Walking in the Rain

L and I went on a wander yesterday afternoon and ended up walking in Otero Canyon in the rain. It was lovely.

We were headed to the back side of the Sandias, the mountains that loom over Albuquerque, but a big heavy thunderhead was draped over them so we headed down South 14, out around Oak Flat, and ended up parked at the Otero Canyon trailhead as the clouds began drifting south onto us.

We figured when we started there was a good chance we’d get soaked, but it was warm and nice and we had our rain gear, so we just wandered up the trail a bit – not far, but enough to feel the atmospherics of a lovely summer shower. And the smell. Desert mountains in a summer rain.

It’s been extraordinarily wet at our place this summer, though a big part of that is the random luck of the summer thunderstorms. The official Albuquerque rain gauge is at the airport, a little less than five miles from my house. They’ve gotten 2.43 inches so far in July. I’ve gotten 4.21 inches. The luck of the thunderstorm draw. It’s also, more deeply, the nature of the highly variable desert climate.

If you live in, say, coastal North Carolina, where you get a lot more rain (they average 51 inches a year to our 9.4), you also have a lot less variability. The wettest year on record in coastal NC is 69 inches, the driest is 39 inches. In other words, the wettest year on record is 35 percent above normal, the driest is 24 percent below normal. In a dry climate, the variability is much greater. The wettest year on record here is 17.6 inches, 87 percent above normal. The driest was 3.6 inches, 64 percent below normal. Generally speaking, desert precipitation regimes have a much bigger “coefficient of variability,” to use the statistician’s cumbersome but helpfully precise moniker for the phenomenon. This, more than the simple lack of precipitation, is what makes deserts harder places for plants and animals and us people to live in. The most helpful definition I’ve found of drought is “less water than you’ve come to depend on.” If the Anasazi had gotten a predictable 11 inches a year up at Chaco (avg. 11, max. 21, min. 5) they’d have been fine.

That’s not a very romantic way of looking at the rain in the desert in the summer. The numbers help explain it, give it depth for me. It’s the lack of rain, and its power when it arrives, that is its romance. That and having my beloved with me for the walk. That’s romantic too.

(Data courtesy of the fine folks at the Western Regional Climate Center)