Jerome Shea June 1, 2008 Weekend Wonk
Sometimes a wonk is right there in front of you, hiding in plain sight. I realized this as I was casting about for a proper wonk subject yesterday, driving up Second Street with my windshield wipers on “intermittent.” It was raining! That is why I was feeling so deeply satisfied! It was a genuine rainy day in Albuquerque!
Rain in Albuquerque—and I mean a whole rainy day, not the brief evening showers that we get in July, our “monsoon season”—is a big, big, deal. Trust me on this. We live in a desert, as I have certainly said before. One school of thought as to where the West begins is at the line where the annual rainfall drops below 10 inches. Conveniently, this is around the 100th meridian, which cuts right down through the middle of the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas. Lincoln, Nebraska, is the Midwest, North Platte is the West, and you need only look out the window as you cruise along I-80 to confirm that: lush green has turned to scrubby brown, elm trees have been replaced by prickly pear and tumbleweed. If we get 10 inches of rain in Albuquerque, that is a very good year indeed. We often go for months with unrelenting sunshine, day after day after day.
The culture favors sunshine, of course. Consider “Blue skies, smilin’ at me” versus the drear possibility of having one’s parade rained on. So it is hard to get the local weathercasters to change their knee-jerk reactions. “Another beautiful day tomorrow,” one will chirp, “Sunshine and temps in the 80’s!” “YOU IDIOT! RAIN IS BEAUTIFUL, NOT %^#*& SUNSHINE! GET THAT THROUGH YOUR THICK SKULL!” I will scream at the TV, flirting with apoplexy. I long to set up a re-education camp for these nitwits in the Atacama Desert in Chile, where some areas have had no precipitation—zip, zilch, nada—for four centuries. Yes, that’s a tempting thought. If you have a jones for picnics, the Atacama is definitely the place for you.
But today, for this morning at least, we are not in the Atacama. My final grades are turned in and I am heading home, stopping at a couple of branch libraries for books about that other wonk I was toying with. The 10,000 foot Sandias, on the eastern edge of the city, are socked in. Tomorrow there will be a dusting of snow on the crest, winking in the infernal sunlight, but today, this morning, the mountain is shrouded: there is no crest to be seen. Everything is shrouded. The sky is a lowering dome of slate gray, pearl gray, dove gray. I try to think up other shades as I ramp onto Paseo del Norte and gun the Little Red Beast, heading home.
And what shall I do at home? I shall slip into a Mr. Rogers cardigan (well, it looks chilly whether it is or not, and that’s enough), trade my boots for soft moccasins, refresh my coffee in the microwave, and ease into my recliner (scooting it away from the wall so that it tilts all the way back) where I can look out onto the glistening wet back yard. I have a wonderful novel to absorb the next couple of hours—Stoner, it’s called, and I do recommend it; it is well worth rereading, which is what I’m doing—and soon a cat will show up and leap softly into my lap (three cats, no waiting!).
That is precisely what I shall do. Rainy day. Ah.
Probably the first thing that a newcomer to the West will notice and remark on is the immensity of the sky (Montana, in fact, calls itself the Big Sky country). The sky just seems to go on and on to all points of the compass. I don’t know exactly why this is so. You would think that one would feel the same on the flat and immense prairie of Iowa, say, but no. In a more subtle way, the sky seems to grow not just outward but upward, and here I think I do know why and what makes the prairie of Iowa different from the desert of New Mexico. Because humidity out here often approaches zero, there is almost no water vapor in the air, nothing to diminish and soften that intense deep, clear, often cloudless, blue. Even if there were no smog—and there always is—the humidity in the air in the East makes the sky a pastel blue, an almost palpable blue. The sky hovers over you, seems to shelter you, protect you.
The Western sky does not do that. The Western sky seems to extend all the way to the troposphere and beyond. Is it any wonder, then, that we Westerners feel a subtle but persistent agoraphobia? A rainy, socked in, day out here is not just good for the roses. It’s good for the neuroses, too!
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