When it Rains, It Pours

Monsoon season arrives and foils some travel plans.

Monsoon season started the other day. Although it didn’t seem very serious about raining at first, it soon got right down to business.

I was supposed to start work at 6:55 AM this morning at the Grand Canyon. The plan was to fly up from Wickenburg at 5:00 AM. Even with mild headwinds, I would still get to work on time.

Yesterday evening, we prepared by rolling out Three-Niner-Lima, topping off its fuel, putting some of my luggage on board, tying down its blades, and putting its cockpit cover on. I’d drive to the airport first thing in the morning, stow my car in the hangar, do a quick preflight, and take off.

I knew it was monsoon season. And I knew that thunderstorms were possible any afternoon. But I’d be leaving in the morning. And we hardly ever got thunderstorms in the morning.

The lightning woke me at 1 AM. Out to the south. I got up and peered out the french doors in our bedroom though half-asleep eyes. There was a storm to the south. I went to the den and peered out the windows that looked north. Nothing. It was still early. Whatever storm was raging would have plenty of time to wear itself out by the time I had to leave.

I slept fitfully for the rest of the night. When my alarm went off at 4 AM, I was already half awake.

And there was still lightning to the south.

I watched the Weather Channel. It showed a storm morning northwest. But those darn maps don’t have enough detail to really see where the storm is.

I hopped into the shower. An enormous boom thundered over my head as I rinsed off. I knew where the map was showing the storm.

It was unnaturally dark at 4:30 AM when I came downstairs. I was pretty sure I was going to have to drive. And be about an hour late for work. I called and left messages for the bosses. Mike had already made my coffee and I drank it, listening to the thunder and lightning and pouring rain. At one point, the storm seemed to be fading. I opened the front door and looked out to the north. A bolt of lightning shot from the sky about two miles away. It seemed to say: “Are you crazy? Of course you can’t fly.”

So I drove. I took the Honda, which is a pleasure to drive. I had to stop at the airport to pick up some of my luggage (in the rain) and then fill up with gas. But by 5:00 AM, I was on the road, heading north while the rain pelted the car, washing off weeks of accumulated dust.

As an Arizona driver, I have a problem every monsoon season: I find that I have to reacquaint myself with the controls for my windshield wipers. Although I’d purchased the Honda back in August 2003, I’d only driven it in the rain once or twice. It had less than 5,000 miles on it. That morning, it was dark when I tried to figure the wipers out. I finally learned enough to turn them on and off. Later in the drive, I’d get fancy with the different speeds and the washer fluid.

It rained hard with lightning in every direction all the way through Wickenburg to Congress. I got stuck behind a slow car on 89 and passed him without problem. There weren’t many other cars on the road. The skies stayed dark as I wound my way up Yarnell Hill and through Yarnell. The rain had stopped up there, but the pavement was wet. And before I could even turn off my wipers, the rain started all over again — with a vengeance. And that’s when I made a discovery about the roads in Arizona: they’re not crowned.

If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, think of the roads in a place like New York or New Jersey, where it’s common to get rain at least once a week. (Sheesh. I can’t even remember what that’s like!) The roads are taller in the middle — right around where the dividing line is — than on the edges. When it rains, the water hits the hump and rolls off either side. The result: the roads aren’t likely to get flooded.

In Arizona, the roads appear to be flat. Of course, that asphalt gets pretty hot every day at least half the year. People drive on it and their tires go in the same two ruts on either side of the dividing line. The result: the road has a pair of ruts in each lane. When it rains, the water fills the ruts.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that the ruts are probably about 1-3 inches deep and about 2 feet wide. And my little car, driving 10 mph below the legal limit of 65, could not handle all that water. It began to hydroplane. That required me to cut speed to 50 mph or less. Not a good idea when I was already going to be at least an hour late for work. So I improvised. I drove with one wheel on the line and the other on the hump between the two ruts. Because there weren’t many other cars on the road that early in the morning, I was able to drive without danger of scaring an oncoming car off the road. And I could keep up my speed.

By Kirkland Junction, the rain had stopped again. By Kirkland, it was starting to get light. After Skull Valley, I was able to turn off my headlights. The sun was rising behind the Mingus Mountains as I drove into Prescott. There were still plenty of clouds up there, but the ceilings were high. If only I lived there! Then I could have flown.

I stopped for breakfast at McDonald’s in Chino Valley. What’s another 5 minutes when you’re already an hour late?

I debated taking the top down, but decided not not. It was quite cool outside and I didn’t want to have to stop to put it back up if I ran into more rain.

I was on I-40 between Ash Fork and Williams when 6:55 AM came and went. I imagined the other pilots outside, preflighting their helicopters. I wondered if my bosses were pissed off and decided that it really didn’t matter.

I rolled into Tusayan at 7:45. By the time I got up to the break room and logged in, it was 7:55. An hour late. The priority board showed that I’d been made a spare. I wound up flying a total of only 1.5 hours all day.

I couldn’t tell if my boss was pissed. He has a way about him that sometimes makes him impossible to read. I told him that it wouldn’t happen again. That from now on, I’d fly or drive up the afternoon before I had to start work.

Of course, that’s when it normally rains this time of year.

What do you think?