September is upon us, nearly the end of our rainy season. Drat. I’m always sad to see it go. In a typical year, about sixteen inches of precipitation falls on the Marfa Plateau, most of it during a summer-long monsoon. Unwelcome periods of drouth routinely descend and mar those expectations, but when the weather ticks along as it should, rain begins speckling the earth in May and manages to generate a little more momentum in June. By July, thunderheads build up nearly every afternoon, culminating in great, towering blue and silver cities overhead.
This is a marvelous situation when it works out. Just at that point in the afternoon when the thin layer of sweat along the back of your neck has dried, formed again, and re-dried, just at the zenith of the sun’s dumb, cheerful blast, when it’s hard not to think about a fountain Coke with chewy ice or whether you’d be missed if you took a short snooze on the cool bathroom tile, thunderheads arrive to block the sun. The temperature drops and the air feels charged. Things get breezy and restless. Twenty minutes later, you excuse yourself from the Dairy Queen, where you’d gone to fetch that Coke, and where you’ve been in lively conversation about the weather, of course, with your silver-haired friends who frequent the DQ every afternoon for happy hour. You hop in the truck and hustle home before your frantic, thunder-phobic Russell terrier digs a hole through the closet.
Thunder’s a cappella grumbling precedes the rain. Sometimes the thunder’s growl is so low that it produces a slight, buzzy rattle in the sternum, more sensation than sound. Argus, the terrier, finds no promise in thunder, but I do, along with all the other desert-dwelling people I know. Rain, or even the prospect of rain, is greeted with keen, immediate interest. After a gully washer, whole families pile into vehicles and cruise around, ogling the dry creeks that are, for a short time, brimful with fast-moving, branch-riddled, mud-colored water. Alas, the running creeks don’t last, and within a day or two they revert to their usual appearance as regular old ditches.
We do what we can to make it rain. A thunderstorm that glowers only a mile or two distant provokes the crossing of fingers and messages sent heavenward to help steer the rain this way. It’s considered lucky to wash your car in such a circumstance, or hang out the laundry, to entice—or dare—the rain to arrive. No studies exist to show the effectiveness of such charms, but they can’t hurt. Cloud observation is an ingrained habit. “Feel that?” my friend Boyd asked me one evening. He meant the distinct chilly note that arrived in the air with the bruise-colored cloud bank east of town. “It’s from the hail in the clouds.” Too often, though, the incantations don’t work and hopes are dashed. A storm that had been poised to downpour—a sure thing—slides right on by, followed by a whoosh of disappointment from those of us who’d gotten excited. Sometimes there is swearing.
We should be used to this by now. In recent years, as with most of Texas, our rainfall has been dismal. At the start of summer, much of the country around here looked battered and poor. I’m not an expert, but I know that a lunar landscape won’t feed cattle or nurture mule deer or hide the quail and the little creatures that depend on cover. At an Alpine Cowboys baseball game this summer, I sat near two ranchers commiserating about the weather. “It’s so dry I about can’t stand it,” the first fellow said. The other fellow nodded. “When the mesquite starts to die, that’ll be it,” he said. “If that happens, I’m rolling it up and we’re done.”
He might’ve been serious, but I didn’t really believe him. There are no far West Texas beings as optimistic as ranchers. They are tough-hided, obstinate, and rooted to the land as durably as mesquites. Ranching is not a certain or easy proposition in any type of country, but it takes a dose of pertinacious craziness and perhaps gall to raise cattle amid the Chihuahuan Desert’s rocks and cholla. A rancher’s financial stability relies almost solely on whether it rains, yet people persist at this occupation in a place where rain is meager at best. Cattle here roam in pastures of several thousand acres, sometimes with aptly descriptive names like “Far Far Away Land” and “Up Top.” The cattle that thrive on this land are wily, half-wild, and don’t want to be caught, so ranchers give chase to them on horseback down mountainsides, through arroyos, and into spiny forests of whitethorn or thickets of cedar. Ranchers must rotate these beeves and monitor the grass supply; they must keep water troughs full and windmill blades spinning, must gather, doctor, and calve their kine in weather and wind that would make the rest of us whimper and wince.
All this they do with one eye trained on the sky, ever hopeful that a cloudburst lets loose on their place. I’m not sure how they endure the emotional and financial drain of waiting through months of mean drouth, when the rain gauge on the back fence sits empty and the pastures stretch out brown and gray. But somehow they endure, despite those long dry spells. Drive by the feed store in town and a rancher is likely to be outside, loading mineral block and range cubes into trailers shared by dozing ranch horses standing tied and saddled.
The Big Bend’s other perennial optimist has a more sporadic presence. Couch’s spadefoot is a frog (often mistaken for a toad) that’s an opportunist in terms of rain. Spadefoots are patient souls. The sound of heavy rain falling on the ground calls them from their subterranean beds, where they can slumber for as long as several years, anticipating just this rainy moment. They climb to the surface, and immediately upon emerging, the males belt out a come-hither invitation to lady spadefoots, a sound that is disarmingly similar to the bleat of an irritable sheep. The lonely-hearted spadefoots find each other and do what spadefoots do, their tadpoles able to develop extra-quick in the swift-drying puddles left after a rainfall. Once the prime directive is accomplished and the puddles diminish, the frogs burrow back under the desert floor and sleep, dreaming of whatever it is that frogs dream of, until the drum of rain awakens them again.
There came a downpour this evening. I was carrying an armload of stuff, walking to the truck and preoccupied with a headache and the day’s small aggravations, when something started hitting the top of my head. I swatted at it before I realized that it was the gentle pat of rain. By the time we got home, the horses and donkeys were high-headed with hunger, and I fed them to the sound track of sharply percussive cracks of thunder. The tortoise-shell cat hunkered in the barn and declined to look for mice in the hay. Usually at our place, you can hear birds of some sort: mockers squawking, hens gossiping, or the pretty trill of the thrasher that sings from the roof’s spine. Not this evening, though. Everything held its breath for the storm.
And it did roll in. A gray sheet of rain roared mightily, and wind slammed our open doors shut. Argus hid under our son’s bed and chattered his teeth. Bright-white flashes of lightning startled, with the terrible bark of thunder directly after. We could not see the hay shed nor the barn for the immense expanse of gray. My husband’s firefighter pager blared about a car wreck near Alpine. The pecan trees in the yard swayed and the power flickered. Then, in the time it took us to eat dinner, the storm was spent. Bullbats came out to dive after flying ants that had suddenly materialized. Enlivened by the crisp air and the novelty of mud, the neighbor’s trio of horses goofed with one another, chasing, bucking, and racing along the fence. Violet clouds crowded overhead like a thousand velvet-hulled warships sailing east. The wide pools of standing water in our pastures reflected the clouds’ progress across the sky and their inevitable, irretrievable exit as well.