The wind picks up in the afternoon. We can’t get away from it out here. A lot of miles between things. Summer storms are starting a bit early this year, and they hit us every afternoon for an hour or so. The storm always comes out of the northwest. I can usually see it a few hours before it gets to us. It builds in the distance, clouds gathering to cover up a clear blue sky. There’s no noise, no wind. We move along slowly, and I listen to the small squeak that my saddle makes as Gizmo trots along. The sound of water sloshing in the canteen moves in rhythm to the swish of my jeans against the seat jockeys and the rustle of my poncho tied across the pommel. A small chorus playing to a steady beat, using the silence of the desert as its auditorium.
The day’s ride takes me over a saddle between two large buttes (I’ve learned that a butte is taller than it is wide, and a mesa is wider than it is tall). As Gizmo and I reach the top of the gap, I stop and turn him around, and we look back upon what has taken us several days to cross. The Painted Desert is aptly named. The buttes and mesas extend to the west until they seem to mesh with the San Francisco Peaks, the tall dark blue sentinels far in the distance. It seems ages since we rode through those mountains. The mesas are a painter’s canvas—no, a painter’s pallet. The pale blue sky blends with the greens and purples of the plateaus, fading into yellows and browns as I look down along the incline we have been ascending for so long.
“There you go, bud,” I tell my horse as we pause to face back to the west, “That’s what we’ve been doing for the past few weeks.”
We are looking into the past, the same way you would look at a distant planet. If my eyesight were keener, I might be able to see our tracks going back for several miles. As it is, my eyes can follow them for only a short way before the marks on the trail become invisible. I rein Gizmo back to the east, toward the future.
“Look at it out there, Gizmo. That’s our home for the next few weeks.” I reach down to give him a pat on the neck and urge him into a walk. We have trotted most of the morning as we gradually climbed to the top of the saddle, but I will keep him to a walk as we head back downhill. It will be slower going, but it’s too hard on us both if we trot when going downhill. It’s likely he would injure his back.
The weather begins to assemble into a recognizable storm in the distance. White clouds have thickened and turned grey. Parts of them are turning black. They move slowly and steadily toward us. I look for a likely shelter to escape the oncoming rain. Stabs of lightning begin to flash in the distance every so often, and their frequency increases as the storm grows closer. Within an hour the leading edge of the clouds is overhead, though it doesn’t bring the threat of rain just yet. It is still a way off, and I can now see the rain itself, falling from the clouds but evaporating before it reaches the ground.
We are lucky today. There is an overhang wedged into the face of a small bluff. Though it is facing the storm and open to the incoming rush of wind and rain, the small hollow should give us some relief from the coming monsoon, and hopefully protect us from the lightning. There are some large tree roots embedded in the walls of the makeshift cave, strong enough to tie Gizmo to. I have had to tie him out in the open several times during these summer storms, and I always pray he doesn’t get hit by lightning. Being out on the prairie during a lightning storm without shelter brings new meaning to the word vulnerable.
I unsaddle and improvise a quick camp. I shove our belongings beneath the rain slicker as I watch the storm roll toward us. I can see lightning striking the ground. Gizmo and I have been through this many times already, but it isn’t something you get used to. I have learned to resign myself to fate, to accept that the lightning will either strike me or spare me and that there’s nothing I can do about it. I just hope that if a strike takes one of us, it’s me and not Gizmo.
The lightning is close enough to seem like explosions now. The flash and the detonation are simultaneous. I can no longer count “one, two, three, four …” to figure out how many miles away they are because they are upon us. It seems as if the storm is concentrated right on our spot only, but I know that the lightning strikes across many miles around us. Some of the flashes are so close I can feel them. I smell ozone in the air and feel the heat. My hair stands on end. Gizmo fidgets nervously while I stroke his face and neck and speak reassuringly to him. We both hope for the best.