Hot town, summer in the city
Flash! "Did you see that?" She didn't. Instead, my wife rolled over atop the sheets, too deep in half-sleep to witness the lightning ripping through the blinds. Lightning. Seems like years since we've seen any over downtown Denver. But sure enough, a third of the way into Colorado's Summer of Fire, it might be working up to the first rain in months.
White-hot varicose veins of raw electricity are slicing open the sky, bouncing behind the clouds - another rare sight - with eerie effect. Then it hits me: There's no thunder with these hot flashes, no rumble bouncing off the buildings. If there is, it's getting drowned out by the ever-present hum of the fan in the window.
It's not going to rain tonight. This show is heat lightning, a drip-tease, all primp and no payoff. Like the low-budget bottle rockets banned across the state, each flash delivers no report, no bang for the bucket. So it is in Colorado and parts of every other state in the West. And it's not just rural areas that are feeling the heat. In cities in the nation's Western half, instead of evening showers, it's 24-7 heat, ashes falling from gray skies and smoke carried on the breeze. In the Hayman Fire's heyday, mornings in Denver smelled like wakeups at the campground. That's the closest many of us will get to a campfire experience now that most of the West is campfire-free.
True, Gov. Bill Owens's "all of Colorado is burning" claim was an exaggeration that enraged the tourism trade, but he wasn't that far off. This state feels hotter than hell on a record-breaking day. While it's tragic for some ranchers, farmers and firefighters, we city folk also feel the effects of drought and rising mercury levels.
Walking across town, the heat makes you consider a fully clothed dip in a park fountain - if it held any water in these water-conserving times. Playing in the lawn sprinkler has morphed from childhood joy to adult necessity, albeit limited to 20 minutes each time, three times a week, by the local water police.
Lawns everywhere - so fresh and hopeful in April - now appear beat-up, and grass crackles underfoot. In the garden, tomatoes become sun-dried on the vine with nary a chance of dying in a fresh salad. There are few salad days for most of the city's living things. Downtown, pigeons hang around convenience-store fronts, seeking not crumbs, but gulps of air-conditioned air leaking out of the doors. Street types hold signs seeking a different kind of payoff: "Will Work for Freon."
When we moved West six years ago, my wife and I were amazed at how rarely it rained. Showers led us out in the street in bathing suits to soak up the rare occurrence. If only we could enjoy such a celebration tonight. A few drops from these backlit clouds and the whole city might rush outdoors in its underwear (if anyone is wearing any in this heat) to enjoy a good drenching. It seems like it's been above 90 since February.
Summer vacations are now picked for temperature, not tourist attractions. Last week, my neighbor's mother and sister left the heat and smoke of Arizona for a chance at cooler climes in Denver. It didn't work. Both of these summer enemies followed them to Colorado, where they sat in patio chairs under the mister hose in an effort to keep their cool. After a few days of alfresco living, they gave up and headed north. That's how bad it's gotten: Phoenix residents head to the Badlands and the Black Hills for a cooldown.
Flash. Another lightning bolt shows the dog still panting, her tongue rolled out red on the carpet. Flash. In a tree outside, a squirrel is spotlighted on a limb, stretched out, mouth open, hoping for a drop of water.
In my head, I hear the comments of a musician new to the area. "I thought it was supposed to be cool in Colorado," says the Kentucky immigrant, a guitar player. It used to be, buddy. A bandmate just back from a family reunion in the foothills reports that the campgrounds were filled with evacuated residents camping by necessity. "The trees just looked like fuel to me," he says.
Outside, the lightning looks like match strikes from a taunting Almighty. "What was that?" my wife asks, squinting out of her sleep. Nothin', babe. "Is it raining?" No, it's not. Go back to sleep and dream of Noah's good fortune.
Marty Jones is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He writes and plays music in Denver, Colorado.