“Petrichor” is the smell produced by the first rain on dry ground. It is a wonderful word as well as one of my favorite scents. We just had a couple of weeks of dry, sunny weather followed by some pretty intense rainfall, and the petrichor, though faint, was evocative. As always, it brought back a singular memory:

I had just spent several weeks hiking through a wilderness area in the Sierras. I was driving down US-395 on my way to my home in Orange County when a storm blew across the desert. At first, it was just a strong wind that kept causing my 1971 VW camper van to jump from one side of the road to the other. Soon, though, the rain started and the scent of the wet sand, rocks, and sage was almost overpowering. Fortunately, the old bus wasn’t capable of great feats of speed so the fact that I had to slow down to 30 mph wasn’t going to seriously impact my travel time. I was a bit worried about flash floods, but there is not much to be done other than remaining vigilant.

I continued for what seemed like several hours, down past Ridgecrest heading toward Adelanto. Somewhere in that vast in-between, it grew very, very dark even though sunset was still hours away. The rain stopped, but could be seen in the distance while the sky remained a swirl of gray and black clouds. Suddenly, the sun sank below the level of the clouds and peeked through between the ceiling and the mountains to the west.

The sight was stunning. The sky remained dark. Black, in fact, now that it was contrasted with the glowing, reddish-brown chaparral brightly illuminated by the setting sun. I scanned the horizon of brilliant colors against the velvet black sky until I was looking to my left, at the eastern horizon. I had just entered a large, flat valley. Visibility was excellent, and on the horizon was a stunning rainbow, all three arcs fully visible, horizon-to-horizon, against the black sky. I immediately pulled off the road and got out into the clean, damp, heady air. At least twenty miles of road was visible, and I could see several other vehicles. All were stopped. All their passengers were standing on the road, gazing at the marvel to the east. A photograph would have been nice, but I was not about to tear my eyes from the brilliant displays long enough to dig through the bus looking for a camera. It was one of those times when the moment, alone, had to be enough.

This week’s rain suits my mood. It is still a difficult, solitary time in my life. Listening to the storm beating on my roof reminds me that I am just an incidental speck in a big and powerful world. I am saved only by grace from an existence much less comfortable than this one, and I am reminded that there could always be a magical rainbow right around the corner.

(Thanks to Michael Quinion and World Wide Words for introducing me to “petrichor” and many other obscure but fabulous words.)

RonRisley – 23 Mar 2005