The Fifth Season

Friday, July 03, 2009
I grew up deprived. In the Northeast, where I was born and raised, and in Michigan, where I went to college, there are only four seasons. It was only recently, when I moved to Arizona, that I discovered the joys of having five.

Tucked in between (Dry) Summer and Fall, here in Tucson we have Monsoon, the time of year when our normal days of single digit humidity are changed by wet winds coming up from the Gulf of Mexico. Traditionally, monsoon begins when we have three successive days where the dew point is over 54 degrees. This obviously was too esoteric for the folks at the National Weather Service to deal with. How do you keep statistics if a season keeps moving around? So last year they declared that monsoon begins on June 15th, regardless of the dew point. This might make record-keeping easier, but it really doesn't correspond to the season very well. The average date for the beginning of monsoon by the old method is July 3rd.

Desert people aren't used to rain. There are two distinct reactions to the thunderstorms that come up suddenly during monsoon. One group of people stands outside in the rain, enjoying the novelty, even acting like children, opening their mouths and catching raindrops on their tongues. The other group, which tends to be much larger, stays indoors until it's over, fearful that they'll actually get wet and melt like sugar.

In the Northeast, storms are big masses of moisture. Thunderstorms in Arizona are more miserly. They break out in columns of water coming down in torrents. A street can be drenched in minutes, rivers gushing down it to flood the intersections and tie up traffic. A couple of blocks over, it will be perfectly dry.

And the lightning! I never really saw lightning till I came to Arizona. Huge forks of electricity pierce the sky, putting on a fireworks show more wondrous than any 4th of July. My second year here, I was lying in bed when I was awakened by the sound and fury of a monsoon storm. Debating whether to get up and watch the light show or stay snuggled in my bed, the flash of light and rumble of thunder were almost simultaneous. I waited a few minutes, thinking the storm would abate, but it continued to flash and rumble. I got out of bed and went to the sliding glass doors facing the patio. Off to my right, a tall tree in the yard of the house next door was blazing like a candle. I never looked at the Italian cypress outside my balcony in quite the same way after that.

Tonight, on the typical monsoon start date, the sky is overcast and the wind is blowing fitfully. I can see the flash of lightning in the distance and have heard the rumble of thunder as I've been typing. But so far, the storm hasn't come to my street. I long for it, the relief from the 100 degree days and the scorching sun. Soon now. I can feel it.

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