Another Desert Rainstorm
During the summer of ’46. I was a member of a highway gang building a new two–lane road through Arizona’s Telegraph Pass, 20 miles east of Yuma. It wasn’t my first job, but it was, at the time, the most exciting. I was 16 years old and working as a Powder Monkey’s Helper (working, that is, with Dynamite and explosive black powder) until I joined the company’s Maintenance Department and began servicing our road–building equipment. As a mechanic’s helper, I was soon driving everything the company owned including Pickup trucks, Tournapulls, DW-20s, scrapers, bulldozers (all of these except the pickup were earth moving equipment), and Euclids, the new 10-cubic-yard dump trucks.
At 115°F. in the shade (there was none) it was hot out there, but I was working in a man’s world and had to learn to take it. Because it didn’t rain much, it was a blessing when it did for when it came it was as though it had come out of nowhere: One minute I was soaked with perspiration, the next I’d be standing in a cooling downpour threatening to wash away the land.
From every hill and mountain around me, I could see white water racing to the desert floor. It was amazing, I thought, to see an arroyo change from a nondescript bone-dry rut to a raging torrent of water, sand and gravel and, 30-minutes later, be bone-dry again.
I’ve carried that scene in my memory for many years for it was a fond memory of a sweaty, miserable boy being refreshed by a startling act of nature. Now, however, I’m on the opposite side of the coin where I fully realize the toll those violent torrents levy upon the land.
Because it is an annual toll, the following might have been taken from any past year but I chose to take it from a storm encountered on August 4, 1992 when an otherwise happy, healthy woman drowned in a raging torrent of chocolate-colored runoff. What’s more, because some who read this article may suddenly find themselves within the physical boundaries of these annual desert cataclysms, the possibility exists that the same horrible toll could be levied again.
Imagine a dip (“vado” in Spanish), that sudden depression built into streets and highways to allow the passage of water from one side of a road to the other. The dips I’m referring to now are those along Mexico’s Mexicali-to-San Felipe Highway. I could, just as easily, be referring to the dips along the Ensenada Highway, California’s Highway 78 between Brawley and Blythe, or more than a hundred other routes in the land of the American Monsoon.
Monsoon? In America? Yes! Emphatically so—every July and August for many more years than I can attest to. Whereas up to 95% of the monsoon–inundated land may be described as the Colorado River Watershed, the Colorado is only important in identifying a generalized geographical area extending from San Felipe to Las Vegas; and from the San Matias Pass (50 miles northwest of San Felipe) to Phoenix, Flagstaff and beyond.
Vast amounts of heavy, moisture–laden air are meteorologically pumped from their place of origin above the Pacific Ocean, across the Baja California peninsula where they mix and match the moisture evaporated from the Sea of Cortez. Drawn north and east by prevailing wind currents, the newly formed clouds dump their cubic miles of water upon a land known to most as desert.
Thirty miles north of San Felipe is a prominent volcanic structure—“El Chinero” —located near the intersection of Mexico’s Federal Highways Five and Three. Twenty miles west of Chinero is “Borrego Pass”, a natural phenomenon representing the dividing line between the Santa Clara Valley and the 600-square-mile Borrego–Chinero Desert Plain.
Every summer, as moisture–laden clouds wend their way from Baja to Alta California, the American Monsoon drops a trifling of its horrendous load on the Borrego–Chinero plain. The amount of water is so much more than the desert can absorb, that the excess races across the sun-parched land to return to the sea: Trillions of water droplets unite to form rivulets; thousands of tiny rivulets form streams; hundreds of streams are joined to become rampaging rivers formed so rapidly they appear without warning as torrents of water pour across a land most of us tend to think of as barren and dry.
In recognition of a universal problem, highway departments created “dips”—those dedicated highway crossings for storm water—an economical solution to a problem created by nature. Remember Nature? The cause of the tempests in our teapot; the maker of earthquakes and forest fires, tornadoes, waterspouts and floods; chubascos, hurricanes and typhoons and, just as regular as clockwork, the American Monsoon.
We departed home at 6 a.m. intending to drive to El Centro. Dark grey clouds hung across the desert in profusion as lightning flashed in the distance to a fully orchestrated theme. My wife and I chatted as I drove across familiar terrain. Entering the “Zona de Vados,” the first was dry, the second moist, the third had the beginnings of a puddle.
By the time we reached El Chinero, water surged across the road stopping cars and trucks that rapidly began to accumulate. My mind created a vision of the newly–formed river pouring out of Arroyo Grande eight miles across the desert to the west. Descending some 900 feet over those eight miles, the river grew in size and speed until, blocking our way, it was a raging torrent.
These were challenging moments when many of the accumulating crowd pondered their situation… among them impatient men and women who felt they had to get across. One was a stewardess due in San Diego by noon. One was a doctor’s patient carrying a biopsy to a medical lab. There were trucks and truckers, men and women on vacation, college kids returning to campus, and a grandmother returning a grandson to school.
After a while, a big rig attempted to cross but stopped in the middle, unable to move forward or back. Then a car tried and it got stuck, too. When two men walked into the swirling waters to push the little car, I decided it was time to cross.
With my wife on pins and needles, I selected four-wheel drive and, feeling the bottom through my tires, inched our way along. Knowing the water was swift, the question was, “Is it swift enough to carry us sidewise?” But the truck hadn’t moved and neither had the little car. ‘We’re safe,’ I said to myself, and coaxed our car ahead. Behind us was a friend I’d convinced to make the crossing, too.
When our friend stalled, I backed back into the muddy torrent while others prepared a tow-rope. First, our friend’s car, and, over the following 30 minutes, six others. Three miles ahead, however, less patient couple dared to enter a faster–running river at another dip.
As we approached, a man appeared alongside the roadway desperately seeking rope. That car had been swept away, he explained, the moment it entered the water. Of its two occupants, a woman had drowned but a man had escaped and clung for his life to a nearby storm-threatened tree.
Looking in the direction he pointed, we saw an automobile, headlights still on, resting against a downstream bank. A hundred yards beyond, concerned citizens agonized over a man’s life hanging in the balance.
Later, we came upon another crossing, the worst of all we saw that day. Standing on a bank above it, we watched a pickup truck approach at high speed. It was pure machismo, the kind that kills. Changing his mind at the last possible second, the driver stopped an inch short of doom. The fact is, had he continued four more feet, that aging truck and its two youthful passengers would have been gone… into water more turbulent than the Colorado’s most fearful rapids.
Although this vehicle stopped, the other had not and one of its passengers was dead. Who knows what that driver had in mind or what he understood about the problem?
Our neighbors, who telephoned to ask why we’d returned so early, had no idea such a thing could happen. The dips, they explained, were but a minor inconvenience and a meaningless, sometimes sandy entity along an otherwise boring stretch of road. That sand, I explained, was the only remaining evidence of the passage of a million tons of water as turbulent as any to be seen.
Why had we returned? I stood there with the telephone in my hand. It wasn’t because of death, for death is but an inevitable part of life. No, it was because a quarter-mile beyond that place of tragedy, the road was severed by another rampaging torrent. In fact, over the following mile, it had been cut five more times leaving San Felipe temporarily isolated from the world.
As I pondered my answer, a fond old memory surfaced and I saw myself as a boy. I was standing in a cloudburst, soaked to my heat-ravaged skin. Cooled, refreshed, happy as a junkyard dog, I stood on a lonely stretch of road watching rainwater stream down a nearby mountain…
Parked on the San Felipe Highway, I saw a dozen similar cascades streaming down the face of the Sierra Pinta… and I thought of a women who could have been my neighbor.
The woman is gone but the dips are still there. The highway is just as heavily traveled, and it’s summertime again. The forming clouds suggest… another desert rainstorm!