DANCES WITHOUT FEATHERS:
Part II of III
Now before you accuse me of anything, I like ballet. Not to watch it, that’s as dull as listening to a politician speak. Performing it, however, as long as nobody is watching, can be fun. Ballet is the poetry of dance. It’s the strict rules of ballet that allow true freedom of expression. And if you can figure out what that means, then you’ll understand the true nature of meteorology.
But you have to be in great shape for ballet. Last ballet job I did was a duo. I was supposed to toss my partner—excuse me, execute an en l’air movement—a certain distance so that she could do a small cabriole caper and land. I was ham-fisted about it, didn’t have the strength, and so used two arms when only one was required. She landed a foot further than she was supposed to, nearly breaking her left ankle. But she was a pro and managed to salvage the dance with a quick-thinking pas de bourree couru. She hasn’t spoken to me since.
Why ballet? It has to do with the height of the clouds. Low clouds, like simple cumulus, can and even should be brought about with a vigorous dance, like the jitterbug or swing. Salsa works great in low humidity. High clouds, because they are so far away from the air in contact with the dancer’s body, require subtlety. The soft, flowing, restrained nature of ballet ensures minimal tropospheric effects (no low clouds), but it also means it takes time for the dance’s air currents to rise high enough and spread to the proper places.
Noon tomorrow would be cutting it close. I had to get home, change my gear, and drive down to Texas. Once I was there, I’d put in a call to the Center and ask for particulars. I’d have to go solely on satellite data, because the soundings —measurements from balloons sent up twice daily—would be several hours old by the time I’d have to start. Best get going.
The spot Rapheson picked was isolated. About thirty miles east of a town called Stinnett, the size of a stoplight. I had to go down a private road to a farmer’s field. The field was an enormous circular cut-out, made that shape by an irrigation system on wheels. Attach one end of the system to a tractor, pin the center, and then you can drive the elevated pipe in a circle, sprinkling as you go.
This field wasn’t being irrigated. I checked in with the farmer, showed him my badge, explained what I wanted to do. He didn’t care if the field got wet, but he didn’t want any other fields south and east to get any more water because those had already been irrigated. I told him it was just some high clouds. He didn’t want to cut back too long on the sun, but I assured him the clouds wouldn’t make any difference, and that I would dissipate them soon after I made them. I don’t think he believed me, but he couldn’t argue with the badge.
I talked to the Lorenz Group guy and he told me that my best bet would be a spot near the northwest edge of the field. I stretched best I could in the car so that I didn’t upset the air unnecessarily. I also changed in the car. As you know, ballet requires skin-tight clothes to reduce unnecessary friction, and I didn’t want the farmer to see me. I didn’t need any guff with my ego still smarting from the hail.
I began my dance. I didn’t want to rush, but I wasn’t in the mood to embellish unnecessarily. Just a few simple pas de valse to start, then a pirouette, a couple of rond de jambe en l’air, but with my hands on my head, fingers extended to enhance friction, and then repeat. Really, that was it. A simple dance, but everything had to be just so. Rigid control throughout, had to keep your concentration high. Calculations showed I’d have to do this for at least half an hour, maybe three-quarters, and I’d have my cloud.
But about the third time through I began to get hot, started really sweating. I knew I wasn’t in the best shape, but this was ridiculous. I was coming to the end of the cycle, and this time I kept my fingers down. Slowed me a little, but it made the moves easier.
It was getting hotter. I didn’t have a thermometer, but I didn’t need one. Dancers are trained to sense minute changes in temperature. I could tell it was at least 104 degrees and getting toastier by the minute. What was going on?
I stopped dancing and looked up. A sky as blue as blue could be. Deep blue, as a matter of fact. Wait a second. It shouldn’t be that blue. It was as if my dance was having the opposite of its intended effect. Instead of air going up (and the moisture in it condensing to form a cloud), it was coming down!
Doesn’t sound too bad, right? Most people figure that since the air aloft is much colder than at the surface, when you bring that air down to the ground it should cool things off. Most people are wrong, because that isn’t how it works.
See, air when it rises or lowers through the atmosphere follows along invisible lines called adiabats. I won’t bore you with the math, but it means that when air rises it cools because its pressure is lowered and temperature is proportional to pressure. It also means that if you lower air, it heats up. Look up the ideal gas law and you’ll see what I mean.
A large, powerful high-pressure cell was forming over my head. Wind blowing straight down, strong enough to kick up dust. About 117 degrees now and rising.
The wind whipped up, making it hard to stand. The heat was baking my exposed arms. It was so hot it hurt to breathe. Dust made it hard to see.
I dropped to the ground and spun my body away from the dance site. The wind actually helped once I got out of the center, but it pushed me faster than I wanted to go. I felt like a tumbleweed. Nicked up my elbows and knees, cracked a rib on a rock or dirt clod; something hard, anyway.
Once I got the dirt out of my eyes, the wind stopped. First hail and now this? Maybe I should have listened to my mother and become a physicist. They didn’t have dancers, but the Heisenberg Uncertainty Squad was always up to something screwy.
The upper-level winds didn’t look right to me. I saw that a pair of contrails—from planes probably headed to Dallas—had developed a bizarre kink in them. The contrail pointed in my direction from the west. As I got out my phone, the kink was slowly lost its structure; the contrails dissipated naturally.
“Doc? It’s me.”
“Mr. Blackfox. What do you have to report?”
Besides almost getting killed? I told him what had happened and about the contrails.
“Excellent! That should be it.”
“Should be what?”
“Just follow the arrow, Mr. Blackfox. Find out where it came from.”
How did I know he was going to say that?
I started driving on a series of small roads west, occasionally calling or getting called by Rapheson to update or correct my position.
When I tell this, it’s obvious what was going on, but right then, in the moment, I had no idea what to expect. My side hurt, my elbows hurt, I had a slight burn on my arm, my eyes were still tearing. I didn’t stop to think. I just did what I was told.
Anyway, I followed 87 north until I was outside of the appropriately named Texline, a tiny town on the New Mexico border. I pulled off the highway and steered down a two-track, heading roughly southeast.
After ten miles, the road ended, stopping at the bottom of hill. A wide, dry river bed followed the base of the hill. I got out and looked around. I couldn’t make out any tracks, human or vehicle. A scruffy brown rabbit gave me the stink eye, making sure I wasn’t after a meal.
I was about to call Rapheson when I noticed the small breeze at my back. Nothing strange about that, but 500 yards to my right the wind was picking up dust and carrying it almost at right angles from where I stood. Same thing on my left. That was odd. It was as if air were being funneled up the hill from all directions.
That’s when I noticed the cloud over the hill looked too symmetrical. Now, UFO clouds, altocumulus lenticularis, are not unusual and are found at the top of mountains and hills. They’re made when wind flows up the sides of a hill and the water condenses out and forms a circular-shaped cloud, sometimes with stacked layers. Looks just like a flying saucer.
But this cloud was almost a perfect circle, darker and thicker in the middle.
I spoke “Rapheson” several times into my phone. Nothing. I even tried manually dialing. I checked the phone and there wasn’t anything obviously wrong with it.
One of those simple facts of life that people forget is that phones are radios. It sends out a radio signal which carries your voice, and receives one back which has your friend’s. If all is right with your phone but your signal isn’t getting out, then it can mean one of two things. Either your phone isn’t sending out a signal strong enough for the receiver to catch—which nowadays is nearly impossible—or something is causing interference.
My phone was new and had a decent spread-spectrum chip, so that whatever was interfering must have been strong. I didn’t have any field meters with me so I couldn’t be certain, but there was no better explanation.
I started walking up the hill.