Moseying: Exploring the Natural World
Hailstorm south of Ozona
March 31, 2004
I had just passed a sign on the highway stating Road Closed Ahead High Water. What the heck? I thought, Peggy Maddox had not mentioned this when she called last night to confirm my visiting the Allan Savory Institute Demonstration Ranch for some consultation work. I was driving down Johnson Draw, a little south of Ozona. Thick low clouds had just been revealed by the coming daylight, and I could see that the pastures were a bright green, reflecting the 12 inches of fall rain and 5 inches of spring rain.
5 miles went by, then 10, and I saw no water in the bottom of the draw as I passed over the bridges. As I came around the last bend before my turn off, I could see that the bottom of the valley ahead was carpeted with thick ground fog a pure white ground fog that seemed to glow from within. I have reached where the water is in the draw, I thought, and as I entered the thick fog, I slowed down. Water often creates an early morning fog, when the water is warmer than the air. Within a few seconds, I passed a sign informing that a low water crossing was just ahead. I slowed down even more, expecting when I began to dip down to the draw bottom that I would find the road covered with water.
Only a trickle of water meandered lazily across the road. To my side however, on the upstream side of the road, the fence was festooned with flood detritus matted with dead grass, broken limbs of mesquite and juniper. The fog was not present over the draw bottom How weird! On the upslope, the fine litter of juniper needles and small pieces of flotsam marked the highest reaches of the water during the flood on the surface of the pavement. Along the fence on the downstream side was a sight that made me come to a complete stop.
At first my mind identified what I saw as a 50 foot-long and three-foot tall bank of the same fine litter that was across the road but what made me stop was the realization that it was actually a long ridge of hailstones mixed with litter. Evidently the location was where the flood waters had eddied, and the floating hailstones had collected. When the water receded, the hailstones were left in a pile. The ground fog steamed off of the pile of hailstones like smoke from a campfire. I looked in every direction, and realized that hail covered the ground in a dirty white carpet three inches thick. I glanced at the air temperature gauge above the windshield. The air temperature had dropped 15 degrees in the last few minutes from 55 degrees at the high water warning sign to 40, 50 feet from the haildrift. Distracted by the fog and concern for the road conditions, I had not noticed the hail where the fog had first appeared.
I slowly motored the remaining mile to my turnoff. Here and there I crunched across small drifts of hail. Every species of brush that grew within the area had no bark, except for tattered strips hanging down. When I reached the junction, two pickups sat idling in the middle of the road, one facing each direction. A couple of the local ranchers jawboning about the storm, I decided, and turned down the gravel road to the Savory Ranch, crawling slow through the fog. Within fifty feet the little SUV started fishtailing, so I put it into 4wheel drive. I made it another 100 yards but stopped to survey the next hundred yards, when I realized the road was covered with hail.
I stopped, got out, and crunched my way on the hail on the roadbed to the low water crossing down in the draw. Angry brown water roiled, and the seepwillows and nogalitos in the water bucked as if blown by a high wind. I worked my way down to the waters edge, and after some investigation, decided the water was two feet deep at least where I could see hints of the bottom through the discolored water. On the other side of the water was a big sandbank the flood had deposited when the water was higher, and I could see a second depositional ridge of gravel sticking up through the surface of the water five feet from the edge.
Has the roadbed been eroded in the center? I cogitated for a minute about stripping off and wading into the water, but the air temperature convinced me to decide against it. I returned to the car, and backed up to the junction. One of the pickups still sat there, idling. I pulled around in the classic rural howdying fashion, facing the opposite direction. In the other pickup was a cowboy about my age and his college-age daughter.
I was waiting to see if you made it through, he grinned. I was thinking about going and checking the water gaps and the roads in that pasture. Water gaps are sections of fence that cross streambeds, and are designed to breakaway if the detritus load and the hydraulic pressure of the rushing water are strong enough. Without water gaps, floods can ruin fences for a quarter mile pulling staples from the fenceposts and even jerking down a row of posts.
I talked to Peggy Maddox last night, and she said nothing about the storm it must have happened last night sometime. He laughed. Nope, it happened 14 hours ago, when a big black cloud blew through about 5 p.m. last night. I came through right after it happened, right before all the water rushing down the header canyons reached Johnson Draw. Every hill in this square mile area was white, looking like it had snowed. I hurried on home another 5 miles south, and beat the flood. I told my daughter her little car might not make it through this morning, and she is due back at Sul Ross University in time for an evening class. The low water crossings between here and home are still running too deep for her car, so we are just killing time, scouting out what has happened.
I hope you havent done your spring shearing already, I commented. The realization that I knew a little about his work flickered in his eyes. Nope, we shear a little later than some folks. When a bad storm comes in shearing time, shorn sheep can die of hypothermia. I asked him if he thought he had lost any to the hail. There are not supposed to be any in this pasture right now, but if there were, the buzzards will show me where.
We sat and visited for ten minutes, finding out that we had been to some of the same ranches along the Pecos, where he had done daywork cowboying and I had hunted or done biological surveys. When we started talking about why I was in the neighborhood, he reached for a mobile phone and dialed Peggy and Joe Maddoxs number, and told them I was marooned on the wrong side of the draw. They had received some rain, but no hail. Joe and Peggy came down from the ranchhouse 7 miles away, and they bounced through the rushing water in his jacked up pickup riding on knobby tires. The roadbed had not eroded away, after all. If my SUV had better clearance, I could have made it, but I might have gotten stuck in the sanddrift at the highwater mark. When Peggy and I came back across at 5 p.m. all the hail had melted, and the only water left was in a few pools in the lowest part of the draw.