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The Winds of Winslow

The stock in trade of The Wickenburg Institute For Factual Diversity is the windy story, by which we liberate a world mired in “facts.”

Looking through the archives, I find we’ve told few actual stories about wind, as though that might be incestuous, wind begetting wind. A subconscious decision, I’m sure.

Now Ken “Gusty” Clemmer, a member of our advisory board, has inspired us to tackle the subject of wind–to meet it head-on, so to speak.

Many Journal subscribers know Ken. Those who don’t are in for a rare experience, for he is an Airmotor of a friend.

He is a kind man, most solicitious of my welfare, for he says that if anything happens to me, he’ll be the homeliest man left standing. He is too modest. For my part, I pay him $10 a week so he won’t tell people we’re first cousins. We both have shallow roots in Coryell County, Texas.

During a recent trip across the Texas panhandle, Ken stopped at the Dallahm County courthouse in Dalhart to reaffirm his memory of an odd Texas law.

(You old Dalhart fans know that Dalhart straddles the border of Dallam and Hartley Counties, and takes part of its name from each county. You’ll also know that Marion Try Slaughter II, a famous country singer many years ago, took the stage name Vernon Dalhart from the towns of Dalhart and Vernon, Texas, which is down the road a piece.)

Back to Clemmer: Ken found out that his memory was true: It is legal for a windmill operator in that area of Texas to run his windmill only 3.5 minutes per day. Or, to put it another way, it’s illegal to run it longer than 3 1/2 minutes.

If the windmill runs any longer than that, the owner is subject to imprisonment for up to 100 years, unless the hair-trigger Texas penal system decides to execute him right on the spot.

Ken says, “This is a result of one rancher’s forgetting to shut down his windmill a hundred years ago, and running it all night and creating massive sinkholes caused by rapid depeletion of groundwater. “Tractors, cows and houses were sucked down into the bowels of Texas in the blinking of an eye,” he continued. “There was no place to put all that water but–you guessed it–back in the sinkholes, making a lake out of the county. It took the better part of a century for the water to seep back in, replenishing the ground water and raising the ground level to somewhere near normal.

“Several cows drowned, and the swallowed houses suffered more than $200 damage.”

That sort of relentless wind is not common in Arizona, with a couple of exceptions, which we’re sure to tell you about here in a minute.

Neither is there that much groundwater, to be sucked up by voracious windmills–not any longer.

In fact, many ranchers who used to have two windmills had to take one down–there was often only enough wind to run a single mill.

While windmills are the romantic choice of most ranchers and farmers for pumping water–they’re a sentimental bunch, you know–it’s not the only way to pump water.

Quiet, sneaky electric pumps have sucked billions of acre-feet of water out from beneath Pinal County, Arizona, just south of Phoenix.

The average elevation of the county has dropped by 632 feet in the last fifty years, changing the elevation to a new climatic “life zone”–from the Upper Lower Sonoran Gopher Zone to the Lower Upper Seaweed Zone.

Farmers in the Casa Grande Valley who used to get rich growing subsidized cotton had to turn to growing safflower and garbanzos.

Some lucky Pinal County growers hit a “hole in the market” when restaurateurs in New York and Boston are willing to pay premium prices for grbanzos. Garbanzos are not subsidized like cotton, but it works out about even.

The electricity for pumping costs was killing them, until researchers at the University of Arizona invented freeze-dried water. Freeze-dried water is similar to dry ice, in that it is carbon dioxide in a solid state, but we don’t need to go into that today. I’ll let Clemmer explain it later on; suffice it to say, it cut pumping costs dramatically, which had much to do with lowering the water table.

I digress. I was talking about wind, of the relentless variety.

Across Arizona’s midsection is a sort of a waistline, a big cliff called The Mogollon Rim. It begins near the New Mexico border and while it is not always recognizable as a precipice, it continues in one form or another to the Grand Wash Cliffs, south of Lake Mead.

North of the rim is what we used to call “the high line,” the route of famed U.S. Route 66, stitching together a varied string of towns from Kingman, Arizona, to Gallup, NM.

These towns are beset by mostly spring winds, except in Winslow, where the wind blows all the time.

The prevailing wind is out of the southwest, and it starts out at gale force around Kingman in March. March comes in like a lion and goes out like a gorilla.

Seligman is built low to the ground so it can withstand the spring winds, and Ash Fork sits in a depression. Marshall Trimble, official state historian of Arizona and a man of impeccable honesty, was a baseball pitcher for Ash Fork High School.

He says he had to throw toward third base in order to get the ball across home plate.

And so it goes across the High Line. Tony Norris, another storyteller of impregnable imagination, lives in the Doney Park area about fifteen miles northeast of Flagstaff. When he and Sue need groceries, they phone Safeway. A stockboy takes their order up onto the roof and tosses it. The wind delivers it right to their front door.

The food packages are sometimes pitted when they arrive. Snowplow operators in northern Arizona use volcanic cinders to provide traction and break up the ice. Sometimes the spring wind drives the untended cinders through the air like bird shot.

From Flagstaff east to the New Mexico border, which is half of northern Arizona, the country is mostly high plains, punctuated by mesas. There are quite a few windmills out there, so ranchers can keep their stock ponds filled.

Some special-order windmills with factory-instealled tachometers. Their owners compete for mythical speed titles. One windmill near Winslow was doing 186,000 rpms when it flew apart. Its blades showed up on radar and scrambled the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Ranchers have kept the windmills tied down in Spring since 1967, when an unsecured windmilll got away and won an air race in Dayton, Ohio.

Which brings us to Winslow, where the wind blows nearly all the time. Winslow is the only town in Arizona where the rain gauge is installed horizontally. I have known Winslow for more than half a century and had some good times there. It hugs the bare red earth of northern Arizona like an ill-fitting wig, and I’m afraid someday that wind is going to get in underneath the hair line and blow the town away.

What holds it in place, I think, is the railroad tracks. It has been a railroad town since the 1880s, and is a division point for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe. If BNSF has to leave a string of cars in the yard, they leave a couple of locomotives attached, engines running, so the cars don’t blow on down the tracks and wipe out Holbrook.

Basbeball players in Winslow face the same problems as those in Ash Fork, except the field is oriented a different way. The pitcher has to throw toward first to reach home plate.

The wind died in Winslow the other day–it does that once every few years–and the game had to be called because of calm.

The Winslow Bulldogs are a good football team, but they don’t kick field goals, even when the game depends on it. If they kick to the south, the ball blows back into the kicker’s face and may injure him seriously. If they kick to the north, someone has to drive all the way to Cortez, Colorado to retrieve the football.

At the Winslow municipal airport, helicopters have their rotors chained down so they don’t take off by themselves. Smaller fixed-wing planes hover above the airport for days, unable to lose that last few feet of altitude in order to land. Some daring pilots have developed a technique for landing backwards, touching the tail wheel down first and letting the wind force the wings to the ground.

Springerville is another town where the spring winds have nearly driven me mad. The wind is so strong that it drives all the barbs on the barbed wire fence down to the next post.

In 1958 I married a Springerville girl and took her to Winslow, where I was editing the newspaper. (We had to wrap copies of The Winslow Mail around rocks, so they’d land on the porch and not somewhere in Colorado.)

On a rainy day, my bride made the mistake of opening an umbrella. Being from Sprinerville, she had never seen an umbrella before, but it seemed like a good idea. She did not know that Winslow has a city ordinance that makes it illegal to open an umbrella.

The wind caught her and dragged her four miles before a deputy sheriff caught up with her. He shot four holes in the umbrella to let the air out and bring her to a stop.

The wind does stop blowing in Winslow now and then, when people least expect it. They look bewildered. They hear sounds they haven’t heard in years; they are not deaf after all.

And since they’re used to leaning into the wind, some of them fall over on the sidewalk and require hospitalization.

Last 5 posts by Jim Cook

1 comment to The Winds of Winslow

  • Diana Blank

    I enjoyed the article sent to me by a cousin who spent most of his 60 yrs in Winslow. We, like the author, have some of our “shallow roots” in Coryell Co Tx… although I’m sure my Winslow cousin knew this when he sent me this essay.
    I was never aware of the incessant winds of Winslow but related to my current Texas situation. I hope to see more of these wonderful pieces. a Texas Admirer