the thought of flash floods and dust devils and other natural disasters.

    They remind us that, with all our technological know-how, there’s precious little we can do in the face of an untrammeled nature. “”Nature,”” in fact, seems too prissy and harmless a word for what Melville, more accurately, called “”the gliding great demon of the seas of life.”” There’s a reason hurricanes terrify us more than terrorist attacks. They come from a source far more frightening and enigmatic.

    Driving near the edge of town on nights like this, glancing into the mist-covered desert, I sometimes have a sudden intimation of the insignificance of my species. There had been rainy nights in this desert before humans came here, and there would be rainy nights long after we were gone. I imagine the desert silently observing the steady stream of cars rushing down the highway, confident in its ability to outlast them all.

    Those sober meditations are soon replaced by sheer delight in the presence of wetness in the air. I remember well the first time I ever remarked to an out-of-towner that I liked the smell of rain. She gave me a curious, sideways look. “”Rain doesn’t have any smell,”” she answered.

    The unique scent I always identified with rain actually comes from the whiff the creosote bushes give off when they’re soaked with water, mixed up with the earthy odor of drenched dust. It’s a familiar scent to anyone who’s encountered a rainstorm in the Southwest, but it’s decidedly unfamiliar to anyone who hails from the East Coast. It’s a pleasure known only to those willing to brave the crushing heat of the rest of the year, the weeks we go without spotting a single cloud.

    We forget to cherish our rainy days. They come and go like dreams – dreams of a better Tucson, a desert without scorching suns and maddening insects, a desert where the air is always rich with an unforgettably rich smell. And, like so many other things in this life, they’re gone before we know how to appreciate them. Driving to work this afternoon, watching the first tentative drops of water hit my windshield, I found myself wishing the rain would last forever. But it would be gone soon, replaced by the chill of a rainless evening. All that would remain would be the faint smell of rain-battered creosote.

    -ÿJustyn Dillingham is the opinions editor of the Daily Wildcat. He can be reached at

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