The Seduction of Thunder

Our intrepid émigré reports back from Seattle: What he misses about Vegas is the rain

I live in Seattle, and I have lived in Las Vegas. Despite the various economic, social and geographic differences between the two cities, I can tell you that the residents of both have one thing in common: Las Vegans and Seattleites know that it’s pointless, even cliché, to complain about the weather. Las Vegas is searing hot and bone dry most of the year; Seattle is cool and wet most of the year. Sometimes these things get on top of us—like when Vegas has a streak of 110-degree-plus days or Seattle goes too long without a sun break—but for the most part, we take what nature gives us and we don’t discuss it much.

Except when it rains.

I know this is kind of hard to believe, but it doesn’t really rain in Seattle. Oh, we get more than our share of drizzle, and the freaking mist is relentless. But true rainstorms—fat drops of water, gutters overflowing, traffic slowed to a crawl—are comparatively rare. I think I’ve heard perhaps two dozen thunderclaps in the eight years I’ve been living here. For this and other reasons, I have to say something that makes no sense coming from a Northwesterner: I miss desert rainstorms.

Las Vegas rainstorms are among the most beautiful things I’ve seen in my life. Everything about them utterly beguiles me, beginning with their suddenness. Seattle rainstorms take their good time in revealing themselves; when the skies open up after a week of misty, gray-silver days, you can’t say that you’re surprised. But I’ve woken up to blue skies and sun in Las Vegas, only to be driven off the road by rising floodwaters in the early afternoon. The clouds, blue-black and low, roll in like they own the joint, and they fall to the earth with the proverbial wrath of the gods. I can’t imagine Seattle’s clouds doing that without apologizing in that stilted, passive-aggressive manner that nearly everyone up here seems to cultivate.

And the thunder, sweet child o’ mine, the thunder is something else again. Vegas rainstorms are like Vegas haters: loud, persistent and unmindful of anyone else who may happen to be around. I once heard a dozen thunderclaps inside of half an hour, and I felt more than half of them; my Summerlin apartment shook as if someone were kicking its roof. It’s a fearful experience, but a profoundly exciting one—better than half the concerts I’ve seen.

The aftermath of a Vegas rainstorm is usually what people remember, because the cleanup and auto repair bills tend to linger for a while after the event. I’ve never been foolhardy enough to chance the Charleston Underpass after a rainstorm, but I have driven through puddles that turn out to be ponds, and watched helplessly as rising water creeps through patio doors and into rooms full of expensive computer equipment. And I remember well the “hundred-year flood” of July 1999, when cars and trailer parks were washed away as if they were nothing; even the Forum Shops at Caesars was flooded with a good foot-and-a-half of water. I remember a visiting French journalist describing the Strip as “a beautiful, weeping whore.” See my previous comment about haters.

Yet for all this chaos and destruction, Las Vegas’ rainstorms are a gift. They remind us that we live in an ecosystem with a natural grandeur rivaling the forests of Washington state. They make everything smell good for a day afterward, and I think they even wash the dust out of your lungs. Best of all, Vegas rain offers something the sun can’t: perspective. The massive hotels of the Strip dominate all in bright sunshine, but under the lightning flashes and hammer blows of a rainstorm, they seem to withdraw a bit, as if pulling their hoods up over their heads and hunching their shoulders against the wind. Vegas rainstorms need to happen. They reconnect us with the desert under the asphalt, and they remind us that this whole damn thing could wash away tomorrow.

I wish I could say the same for Seattle’s rainstorms, but they’re just all right, you know? And the two weeks of 98-degree temperatures we experience in middle July kinda suck (mostly due to the lack of air conditioning anywhere), but they’re not humbling. Seattle’s weather is moody, but it never tries to wipe us out. For these reasons, I am declaring Las Vegas the new Rain City. Tired jokes about flannel and coffee will soon follow.