Life in the Real Desert: Riding Through a Dust Devil

Photo of dust devil in Arizona Living in the real desert has definitely been an eye opening experience thus far. (Not to mention a chance to clean my cluttered mind of the trappings of too much civilization, which has been an unexpected plus.) Recently the weather has matched my life to a certain extent. A lot of air turbulence, aka wind, has kept the dust and sand in constant upheaval. Quite a number of “dust devils” aka mini cyclones have been created and move across the hardpan floor recklessly ignoring traffic to traverse roads and avenues.

A few days ago, a volcano in Chile erupted. This lava-spewing spectacle occurred twice in a short time period, if I can remember the Facebook notices correctly, and like the Icelandic eruption a few years back, it has affected the weather noticeably. Cooler temperatures, clouds, a lot of gusting wind and heavy showers are making their presence felt in the normally hot area.

Clouds of debris have entered the atmosphere once again and will loom up there for some time. With my sporadic Internet, and no television, I do not know if the event has messed with air travel. The Iceland volcano certainly did; shutting down flights for several days in England and other countries.

Years ago, when I lived in New Mexico with my first wife and our son Donovan (who was a fearless 8 or 9 month old that walked boldly off the end of the settee…repeatedly) sand storms were a regular occurrence and dust devils could be spotted easily.

During one sand storm, according to my white-faced then wife, I was almost decapitated by a whirling sheet of galvanized steel. However, the most spectacular sand storm took place during the filming of a Sean Connery film, “Wrong Is Right.” The film set was in White Sands and a small group of locals were there to watch the professionals go through their paces.

The wind picked up steadily and suddenly, in mid-scene, a white wall of sand could be seen approaching. A park ranger announced over the PA system that if people wanted to leave, now was the time to do it. Along with a number of other locals, the wife, baby and I left, only to be caught up in the advances of the wall of sand.

Before we got into the car, a cameraman on the crew grabbed my arm. Sounding like the epitome of a “surfer” he excitedly asked, “Whoa dude! Is it like this all the time around here? This is so cool!” I agreed and suggested he take cover and protect his equipment as these natural events could strip paint off cars and deliver sand in unbelievable places.

Dust storm picture from Google images

In those days, sand storms were a new experience. I had only ever been through one similar incident a few years previously. A dust storm had roared over the Oklahoma state line and enveloped a small Arkansas town where I was doing drywall work. Purple clouds filled the sky and suddenly the whole world was swirling dust and darkness.

Creepy.

Back to present day and my ride through the dust devil. As I was already fighting against 11 to 17 mph winds, my concentration was more on getting home than on the birth of the mini cyclone up ahead.

For a split second I thought of the Bill Paxton, Helen Hunt film “Twister” and their experiences in dealing with tornadoes. The cyclone grew steadily, from a few bits of debris swirling around to a lot of sand, dust and more debris building up to a small twister about six feet in diameter.

Biking with my eyes squinted against the wall of wind pushing against me I noticed that the dust devil was almost stationary ahead of me. Up to the left of me, it seemed to be waiting for me to pass. As I drew nearer, it began to move into the road. I thought briefly about stopping and trying to get a video of the thing.

It was not going to happen.

The thing was upon me in an instant. Suddenly all the pressure that had been trying to force me back the way I came stopped. The bike and I were being pummeled back and forth. The wheels actually slid sideways for a second or two and the bike began to wobble in the wind.

Luckily I was wearing my prescription sunglasses so the dust and debris did not blind me. Eyes almost shut I could see from inside the small cyclone. I felt a little like the surfer-dude cameraman from the Connery film being filmed in 1981.

“Whoa dude!”

Just another experience of living in the real desert to be savored; riding a bike through a dust devil, aka mini cyclone, and living to tell the tale.

26 April 2015

Michael Knox-Smith