Apr

24

A 20mph northerner blew throughout my weekend hike in the Sonora near Slab City, CA, bringing the temperature down to 90F and creating a meteorological freak called a tornado belt. I found myself slaloming wind devils for eight straight hours. Every thirty minutes, like clockwork, a dark funnel formed about five miles away from the same NE source and direction, heaving a perfect dancing tornado directly at me.

Each was as if manufactured from an atmosphere stencil and was about 100 yards wide, one mile tall, brown with blowing sand, and a few flying branches, moved with the wind, and whirled clockwise. Seven twisted at me in all, holding ground in nearly a straight path. When they reared and started toward me, I had about three minutes to walk at right angles slightly uphill to the east, as it seemed the wind devils were so heavy they flowed downhill.

According to the American Meteorological Society, these dust devils range in width from about 10 to 100 feet, with an average height of about 650 feet. However, these expanded version today in the high temperature and squall were much larger. They formed as a swirling updraft under sunny conditions when hot air near the desert floor rose quickly through a small pocket of cooler, low-pressure air above, and if there was a ground or atmospheric 'solid' in the way, the twister shaped.

Two mile-high tornados came straight at me where there was barely time to sidestep. On these two occasions I walked briskly to the lee side of an Ironwood tree, clamped my sunglasses tight, covered my ears, and waited for the twister to roar up. The circular wind I estimated at 50mph, and the brown core passed within 20 yards of me ducked behind the tree where the wind whistled through the densest branches on earth at about 40mph. It didn't get a rise out of me with 20-pound ankle weights.

At midday I stepped up out of a wash and beheld an astonishing sight. A piano stood in the open desert by flowering ocotillo, creosote, and barrel cactus. The keys were perfect and wind was blowing nearly hard enough to play 'They Call the Wind Maria'. It shown regal and beautiful in the sunlight. Before it a wind-sand polished bench was pushed up to the piano at just the proper distance for a man to sit and play a spell. How long? An empty wine bottle rocked in the wind on the low note keys.

Then I examined the old instrument. 'Manufactured by Story Roberts Co. of Chicago' the name tag read, and another metal one, 'Established in 1837.' Fresh pickup tracks led out into the open desert, about five days old. Behind the piano lay a fire extinguisher. Nothing else.

Every picture tells a story. I believe a virtuoso had driven the piano into the desert, carefully unloaded it, and leveled it with a stick under the right rear corner. He lit a match, but glanced down at the keys and decided to play a tune before torching the bewitching instrument. He sat, uncorked the bottle, reached out, and tickled the ivories. He liked what he heard, and played until the wine was gone. There would be no fire for the extinguisher to save the surrounding desert because he could not bring himself to burn it any more than a person could shoot his beloved old pet.

The piano was perhaps 100 years old and the model name written in gold above the keyboard was 'F__K Fame'.

I rose from the bench, and walked to the next tornado.

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