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The Great Dust Spill of 1935

The Journal of Prevarication
The most trusted name in lying

By Jim Cook,
Official State Liar of Arizona.

Big Jake, my older brother, was the first lumberjack at the Petrified Forest.

Jake never got much smarter. While he has not prospered, he has always added flavor to our family.

However, Jakes does tend to carry on about his one remaining goal in life: The establishment of Arizona Dust Storm National Park.

Jake thought he had it made when Bill Clinton was president. You may remember that near the end of his term, Clinton set aside several places he thought should be preserved as national parks and monuments.

When George W. Bush was elected president, he rescinded a bunch of Clinton’s executive orders. Jake tried to get the ear of President Barack Obama, but the Secret Service made him give it back.

Big Jake’s obsession dates back to the Great Dust Spill of 1935, which covered an area the size of Utah. In fact, much of the spill became Utah.

You’ve seen these desert dust storms. They’re awesome, especially with the sun behind them. They are best viewed from a distance of about twenty miles, which gives you time to cover your pool and bring your lawn furniture inside.

Then put yourself indoors, because being inside an Arizona dust storm is like trying to breathe inside a cinder block.

I’ve seen walls of dust that appeared as tall as the Estrella Mountains, and they reached from the Estrellas to the White Tanks. While the pig is not the most aerodynamic of animals, he can fly under the power of an Arizona dust storm.

Most dust storms come out of the southwest and go curving northeast, the direction of the prevailing wind hereabouts. Rotation is clockwise.

However, there’s a phenomenon known as the “desert monsoon.” We used to call them summer rains. Then some cerebral types noticed that around June 15, the rotation switches to counterclockwise, similar to the rotation of the monsoons over the Indian Ocean. TV weather forecasters added “monsoon” to their vocabulary; Big Jake never did.

Jake vividly remembers that fateful June 15, 1935, and he’ll be happy to tell you about it in great detail. He was a young man, and he had a job painting stripes on pavement. He felt lucky to have a government job in the last days of The Great Depression.

The idea of painting centerlines was new back then. Engineers had just figured out that a center stripe worked best if the road was paved first. The stripes were painted by hand, with brushes.

Big Jake was painting a stripe down the middle of the Old Yuma Road when he saw a wall of dust coming at him, rising majestically above Buckeye. Jake and the rest of the crew took cover under their work truck, so they wouldn’t be blown away.

At that moment, the air currents changed their rotations. The monsoon had started, and counterclockwise air off the Gulf of Mexico ran head-on into the clockwise dust storm.

Jake said there was a brief, deathly stillness in the air. He talks dramatically about how the spill changed the face of Arizona. Digging out Glendale was a shovel-ready federal job.

The part of the story I like best is how the stripe that Jake had been painting landed in a field at Las Cruces, New Mexico, where it became the municipal airport.

Last 5 posts by Jim Cook

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