The winter rains in Tucson: cold, wet and baffling

I've only been to Baja once. It was in January, and a wet, cold winter storm--much like the ones that have been moving through here lately--had just dumped a solid rain on that dry and spiky land. As a result, I will always associate boojum trees with fog and bad roads under water, and with the rifle-toting teenage soldiers who arrived by truckloads at one flooded crossing to boss the locals. I remember walking down the streaming road behind a group of them and seeing one throw his cigarette through an open window into a parked car. They all snickered. A few minutes later, they waved us across the flooded bridge.

Everything was spooky through the mists, as the landscape was transformed by the rare weather into a vast ruined city, a half-seen, dreamy landscape in which the boojums looked like misshapen pillars. The winter storms here have been working the same sort of trick on the Santa Catalinas. The low shreds of cloud that drift into the canyons and across the ridges after the rains turn the mountains into a vast Chinese watercolor.

The sight of snow on the heights is nothing by comparison: It is in the nature of mountains to be snowcapped. But the razor-edged heights of the Catalinas lapped in mists are shockingly beautiful and, in the classic sense, sublime.

Meanwhile, rainy days in the flatlands below are ridiculous. Since it never rains in Tucson, we are forever unprepared for water falling from the sky. Bewildered. Stymied. Baffled. We expect dry and sunny; we prepare for dry and sunny.

Winter-storm chaos is never as dramatic as summer-thunderstorm mayhem, but it lasts longer. Instead of the August amusement of timing the interval between the first crack of thunder and the wail of the first siren, we get the lists of accidents on the radio so long that the traffic girl runs out of breath. In place of the idiot stuck in the wash, you have the co-worker who almost drowned on the way to work because he took Sixth Street and left his window down. Instead of the gully through the yard, there's the cold, wet spot on the carpet, and the gently dripping spot on the ceiling above.

And there are the drivers. You've got two kinds of bad wet-day drivers: The ones who are scared, and the ones who aren't. The ones who are scared (God forefend they should get that SUV wet) break for every little water hazard on the road--and what's a road in this town without a pond or two? They often do this suddenly, causing the fearless drivers who are nonchalantly riding their bumpers to slam into them. (Note to natives: Brakes don't work as well when they're wet. Note to recent immigrants: The natives can't drive.)

And there are the spectacular sheets of water that fast cars send flying when they hit the big low spots doing 40 mph. Road-lakes are a Tucson tradition that many newcomers fail to grasp immediately. The rules are: 1. Keep those windows up. 2. Keep going, no matter what. Rule 3. Have fun! Rule 2 means that you must resist the impulse to slam on the brakes just because your windshield gets sluiced and you suddenly cannot see anything. Vision will return with the next sweep of the wipers. Have faith, and keep going straight, and you'll be fine; put your foot on the brakes, and a native will rear-end you. (See above.) Rule 3 means that you, too, can make big splashes. As you approach a body of water on the road, keep a tight grip on the wheel, put on a little speed, and be prepared for abrupt deceleration when you hit the water. And remember that few dips are uniform, so be ready to compensate for greater drag on the deeper side, usually next to the curb. Running the lakes is really exhilarating once you get the hang of it, and is guaranteed to make any children in the car very happy. Warning: Avoid bodies of water with standing waves, which generally occur immediately after thunderstorms near large drains. Or hey, it's a free country. Plow right in and see what happens.

The winter rains--the female rains, according to the Navajo--are a blessing, and we are all grateful for them. They do, however, have a genuinely dark side: They make things cold and, well, dark, which is a trial for most long-term residents--such as me--who are thin-blooded light-junkies. The year is showing every sign of dying, anyway, and when the sky clouds over, we know in our bones that something's wrong. There's not enough light. We're like indigenous peoples and eclipses: A monster's eating the sun! Quick, find a virgin.

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