Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary: The Dust Storm

Feb 23, 2021

Storm-blue clouds surge above the dunefield where we stand looking north.  On the far horizon dust explodes in plumes 300-feet high along a front several miles wide.  Photographer Dave Edwards and I are on assignment deep in the Painted Desert watching a dust storm head our way. 

A dunefield in the Painted Desert
Credit Scott Thybony

The air holds still for a long moment until the wind picks up and the ground begins to stir.  Grains of sand shift, and soon the entire dune turns kinetic, vibrating hypnotically.  To the north, the wall of dust moves incredibly fast, covering ground at the rate of about 50-miles an hour judging by the known landmarks it passes.  Soon it will be upon us, and I can hear a steady roar in the distance long before the wind arrives.  At the last minute, Dave packs up his camera preparing for what is about to break loose.

The strongest winds in Arizona have been recorded in this section of the desert where immense dust clouds roll across a landscape as wind-carved as any in North America.  Rain falling at long intervals rough cuts the terrain, leaving the wind to do the finish work.  It sweeps down from the San Francisco Peaks forty-five miles away, sand-blasting a line of red cliffs rising near the dunes.  The abrasive winds grind away, shaping the rock into strangely-shaped monoliths called hoodoos. 

“There was nothing you could do,” Jack Goldtooth told me on a previous trip, “nowhere to go.”  A massive wall of dust once overtook the older Navajo when he was out with his sheep.  Living so remotely, he surprised me by comparing the dust storm to a scene in the Scorpion King.  His father, Frank Goldtooth, saw the wind as something more than a means of erosion.  The medicine man told an anthropologist how the Holy Wind was the supreme animating force of all living things.  He described the way it entered a person at birth, leaving whorls on the tips of the fingers, and left at the moment of death.  And in the stillness of the desert after a storm passed, Frank added, he could hear the sun singing songs as it traveled overhead.

The sky now darkens as the storm approaches the dunefield where we wait.  A stray tumbleweed cartwheels along the ground outracing the storm, and then another flies past and another.  The wall of dust nears as tendrils of sand flow up the side of the dune and streamers of sand blow across the flats below.  Suddenly the wind hits full force, and the air temperature takes a sudden dive.  My clothes flap violently and my hair whips about as dust is being sucked skyward. 

Turning our backs to the gale we retreat to the pickup, parked between the curving points of a barchan dune.  Dave and I shelter inside the truck and watch as the storm swirls around us.  We stare at the slipface, mesmerized by the grains blowing across it as wind combs the sand into curlers along the highest crest. 

The leading edge of the storm finally blows past, letting the sky and earth separate again.  We drive out of the dunefield the way we came as the wind eases.  Gripping the steering wheel, Dave breaks through fresh drifts of sand trailing behind each clump of grass.  The storm has covered all trace of our earlier passage.  We continue across the desert like a boat on water, leaving only a momentary wake behind us.