Sensation and perception reach my deepest inner places, massaging out creativity and awareness where I didn’t even know they’d been knotted up. The first day of rain delivered a short thunderstorm. It cooled the air so much I opened my door and turned the air conditioner off, bringing in the special smell of desert rain. The burst of natural light through the screen door changed the look of the room, and the silence created space in which the familiar felt new.
In the prior weeks, the temperature was over 100 day after day. My body is acclimated to exercise in high heat, and I’ve come to enjoy the intensity of it. However, the sand on the trail got so hot my toes were blistering in my five-toed, flexible barefoot shoes. A pair of new, semi-minimalist shoes let me keep running, but instead of responding to subtle differences in the terrain that normally would make me vary my stride and speed, dancing around rocks and thorns, I just kept padding along. My feet felt nothing but shoe.
On the second day of rain, soft and steady, I ran in it, letting it bathe me in its blessings. The sand had cooled and firmed, the perfect running surface. Wearing my barefoot shoes again, I could feel the textures of thick sand, of thin sand over underlying rock, of the rounded bumps of a pebbly stretch of trail—getting reflexology from the ground. My feet were happy. Sole to soul.
Rain beaded on the tips of green needles and leaves, on desert plants that seldom wear such jewelry. The greens grew brighter and deeper under the diffuse gray-sky light.
To honor the rain gods, I cleaned the trail as best I could. With the reopening of tourism comes plastic litter. The discarded containers I carried to a trash can had no texture, no responsiveness to the weather, just impermeable smoothness. The dirt that stuck to them was alive, holding moisture, darkening with wetness. It struck me that my mind after too much time indoors is like plastic, while time in nature makes it more like dirt. Stuff can grow in it.
Today, it finally rained. Real rain, hours of it. Enough to make puddles and breathe petrichor, the magical scent of desert rain. A friend took her infant daughter out in it after the thunder stopped and let the gentle rain bathe the baby. Her New Mexico baptism.
Earlier in the day, while I ran at Elephant Butte Lake State Park, the clouds gathered around the full circle of the horizon in tall white towers and thick gray sweeps, and yet I ran under a bubble of hot blue sky. As the wind picked up, the movement of juniper and creosote branches reminded me of the pine boughs carried in Pueblo corn dances. Dances that honor the oneness of humans, plants, animals, ancestors, and rain. I silenced all other thoughts in my mind and ran for rain, adding my inner voice to all the other rain-prayer songs in the desert.
Cloud People, for you,
My feet are a drum,
Pounding the rhythm of rain.
The grains of sand shushing under my feet
Softly rattle the sounds of rain.
My sweat is rain.
My blood is rain.
My thirst is the thirst of the dry earth,
For every fluid of my body
Is made of rain.
Even my breath as I push up this hill
Exhales the moisture of rain.
The plants are dancing for you,
Hopeful and eager.
Your grandchildren call,
And you come to us,
Trailing your soft gray hair over the mountains.
Images: Clouds by Child Hassam and Desert Rain by Edgar Payne
The smell of rain in the desert is so special it has a name: petrichor. As moisture touches rocks and soil that have been hot and dry, they release a scent of minerals and plant oils and something else I can’t place. It’s the smell of life, I think.
When I crossed the state line from Texas into New Mexico last week it was pouring, with lightning so intense it flashed pale purple. At the same time, the last faint light of evening shifted through rain on the horizon like a pale gray aurora borealis. I parked at the rest area at Glen Rio and got out and danced in a backward spin, softly singing Michael Hearn’s lovely sweet song “New Mexico Rain,” not caring or noticing if anyone saw or heard me. It was that good to be back and to have my homecoming blessed with a storm.
Today we had a long, gentle rain, the kind the Navajos call female rain. I went running in it, on a favorite trail at Elephant Butte Lake State Park. Quails peeped, crickets chirped, and there were no other sounds but the rain, my steps and my breath. The sand was firm under my feet, the lake glowed silver-blue, and low puffs of clouds floated across the flat cone-top of an extinct volcano, making it look as if it had come back to life. The subtle greens of plants whose names I don’t know—feathery and blue-tinged, needle-like and yellow-green—glowed in the diffuse light. Wet lava rocks shone black or red as their pores soaked up the water. At each curve in the trail, the rain scent varied, mingling with juniper at times, stronger when the rain increased, fainter when it faded. Normally, I work on plot problems, writing scenes in my head as I run, but today my mind was quiet, my attention captured by sounds, textures colors and petrichor.
There’s not one special memory linked to this scent, just a sense of place. Of the earth itself within the borders that delineate New Mexico, a place where the Pueblo people are dancing for the rain. When that rain touches me, I feel as though something is released in me as well from the rocks. My heart knows who I am.