It is a short flight from one extreme to another. My plane takes off in lush, green Portland, Ore., and lands two hours later in Albuquerque,N.M. As the plane comes over the Sandia mountains, another passenger, making a first trip to New Mexico, is startled to see a panorama of browns shining in the sunlight, broken only by very occasional splotches of color. To me, both landscapes are beautiful — Portland, where I live now, and New Mexico, where I was born and grew up.
Both places are, in different ways, defined by water, especially this year. Parts of Oregon have already received record amounts of precipitation, while New Mexico is experiencing one of its driest years on record. This is evident at restaurants, where water isn't served unless you ask for it, in hotels, where rooms have cards with information on how to conserve water, and in the dusty, pollen-filled drive I make north from the airport.
When Portlanders find out I'm from New Mexico, they often ask what I think of the Northwest's rain. What's hard to explain to someone who's never been to New Mexico is that one of the things I miss most about New Mexico is, in fact, the rain.
In Portland, rain is a companion, a part of everyday life, particularly in the spring and fall. I can be working at my desk, look out the window, and discover that it has, without any fanfare, begun to rain. The possibility of rain is woven into the choices people make on a daily basis — what they will wear, when they will exercise, where they will shop — in such a way that it goes unnoticed.
In New Mexico, rain is an event. Ironically, in July and August, when Portland is counting how many days it has gone without rain, northern New Mexico experiences some of its wettest days of the year. Everyone calls it the monsoon season.
A storm begins early in the day. You wake up to bright, hot sunshine, but as you look toward the mountains, a few gray clouds hover in an otherwise clear sky. As the day goes on, the clouds increase, becoming a mass of darkness that begins to creep over the mountains. You watch the approaching virga, those wispy streams of rain that evaporate before hitting the ground. An hour or so before the rain begins to fall, you will smell it, your nose catching the scent of water.
Even though you have seen all the signs, the afternoon storm still takes you by surprise. It begins with the bang of thunder and the unleashing of rain. There is no gradual buildup from sprinkle to downpour. When the rain hits the hard ground, it releases the earth, setting free the pent-up scent of dirt and plants. Wherever you are, you take cover.
As a child, my friends and I were sometimes caught at the school playground, and we'd huddle in an alcove. At the pool, everyone was ordered out to wait under awnings or in dressing rooms. If you were in a store or your car, you stayed put. If you were in an arroyo, you got out as fast as you could.
There was the flash flood one of my sisters and I were caught in with our grandparents. My grandfather, thinking he could still drive down a dirt road to the house even though the rain was hitting the windshield so hard you couldn't see, drove us to what he thought was home. But when the rain cleared enough, it turned out to be the elementary school parking lot. I still remember a YMCA campout ruined by rain, forcing a group of unhappy campers to return to town to sleep on the floor of the Y.
If we were at home, we'd watch the storm from our porch. Gasping at the five-fingered lightning, we would count one-Mississippi, two Mississippi. The lights would go out and the phone would unexpectedly ring once or twice, and then, the sound of thunder assured us our house had not been hit.
When the storm was over, the sun would emerge. Soon, almost all traces of the rain would be gone, the landscape warm and bright, giving no hint of the storm just past or the one to come the next day.
Now, that's what I call rain.