That One Small Cloud

Another day. Another clear sky except for that one small cloud hanging over Cerro Pedernal so many miles to the west. The land is parched, nearly fifteen months without any meaningful rain and yet, almost always, that one small hope hanging over Cerro Pedernal so many miles to the west.

Image One

According to normal patterns, as that one small cloud moves east it will expand and divide and fill the sky with fluffy white pillows sometime around noon. An hour or so later, updrafts will draw them together to form massive anvils, each spitting lightning and thunder and virga, heavy sheets of rain that fall toward a landscape so hot they evaporate before touching earth. As this spectacle continues, it often splits, the majority of it moving south-east towards Santa Fe while a smaller share circles around to fill our little valley with the hope of possibility.

Image Two

This day, a huge swirling mass breaks off and swings much further east than normal, picking up moisture and strength as it circles, climbs, then falls upon us from the north-east, a very bad sign according to the old timers, and suddenly our little part of the universe is lost behind a whirling curtain made surreal by a thousand sun-stars and tiny rainbows dancing on the other side. The sun shines full just across the creek and the valley, the people below having little idea what’s happening up here.

Image Three

I step through the door into the storm. The view across the alluvial flats towards the sand hills is like a hallucination – so off from what seems possible that it is at once confusing, frightening, yet totally incredible. The Juniper, Piñon, and Cholla stand tall, straight, fixed, while everything around them, the sand, dead brush and leaves, every visible patch of land is moving down the slope in ripples, one slippery line atop another until they form a single sheet of unimaginable measure and wonder. Standing there, under the crash of thunder and rain comes a roar from the arroyo behind me. This ancient course has not run in over eight years, not a single drop, and now it is running fast and sure, bank to bank – eight to ten feet deep, each wave cresting another, a surge so powerful, so sand laden and abrasive it strips the bark off of trees and the flesh from any creature unfortunate enough to be caught in its rush.

Image Four

I watch islands of vegetation, old and new, hopelessly struggle to stay on the surface. An entire cottonwood races by, its roots pointed upstream, and then a rock, perhaps eight or more feet in diameter – but it’s the water, so thick and brown it’s like chocolate milk gone sour. Suddenly, the rain stops. The main force of the storm is now pounding the other side of the sand hills, and shortly the torrent in the arroyo subsides as well. The whole event, from start to finish, takes less than forty-five minutes, and as the last trace of water disappears, the arroyo is left as smooth and groomed as one might expect from the purity and power of water.

Image Five

This day brought much needed moisture to a parched land. That one small cloud hanging over Cerro Pedernal so many miles to the west became a giant even if only for a day. A new image emerges – a vision of a landscape that expands then settles as if releasing a huge sigh of relief. In the days that follow, what has been a dry, prickly trough will be transformed by the color and scent of wild flowers and other greenery. The earth has been flushed and cleansed, a watery feast having fed the famine, and everything that has been waiting patiently for years will be given another turn at life.


Tom Quinn Kumpf is an internationally recognized photographer, writer, and poet, and author of the award-winning books Children of Belfast, Ireland: Standing Stones to Stormont, and Two Sides: Haiku and Other Words. His work has also appeared in galleries, museums, magazines, and newspapers throughout the world. He currently lives and maintains a studio in a small village in Northern New Mexico. All photos ©Tom Quinn Kumpf