“Wonder if it’s ever going to rain.”
“You remember Noah’s flood?”
“Not personally, but I’ve read the story a few times.”
“We got two inches out of that deal.”
Climatologists and biologists classify the western Great Plains, or High Plains, (the region from eastern Montana to the Edwards Plateau, from the Rocky Mountain foothills east to the 100th Meridian,) as steppes with semi-arid climate. In English, that means the region has limited moisture, constant wind with high evaporation rates, and rainfall varies between “not all at once please” to “ahhhh, lovely” and “frikkin dust mutter mutter.” And blizzards. On the up side, major earthquakes are exceedingly rare and hurricanes tend to fizzle down to “tropical rains” by the time they stagger this far inland.
Between the variability and the agricultural foundations of the economy in this swath of North America, weather is always a safe topic of conversation. “Had a two-inch rain last night. Two inches between drops,” is not uncommon. “Nice sunset/sunrise.” “Think the wind’s going to blow?” (Meaning there’s 25 kt winds in progress, the birds are walking, and small children are not permitted outside unless tied to a 50 lb weight.) The causes of the weather are also discussed. I once heard that the reason ill-timed rains had arrived was “because those Lutherans were plowin’ on Sunday.” Why the Almighty would punish everyone else, or how Catholics, Church of Christ, and Mennonites were supposed to stop the Lutherans (MO Synod) remained undetermined before I had to leave the coffee shop.
I recall lovely summer nights spent sitting at various airports, cold soda-pop in hand, watching massive storm towers exploding into pillars of brilliant white, anvil tops sprawling east and north. As the sun set, they turned ivory, then rose and violet before fading into deep Wedgwood blue and disappearing into the twilight. And with them went any prayer of rain. Other times the air felt thick and wet, hanging heavy in the late afternoon. Shadow overspread the sky and the horizon turned dark. Overhead, the clouds developed the wavy undersides called mammalations, aka “do not fly there” because the churning rough air. When the air went still, and the sky turned a sickly green yellow, the hair on the back of the neck stood up. Time to duck for cover, as rain plummeted down. If luck remained, all that fell was rain or small hail. Otherwise the sirens wailed and the prayer went up from hundreds and thousands “please make it go away, please may no one get hurt.” And usually no one was.
Winter on the western plains is cold and windy, with horizontal snow. Or vertical snow, up to three feet deep that farmers love, ranchers growl at, and city kids frolic in, while the sheriff asks people to stay home. Sometimes the northern sky turns blue, but a different, deep low blue. Batten down the hatches, bring in the last of the tomatoes, and send the kids out with a jacket, because a Blue Norther is approaching. The temperature may drop 50 degrees Farenheit in an hour. But the clear, hard blue skies that follow, and the diamond hard glittering stars!
This leads to interesting metaphors and figures of speech. “Blowin’ like a son-of-a-gun,” is not uncommon. “Colder than a well-digger’s hip pocket,” “hotter than the hinges of Hades,” “so dry the trees are chasing the dogs,” “so hot I saw a dog chasin’ a cat and both were walkin’,” are not unheard of. During a lay-over in a small, central Plains town, I overheard a gent explaining that “Last night I heard strange noises down in the garden.”
“Oh?” another airport loafer inquired.
“Yup. Flipped on a light and saw that the racoons had formed a bucket brigade to water the sweet corn.” Grins all around. I don’t doubt that this gent also has excused himself with “Gotta go and spray my catfish for ticks” or “It’s so dry, I’ve got four-year-old catfish that don’t know how to swim.” Joking helps ease the pain of watching your crops, grass, and cattle shrivel under the water-sucking southwest winds and blistering sun.
I’m an Odd. I like living where you can see weather coming. Some people claim that the absence of trees makes people from the High Plains arrogant: we have nothing larger than ourselves. I think it goes the other way: we’re more inclined to humility because of the huge sky overhead and the enormous weather that passes through.