Cirrus Streak Picture of the Week

My favorite landscape photographers have different styles of working with a horizon. There’s a group that omits the sky from their images. Charles Cramer, for example, most often leaves the sky out of his pictures. Michael Kenna and Ansel Adams use the skyline as part of their image’s graphic design. On the other hand, Mitch Dobrowner’s images are mostly sky and extreme weather. (To be honest, if I ever had an opportunity to go on one of Mitch’s shoots, I’d take lots of underwear because I’d be scared.)

I can’t think of a master photographer that exclusively shoots sky. I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s the lack of context. Clouds around the world are the same. Without a ground-based reference point, you can’t tell where or when I took the photo, and there’s no sense of scale because clouds come in all sizes.

Cirrus Streak - A wispy streak of cirrus clouds thousands of feet above monsoon cumulus clouds forming above the mountain tops.
Cirrus Streak – A wispy streak of cirrus clouds thousands of feet above monsoon cumulus clouds forming above the mountain tops.

My picture of the week, for example, could have been taken in Tibet, at the Grand Canyon, or even in your backyard. It’s not obvious what year, season, or time of day it was taken. It’s essentially a monochrome image that would work as well if it were black and white; only the subtle color in the cumulus clouds hint of the hour.

The story of this week’s image—that I call Cirrus Streak—is that this is another of my August Monsoon Clouds project. In my quest to hunt down and capture images for the project, I drove a back road through the valley between the Weaver and Date Creek mountain ranges. As I said last week, the Weaver’s (along with the Bradshaw Mountains) are a breeding ground for our evening storms.

As I drove, I noticed this streaky cirrus cloud thousands of feet above a cluster of cumulus clouds building low over the mountains. I’m partial to how the high wispy clouds get distorted into interesting shapes from the winds aloft. So, I stopped the truck and framed these clouds as a graphic design. If you’re disoriented, the blue sky gives you a clue. The color always gets lighter towards the horizon, so the mountains appear under the frame’s bottom.

You can see a larger version of Cirrus Streak on its Web Page by clicking here. Be sure to come back next week to see another image from my cloud hunt grab bag.

Until next time — jw

Burro Creek Bridge Picture of the Week

I had been asleep for an hour when Queen Anne finally came to bed last night. She nudged me until I almost woke and snapped, “What?”

“It’s raining,” she gleefully said.

I rolled over, pulled the covers up, and tried to go back to sleep while grunting, “Harrumph.”

“It’s pouring,” she persisted.

“Why are you waking me?”

“You’re snoring,”

I was too sleepy to recall accurately what happened next, but I think she bumped her head because she went to bed and didn’t get up till morning. I swear that’s the actual conversation we had last night.

This year’s monsoon season is unlike the drought that we had last year. We’ve been enjoying a week of cloudy skies, isolated showers, and last night’s low was under 70°. It wasn’t that pleasant autumn-like 68° where you can throw open the doors and windows. It was 68° with 95% humidity—which is cool only if you have gobs of air blowing at you—aka swamp cooler. But still, we have a decent river flowing down the street out front and the Red Sea in our backyard. The two trellis vines out front that have spent last year imitating Paul Rubin’s death scene in Buffy the Vampire Slayer—are already sprouting fresh green shoots.

All in all, it’s been a good monsoon so far, and they say there’s more to come. I lament the wasted rainwater flowing down the streets. There should be a way to capture some of it and store it for a (forgive me) non-rainy day. The runoff flows down the washes and eventually into the Gila River, where the Gila Bend and Yuma farmers use it for their crops.

I’ll bet if I revisited Burro Creek—last week’s featured image—it would look like a proper creek instead of a string of puddles. I’m not going to risk a possibility of getting caught in a flash flood. Arizona has a Stupid Driver law now, and with my luck, I’d be the first person to get billed for my rescue. Instead—as I promised last week—I’ll turn the camera around so that you can see what’s downstream.

Burro Creek Bridges - A pair of future freeway bridges cross Burro Creek before Greenwood Peak.
Burro Creek Bridges – A pair of future freeway bridges cross Burro Creek before Greenwood Peak.

The subject of this week’s image is a pair of freeway bridges over Burro Creek, waiting for Interstate 11. Don’t be fooled into believing that this is an empty highway. U.S. 93 is normally a bustling traffic corridor. It’s just that my image was taken just after dinner when the freight drivers are still belching in truck stops.

You can see a couple of other things in the photo and another hidden by the bridge. First—under the bridge—are the deep pools in the creek. They’re wet all year round, so they have small fish in them. The minnows are useless to anglers, but they support a colony of Great Blue Herron that nest along the canyon walls.

Along the horizon is the 4,339 foot high Greenwood Peak. I have another shot of this mountain that was featured in a January 2020 post. During that month, Anne and I drove over the pass to the mountain’s left and, at the bottom, we found the road blocked by water flowing in the Big Sandy River. In that article, we remarked how the slopes of the Poachie Range were covered with saguaro and pinion pines growing next to one another.

Finally, what’s hidden behind the bridges is the Burro Creek Campground. It’s smallish with quiet camping spots until a loaded semi drives over the bridge’s expansion strips—the noise echoes along the canyon walls like Gilbert Godfrey with a megaphone. However, if you’re into history, the campground’s access road is the original two-lane highway that winds its way down the canyon, crosses the creek on a  low bridge, and then ascends the north face.

You can see a larger version of Burro Creek Bridge on its Web Page by clicking here. I have to come up with a creative idea for August, so please come back and see what I’ve come up with. For now, I’m going to don my galoshes and go stomp in some puddles.

Until next time — jw

Front Yard Trees Picture of the Week

Are you a punctual person, or are you chronically tardy? Our house is split evenly. Queen Anne always manages to be 15 minutes late. Even if I try to compensate by giving her a false time that we should leave to get somewhere, she somehow knows and still isn’t ready on time. One phrase that you will never hear from her is, “Sorry, I’m early.” That is a novel concept to her. It drives me crazy, and she knows it. But then she speaks to me in her low, breathy voice and circles her finger around my remaining chest hair, and then I remember why I love her so much. She’s a good cook—well, she cooks a mean bowl of cereal.

A reason that I’m writing about punctuality is that this year’s monsoons have finally shown up to the party—six-weeks late. One thing that makes Arizona summers bearable is watching majestic thunderheads build up over the mountains in the day and then enjoying the evening thunderstorms from the porch. When the summer rains arrive, they break the extreme June and early July temperatures by about ten degrees. This year, our first rain didn’t come until last week, so it stayed hot through July and August. We had 50 days of temperatures above 115º, a new record. June, July, and probably August will go down as the hottest recorded, and without the refreshing rain, brush fires have plagued the state. The smoke from California and Arizona fires has added to this summer’s miserable conditions.

Things changed last week. Between the gulf flow shifting west and a tropical depression off the coast of Baja, there are pretty clouds in the sky, and the temperatures have dropped—the last couple of days have been under the century mark. As I write and look out my office window, I can see cumulus clouds building towers over the Weaver Range. Maybe we’ll have rain again tonight. I think I’ll go to the car wash and improve our chances.

Front Yard Trees - Tall cottonwood trees grow along the road-side in front of a Ferguson Valley ranch.
Front Yard Trees – Tall cottonwood trees grow along the road-side in front of a Ferguson Valley ranch.

Looking back at the photographs from this month’s portfolio, I wonder how different they might have been, had the skies been more dramatic. Take this week’s featured image; for example—the treetops stand in for clouds. Had the sky been brimming with fluffy cumulus clouds above Baldy Mountain, would I have seen the scene differently? I can visualize that image being less about giant cottonwoods along a rancher’s fence line and more about the mountain in the background. In any case, I have to work within the given conditions, and so I took this week’s photo—called Front Yard Trees—as it was then.

You can see a larger version of Front Yard Trees on its Web Page by clicking here. Next week we’ll begin a new adventure out along another Arizona road, so come back and find out where the trail leads us.

Until next time — jw

What a Doozy

I’ve been reporting about this year’s monsoon season, how afternoon storms roll through here every other day, how they put on a great show, and how they have distinct personalities. Today I want to tell you about last Tuesday’s storm. It was a doozy!

August Storm
The clouds from Tuesday’s storm ran the full gamut of gray, from white to black.

The day started off normal enough, the Queen and I ran into town to do some errands and grab a bite of lunch. As we drove home, we noticed clouds building up in the west and south. We ignored them, because it’s rare that weather comes in from those directions. Since there wasn’t a lot of activity over the mountains that normally affect us, I figured that we’d have a quiet evening. When we got home, I laid down for a nap, but when I woke an hour later, the house was dark. The sun wasn’t streaming in the windows, so I stepped outside to check the skies. Everywhere I looked were storm clouds in every shade of gray; white to black. The most menacing patch was over the pass where Yarnell is. As I watched for a few minutes, I realized it was heading in our direction.

From Yarnell
As the winds pushed through the pass, they began to form vortexes like you often see on aircraft wing tips.

I’ve been having fun and some success shooting storms as they move in this summer. I was playing junior storm chaser and already had a couple of, as I call them, Mitch Dobrowner—light images, and here was another chance at dramatic weather shots. I grabbed my camera and walked down the street to the open desert. As I began clicking off frames, the darkest section of the front cleared the mountain range and began behave oddly. As it forced its way through the pass, it formed a vortex and began dropping in elevation. It looked like the spirals coming off Formula One wings during rain races. Behind the main thrust, the mountains disappeared in a curtain of black rain. Since the storm was closing fast, I started walking back to the house. Half way home, I turned for one last shot, and as the wind picked up, I could feel drops on my skin. When I got back to the house, I told Anne that we have to think about finding a safe place to hide should the storm spawn a tornado.

White House Before the Storm
As I made my way back to the house, I turned to take this shot. After I got home, I told Anne that we may need to find a safe place to hide.

The full force of the wind hit just as we were checking out the kitchen pantry. We watched the front tree blow back and forth brushing its limbs against the porch for a few minutes before we heard a pounding on the roof and kitchen sky light. It was too loud for rain, and we went out on the back deck we confirmed that hail was pelting the house. In a matter of minutes, the hail began to turn our red-rock drive to white, then just as quickly, a heavy rain started and washed the hail away. Even though we were on the leeward side of the house we got soaked because the wind whipped and swirled so the rain was coming in under the roof.

Lake What-a-muck-a
That’s not grain, it’s rain. In minutes the back yard went from rock to covered in hail and finally to Lake What-a-muck-a.

For a moment, I thought about getting my rain jacket and microphone out so I could pose like one of those idiot Weather Chanel reporters do in a hurricane, but I decided not to because I’d have to stand out in the wind, rain, and lightning. Besides, I don’t have a waterproof microphone. In a matter of minutes, the back yard turned into Lake What-a-muck-a.

Meanwhile, out front the streets were fast flowing, knee-deep rivers from curb to curb. The swift flowing water would have knocked you down if you attempted to wade across them. The streets were designed to drain to a wash that cuts through the park, but it was running beyond capacity and couldn’t take any more run-off.

Within an hour the wind and rain stopped. The thunder and lightning continued for a while but finally died as the storm moved south. Anne and I ventured out on the front porch and watched the water slowly recede uncovering sand bars. Neighbors ventured out of their homes and compared notes. Those that have rain gauges said they had 2-2.4 inches for the hour-long storm. I would guesstimate the wind gusts a conservative 60 mph. All of our water ran down the dry creeks to Wickenburg where the evening news had flooding stories.

While out walking the next morning, we were surprised there wasn’t more damage in the neighborhood. A handful of trees had broken limbs, some ocotillos were knocked over and some of the wash’s engineering suffered, but there wasn’t much structural damage. I had to mend some skirting, but that was it. Mostly the people we saw were busy shoveling dirt from the streets back into their yards. Not bad for the storm of the year.

Till then … jw

Lunch on the Front Porch

It’s raining this morning, a steady gentle shower that’s driven the outside temperature down to 73°. That’s the lowest reading I’ve seen on our outside thermometer all month. The rain postponed our morning walk until it let up. We made it through most of our route before Queen Anne felt a couple of drops and began screeching, “I’m melting.” By the time we made it back to the house, the point on her black hat flopped over into her face. I’m afraid that she looked like a bit of a cartoon.

It’s been a decent monsoon season so far. We’re getting rain every other day. There’s enough to fill Lake What-A-Muck-A until the waters lap onto the pavers out back. The ground is damp, the saguaros have plumped again and some of the cacti have begun to bloom for the second time.

There’s enough moisture coming up from Mexico that the thunderheads form over the plateau behind the Weaver Range each afternoon. We watch them as they boil in slow motion until they anvil out and spread in their direction of travel. As the hot air rises down here on the desert basin, it acts like a vacuum, sucking the thunderstorms off of the mountain. Here at the house, with our views to the horizon, we watch as the lightning and rain cells pass to the north and south of us. But sometimes, we’re in the path. It’s like playing dodgeball while standing still.

Thunderhead Over the Weaver Range
Each afternoon, thunderheads form above the plateau behind the Weaver Range.

First, come the outflow winds which can gust over 60 mph. That’s why we keep the tree out front trimmed up, so the wind can blow through the top canopy instead of breaking off limbs or blowing the tree over. In the neighborhood, we’ve had nearly a half-dozen century agaves bloom, with a 20-30 foot phallic center shoot. The Christmas tree like stalk gives the wind enough leverage to rip the roots of the four-foot blue agaves right out of the ground.

Skull Valley Monsoon
Monsoon clouds move down from the Bradshaw Range in Skull Valley.

Following the wind is rain. Sometimes it’s only a drop or two that leave spots on your dust-covered car. Other times it’s a gully washer and the streets fill like rivers. Out on the desert floor, the washes run with fast-flowing muddy red water; those are the flash floods that are dangerous even if your miles downstream. Every once in a great while, Mexico sends up enough moisture that you get a long-lasting gentle rain, like today. It’s slow enough that the ground has time to absorb it.

Mesquite Pods
Ripe pods on a mesquite tree will be dispersed in the winds of a monsoon storm.

Conveniently, the rains usually arrive in time for sunset cocktails, and we sit out on one of the covered porches while enjoying a glass of wine. It’s a popular summer past time in Arizona. The temperature drops 10 to 20 degrees below the century mark. The lightning show is always spectacular and can last for hours. With a stiff breeze and the moisture; it’s pleasant outside, besides you have to hold down the furniture somehow.

Mesquite and Monsoon
A mesquite grove is about to get drenched in an afternoon thunderstorm.

It ends abruptly. Shortly after the rain stops, the sweltering black top evaporates the last of the street’s water like hot sauna rocks. The wind dies and the humidity closes in. When it becomes intolerable, you retreat back into the air conditioning, if the power’s still on. There’s time for a TV show before watching the weather. It’s important to find out how the rest of the valley fared before calling it a night.

Till then … jw

%d bloggers like this: