Dust Storms May Exist
by Patrick Clapp
Storms of the raining kind summoned portents of adventure in the normally arid Phoenix valley, and I had packed my bags for another adventure into the strange environs of the southwest. It is a remarkable landscape, and one to which I have had little exposure in my life. My travels were scheduled to take me from Phoenix to Carlsbad and back again. For this journey I was accompanied by a friend, several maps, and some global positioning equipment. The escape from Phoenix came before the guards of rush hour could release their hounds. We pulled free from the metropolis and quickly melted into the smooth, flowing highway stretching southwest towards Tucson. Once we had eased past Tucson, where the hounds had been released, the desolate-at-first-glance world of the southwest opened before us.
In the basin between the civilization of Arizona and the civilization of New Mexico, there exists a vastness of southwestern geography that lulls the mind into believing that the local level of beauty is commonplace. The black-gray ribbon of the road curves smoothly away from the car, oddly illuminated by a westbound sun. We have alternately chased and been chased by storm clouds out of Phoenix. Rain in the city is dangerous because there are too few who understand how to drive in it, and too many who do not. Away from the confines of concrete and steel, where the mountains outnumber the people passing them, what was once a hazard fades to yet another source of scenic wonderment.
We chase rainbows for two hours, our forward view a split-screen between light and dark, the intersection of which demands comparison to Neapolitan ice cream. The dark stormy chocolate and the bright fluffy vanilla are divided by the shifting color-streaked strawberry of rainbows. The colors are intense, each band easily identifiable yet each melting perfectly into the next. We stop briefly and take a picture, peeling away from the light yet consistent traffic to capture a poor rendition of the tapestry laid out before us. By some coincidence, the sign below the rainbow fittingly declares our stop as Skyline Road. As we move on into the next gentle valley, the arch of the bow we have been chasing dips itself below the ceiling of clouds and stuns us with a complete view of its entire span. End to end, the rainbow is miles long, and, although some science-ridden area of my brain attempts to explain away the phenomena as a clever bit of refraction, the more irrational portions succeed in shouting it down for the sake of enjoying the moment.
We catch and pass our full rainbow, and continue on into the wind swept desert. There are always mountains visible, sometimes in the distance, sometimes close enough to see the striations in the rock. When last I came this way, I was the passenger, the tourist. This time, I am driving the lion's share, and I am more in tune to my surroundings. The hyper-awareness generated by navigation through pockets of other traveling humans in their aluminum shells lends itself to the absorption of the beauty of the badlands. A momentary stop for gasoline reveals the next potential danger to the unwary traveler. The wind, broken only by a stray cow or truck, is howling near fifty miles per hour. A road sign, as we journey into the salt flats of New Mexico, greets us with a cautious philosophy:
Dust storms may exist.
This sets my mind to spinning. Do they exist? Where are they when they are not spilling across the road, obscuring the distant majesty of the mountains? Perhaps they are mere rumors, a ghost town story told to passing visitors by a cackling old man in a rocking chair upon the porch of a crumbling watering hole. "A-yup, some say they are out there, some deny it", he says in a cadence, first drawling then clipped, as if the beginnings of his sentences take so long that the ends have to rush to make up the lost time. "I, myself, say they may exist. A-yup." And he cackles again, departing his wisdom for those that can catch it, with a slight, mad eye-twinkle.
Perhaps the quandary started with the person placing the order for the sign. Perhaps it was a change requested by confused drivers who, upon seeing clear skies and proclamations of storms occupying the same space, called the highway department in consternation. Regardless of the tortuous and sinister method by which these signs were crafted, I had been presented with an item fit to ponder. Perhaps they were there, and I just could not see them. The whole tone of the sign indicated either an inconclusiveness born of endless debate or the eventual capitulation to that one lone soul who wouldn't let the possibility of their non-existence rest. I wondered where that person was out in this lonely salt flat. I imagined that they grew their own vegetables, harnessed solar power, and created a general nuisance at town hall meetings.
Dust storms may exist, but not today. We traveled on, day shifting closer to night, with the sun setting behind us, and the gathering gloom bringing with it the most dangerous part of our journey. The most efficient route from Phoenix to Carlsbad actually crosses into three states. While Arizona and New Mexico share a border, Carlsbad is actually located on the far side, almost two hours straight north from El Paso. The western edge of Texas has a burr on it, a small handle that is likely used by God himself to shake the state like an ant farm and keep everyone in it occupied and non-migratory. When moving through west Texas, it is advisable to travel quickly, lest any of it stick to you or your vehicle. Upon my last journey in this direction I discovered a clever path through the mountains that neatly sidesteps the city of El Paso, and, while still west Texas, at least you can see the beautiful New Mexico in the far distance. The winding road climbed out of the lowlands and through a large pass hogged from the mountainside by explosives and heavy lifting. The simple beauty of the pass and the starry sky above was broken by the sprawling city lights below. Fortunately, this portion of the trip is brief. There are no stops until we turn north and are a few miles into New Mexico. The Border Patrol wants to make sure that we live in the United States and are not, in actuality, Texans trying to escape.
Carlsbad; an apparently sleeping town with treasures and secrets locked away in the nearby hills. Our later than expected arrival, and the lack of lights from the house of our hosts, prompts us to leave a note and attempt the navigation to the campsite ourselves. We have a map with an unknown scale, a global positioning device, three engineering degrees, and the excitement generated by caffeine and the unknown. Darkness has arrived in full and the light pollution from the world is non-existent beyond what rays my own headlights cast forth. For the first time in my life, I realize why the pilot and the navigator are two separate entities. Working together, my odometer and his electronics suite quickly determine the scale of our map. The positioner begins to trace a path similar to the crawling red line on our map. The forks in the off-road path from this labyrinthine oil field are never sharp, never clear-cut in direction. We bear left and bear right and backtrack when our path deviates from the contour described by our map. Four gas pads, dead-ends, are visited in our quest for the proper path through, each one softly chugging in the night telling us to choose more wisely next time. A final backtrack reveals a path heading to the northeast, not our southwesterly goal at all. A decision is made. Part willpower and part years of gaming through crawling mazes tell us that this path will bend to the southeast, and then to the southwest as it completes its arc. We follow it, and are rewarded with a clever dog-leg cloaked by the darkness. The campsite is estimated to be two miles in the distance. The clock reads 2 a.m. We have the gear and the ability, so we stop on a small plateau covered with soft dirt. Our own campsite is small, two tents with ground cloths, an alarm set for 6 hours distant. Sleep comes quickly.
The wind howls through the night, relentless in its ultimately futile attempts to uproot us. The sun breaks the horizon as we break camp. It is an amazing site, this labyrinth laid out before us. Each of the gas-pad dead-ends from the previous night are visible in the panoramic view beyond the campsite. Civilization is nowhere in sight. We pack and head back to town, food and connecting with our hosts paramount in our minds. Once joined with the rest of the group, we all travel back to the maze. Passing the campsite, our hosts kindly note that we were almost there. Two miles further down the now linear trail, a half-mile hike around a fold in the earth, and our destination appears.
The pit is a classic of its kind, a fifty-two foot drop into a dome-shaped room one hundred feet in diameter. The crack through which I drop is near the exact center of the domed ceiling. On rappel, I shift my pack around to navigate the entrance and drop just below the roof. The sounds of my awe echo off the distant walls, and I am greeted by chuckles and kind regards from below. This is the first pit that I have dropped, having only achieved vertical status recently. On the floor where I settle is a squirrel who did not have the luxury of a rope. Pits tend to collect bones of small animals, there is evidence of older squirrels and a porcupine here as well. A ladder from one of the original Carlsbad explorers, Jim White, has been piled in a spot of reverence near the drop point. It is a frightening contraption of rusted wire and wooden branches fashioned together in the most daring semblance allowed by the word ladder. This pit is blowing air, a lot of air, and the Bureau of Land Management has an active project dedicated to finding the cave below it. The day is filled with the exertions of digging through solid rock, thirty feet below the pit floor. An anemometer measures a three-fold increase in the wind blowing out of this dig over the course of the day. Encouraged, the dig continues into near exhaustion. The remains of my energy are saved for the climb out. A fifty foot ascent moving in frog-like steps, eight inches at a time. Sunlight is greeted with a smile, and a sudden understanding of why the anemometer has been increasing as the day wore on. The wind at the top of the pit was howling, and there was a storm brewing on the horizon. Daylight had another hour of life left in it, but fifty to sixty mile an hour gusts were giving the not so subtle hints that departure might be the best course of action right now. Besides, there exists in Carlsbad a truly fantastic Mexican restaurant, and the knowledge of this has been ever-present in our minds since the journey began.
The evening progressed in fair fashion. The storm rolled in, spilling lightning across the New Mexico horizon. Our gift to our hosts was two growlers of Tempe's finest micro-brew; jugs of quality beer that tempered the fine mexican fair and hastened the need for sleep. The morning brought a small change in plans, a flat tire from a nail meant that we would begin our journey home sooner than expected. The revelation that I did not have a full-sized spare reminded me of the final forgotten item from my list of "issues to address once I have a job". It also was a reminder that further off-roading should be saved for another day.
The journey home was pleasant. As on the voyage out, a book on tape passed the time. Driver rotations proceeded like clockwork, and we didn't even have to brake in west Texas. I will still be getting my car washed however, one cannot be overly cautious in matters such as that. Once more upon the salt flats of southern New Mexico, I was greeted with my philosophic mile-marker:
Dust storms may exist.
The old, weathered man on his rocking chair was polishing his shotgun and looking to the clear skies and the setting sun over the southwestern skyline. "A-yup. They might, rabbit, they might…but not today."