Veteran hikers of the Great Southwest know that midday clouds mean afternoon rain. Sometimes the rain is ferocious in intensity, bringing to life desert flora and seemingly moribund riverbeds. The casual hiker notices little. The clouds form in silence, first noticed by the dancing shadows on the desert floor. The shade is welcome, a brief respite from the sun's rays.
Next comes the smell. Impending desert rain has a scent that is undeniable. It is sweet, almost metallic. You can feel it way back in your olfactory region. You feel it more than actually smell it. It is the second warning.
The third, and last warning, is the wind. It stirs and then decidedly comes to life. By this time, the rain is imminent. One must find shelter and, especially, get out of the washes, slot canyons, and dry river beds. Then it comes. The rain can be ferocious and frightening. It is often accompanied by thunder and lightning. It feels apocalyptic. If you are exposed and without shelter it very well might be.
Last year we were deep in Grand Canyon when the rain came. The thunder rolled 360 degrees around us. A scared park employee ran past us. "Are we going to get electrocuted?" I foolishly asked him. "Stick your hiking poles into the air and find out!" he said as he scurried down the trail. I was not in the mood for glib government employees. I muttered something unsavory under my breath. I kept my camera dry under my poncho, wishing I could capture the scene without destroying it's electronic brain. The cameras today are wimpy that way.
The rain leaves as fast as it comes. Whatever water isn't sucked up by the thirsty earth runs off or evaporates almost immediately. A temporary humidity makes the returning heat unbearable. The desert becomes intense in color and aching beauty. The camera comes back out as the wet earth provides a playground for photographers. The rain saturates color, revealing hues that are otherwise hidden deep in the parched landscape.
And then it is all gone. The clouds, having given up their essence, disappear in the late afternoon. Everything dries up and returns to normal. Maybe some plants will sprout or bloom or turn green, lasting reminders of the storm. Soon, they too will wither and return to a parched state. Tomorrow the clouds might return, ready to pounce again on unsuspecting visitors of the vast desert. Then again, they may not. The rain may be gone for weeks or months. The monsoon season may over. The desert is fickle that way.