The last time it rained was about four months ago and that's a literal not a relative or comparative statement: We haven't had a drop of rain for four months.
On a few days we've awakened to a dense, almost tropical fog that hid mountains, trees and everything else to within twenty feet of the windows. It seemed to portend rain though it's hard to imagine where the moisture would come from. But by 10 o'clock the auspicious cover had vanished to reveal the mostly sepia scenery, still parched except for the die-hard cacti, mesquite and huizache trees. Whatever haze or clouds there were gave way to the usual unbroken blue sky, with 75 to 85 degree temperatures by noon. The scrawny livestock resumed their listless ambling across the landscape.
Three weeks ago, late in the afternoon, grey, pregnant-looking clouds hurriedly passed overhead. Rain? It's not the season but last year we had downpours and even flooding toward the end of January. But when we returned from town about nine o'clock that evening, the usual dazzling and inscrutable display of planets and stars was all there was in the sky.
Another time, when coming out of a restaurant in town, we and two friends each received exactly three drops of rain each, right on our heads. We all paused and apprehensively looked above, looking for some careless gardener sprinkling a rooftop garden. Then to the sky, but there were no clouds either. No one could figure where the stray droplets came from.
For an off-the-grid operation like our ranch, which relies on the sun for electricity and hot water, this is ideal weather. We've turned on the generator a couple of times since November but just to keep the gasoline from gumming up inside the motor. Otherwise the array of panels on the roof is generating about 14 or 15 kilowatts daily, enough electricity to indulge in such carelessness as turning on the dishwasher at nine o'clock at night or taking a break from the obligatory fluorescent light bulbs.
The hell with it. We screwed in a 50-100-150 watt in the three-way socket that came with a new floor lamp. Conservation has receded somewhat in our heads, as each day we generate more electricity than we need and the storage batteries just gurgle away merrily.
Still, going without a drop of rain for months invariably becomes worrisome, even after living here for five years. Is it ever going to rain again in San Miguel? Is there some ominous spinoff of climate change we neglected to read about?
Say what you will about Chicago's climate, but at least it offers some sort of precipitation, pleasant or otherwise, year-round. Cooing drizzles, blizzards with snow blowing almost horizontally, scary hail and thunderstorms, and sometimes seemingly a combination of everything. Even when there is a drought, you can always look over your shoulder and be comforted by the greenish expanse of Lake Michigan, Chicago's own freshwater ocean.
By comparison, the reservoirs around San Miguel are ephemeral or useless. Swimming holes in the fields on the way to our ranch have all dried up by now, except for one which must be spring fed. Out of our back terrace we can see a man-made lagoon that along with hills, sheep and fields, looks like the centerpiece of an impressionist landscape. But at this stage of the dry season the lagoon has shrunk to half its size and may disappear altogether if the rains don't arrive punctually by mid-July.
San Miguel's main water feature is La Presa or "The Dam," which looks impressive from a distance except its water is a soup of contaminated run offs and sewage discharges that make it unsuitable for anything except as a distant photographic landmark.
A common sight this time of year are acres of burned fields, left after weeds caught or were set on fire. San Miguel's rickety fire department might intervene if the fires come too close to someone's house, but otherwise they are allowed to scorch the weeds and other vegetation undisturbed. The cacti seem to survive, saved I imagine by the water they have stored inside their leaves, along with the mesquites, with their rock-like wood and roots that go deep beyond anything a fire could reach.
Our water supply comes primarily from the 30,000-gallon rain-collection cistern we put under the terrace. When the rains stopped at the end of October, the cistern was filled and we've used only about ten percent of it. Once a week our community well comes alive and delivers water for about four hours, for a fee of $9 dollars a month.
We are resigned to the eventual failure of the community well and being left with only our cistern and the rain clouds that come over San Miguel four months a year, and turn the sepia landscape technicolor, and fatten and cheer up the livestock. The old community well pump has had a few fits recently and it's doubtful that our meager water assessment will be enough to buy a new pump much less drill a deeper well if this one runs dry.
A state government study three years ago showed that the water level of local wells, the primary source of water for San Miguel's rapidly growing population, is dropping alarmingly. And as the level drops, the concentration of hard metals and other chemicals increases, which will eventually make the water undrinkable. Another branch of government, however, apparently approved a new golf course under construction about five miles from here.
But never mind the ominous trends and worries. In another four months or so it will start to rain again, and as far away as that seems, there are clear signs spring is already here. The jarrillas, weedy, four-foot tall bushes are in full bloom with brilliant yellow flowers. The number of customers at our bird bath and feeder is multiplying (and so is our bill for alpistle, a tiny seed locals use for birdseed). Huizaches are turning greener and putting out their own round, yellow blooms. Most auspicious of all, the temperatures are rising: Right now, at four o'clock, it's 86 degrees, 14 percent humidity, clear skies and no wind.
Who are we to doubt the wisdom of the jarrillas and huizaches, the newly arrived finches and other subtle signs that rain is on the way? Meanwhile, we have to settle for what the desert has to offer--beautiful vistas of browns, beiges and spots of dark green under unvariably blue skies. And that's not bad at all.