Jaspa – We all like to talk about the weather, although where I come from, on Africa’s Serengeti Plain, it’s not really a very interesting topic of conversation. Temperatures are fairly constant all year round. In the rainy season we wonder when the dry season will begin. In the dry season we wonder when the rains will start.
When you travel to the southwest USA, you already have an image in your mind of what the weather there will be like. After all, the deserts of Arizona and Nevada are renowned for their endless sunshine and scorching temperatures.
In Phoenix, Tombstone, Las Vegas and the desert east of the infamous Area 51 (to name-drop just a few of places we’ve visited over the last couple of weeks), we got just what we expected. Even the sandstorm we ran into in eastern Nevada wasn’t really much of a surprise. In other places, however, things definitely weren’t what we’d bargained for.
In most cases, this involved being much colder than we’d imagined. I mean, who expects to be greeted by snow on their first visit to California? Of course, when you consider the elevations we were at for most of our visit to the Golden State, the fact that we encountered white flakes falling from the sky makes perfect sense. But somehow you still don’t expect it. Surely California is supposed to be all sunshine and sand! Even in May, 8000 feet (2500 metres) up in the mountains!
In all seriousness though, the last two weeks (in which we covered over 3500 miles across three states) have been characterised by weather extremes. We were scorched by the sun at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, and were cooked by the heat bouncing off the streets and buildings on the way to see a Diamondbacks game in Phoenix (“But it’s a dry heat!”). In the Nevada desert north of Las Vegas, one day we got sunburnt geocaching as we watched fighter jets dog-fighting above us in a cloudless blue sky (with sonic booms, flares and everything… Bisckits was beside himself), while on another we were blasted by wind, sand, rain and hail. We saw sun and snow at the Grand Canyon, encountered ‘dangerous winter driving conditions’ (as the warning signs put it) on Route 66 east of Flagstaff, and seemingly experienced all four seasons in less than an hour at Meteor Crater.
Yet weather-wise, two particular occasions from our latest journey stand out for me. The first occurred in California, east of Yosemite. We spent most of last Monday above 8000 feet, investigating the eerie ghost town of Bodie and hiking & geocaching near Mammoth Lakes. That evening we witnessed sunset at Death Valley, the floor of which, by contrast, lies well below sea level.
Now, Mammoth Lakes and Death Valley might be less than 200 miles (300 kilometres) apart, but wow does the change in altitude make a difference! In the mountains on Monday we were wrapped up against the cold and dodging snow showers, but the next day down in the valley was all heat-hazes and baking temperatures. I’m told that Death Valley is one of the hottest places on Earth, and from what I saw, I believe it!
On Thursday we were given anther lesson in the effects altitude can have on temperature and the weather, this time in northern Arizona. Passing Camp Verde on the interstate heading south from Flagstaff to Phoenix, we encountered what Rich describes as the worst conditions he’s ever driven in (with the exception of freezing rain). Amid flashes of lightning and rumbles of thunder, the heavens opened. With the car’s outside thermometer reading 36ºF (2ºC), the water pouring from the sky couldn’t decide whether to stay as rain or turn to snow.
We’ve since been told that this type of storm is called Thundersnow. Whatever you want to call it, the result was a blinding, slushy torrent that in places pooled a couple of inches or more deep on the road. Cars were sliding and skidding all over the place, including into the ditch and onto their roofs!
And yet, less than 40 miles later, as we drove out across the Salt River Valley, with the storm still raging in the mountains behind us, the car’s thermometer was reading 83ºF (28ºC) and we were bathed in sunshine beneath glorious blue skies.
No wonder we all like to talk about the weather.
To see more photos from our latest journey, click here.