After the Rain After the Rain on 29 March Photographs by George Blakslee
"March 29, 1950.... In the meantime a bad looking storm was moving in from the west. Returned Amir’s radio and then made fast our tent to sweat out the storm. The storm hit us at about 6:45 p.m. First came strong winds, averaging 40-50 mph and then rain, lightning and thunder. The tent leaked like a sieve and we both got soaked closing up door flaps. We had to move Gier’s bed and practically everything else to the east side of the tent. As it was practically everything got wet. The rain finally stopped, winds receded by 7:30 p.m. and cleared completely by 8:00 p.m. .....This morning we had 10/10 cloud coverage, clearing up to 4-5/10 during the day until storm in the evening when it reverted to 10/10 again. Visibility most of the day was unlimited until storm in the evening. Wind velocity averaged 2-3 mph until evening storm. Low last night was 59 degrees F. High today 101 degrees F." Living for months in a tent and spending many working hours making long odometer- altimeter traverses provides truly unforgettable vistas of the desert’s stark beauty and grandeur but leads also to a most acute appreciation of the efficacy of certain weapons in nature’s armamentarium for making one uncomfortable, even miserable. Weather can be the most punishing of her scourges. Every day George recorded the range of temperature, the speed and direction of the wind, and the amount of cloud cover, along with any occurrence of rain. These data are tallied on Weather Data Chart 1 and Weather Data Chart 2. Note that the range of temperature on any one day could exceed fifty degrees Fahrenheit and, as shown on Chart 2, the average is more than thirty degrees. So freeze in the morning and swelter in the afternoon. In most of Europe and North America the range is twenty degrees or less. Extremely hot sites like Needles, California, may attain maximums like those reported by Blakslee, but the range there does not exceed thirty-five degrees and is commonly less than thirty. A desert need not be hot, but in summer the Arabian desert air is both hot and dry, except in the vicinity of the flanking sea and gulf where stifling humidity adds to the discomfort. In those days before air-conditioning came to vehicles, a standing car in the sun was at best an unsatisfactory refuge, and at worst hell on wheels. Only a sandstorm negates the validity of that statement. Then you watch the windows get frosted and paint vanish as you breathe pervasive dust while the car shakes in a howling dark brown wind. In clear weather, open the windows in a parked car and flies by the hundreds immediately seek shelter from the sun and cling to suck moisture from your skin and eye sockets. The hot strong current of air caused by even moderate speed burns the skin. Shut the windows and swim in sweat. Leave the car for a few minutes and when you return burn your hand on the door handle and roast your behind on the leatherette seat. In Saudi Arabia in 1950 car travel could be easy or almost impossible depending on another of nature’s weapons - terrain. Paved roads were few. In the area of the Tuwaiq escarpment where George and Gier had their first camp flat-floored wadies cut through the cliffs, making off-track travel seem easy. West of the cliffs and east of the broad gentle slopes they delimit movement was indeed relatively rapid, but on the slopes themselves travel was and still can be excruciatingly frustrating because of erosion on what appears from a distance to be a good surface. Some extensive areas are made difficult by thick slabs of limestone scattered haphazardly; others farther east are strewn with boulders of coarse sandstone. A real but localized menace is unmarked sinkholes that give no warning of their existence. These are not uncommon in parts of al Hasa and exist more rarely in the limestones of the Tuwaiq area. Not far from al Kharj some are now water-filled, forming lakes. Near the Gulf the prevailing wind during most of the year is N26oW. Wherever bushes exist, blowing sand piles up behind them so that east-west travel can be slow and back-breakingly rough. In the Tuwaiqs the prevailing wind direction is northeast, but tails of sand behind bushes there are less predictably arranged than in al Hasa for most storms are associated with strong winds from the west. They may have some connection with the monsoons of Pakistan. In any event, they occur in the same months, April and May. Sand in these small quantities is only an infinitely repeated speed bump, but the streaming sand barriers of the Dahana, the soft sands and dunes of the Nefuds and the Uruq of the great sand sea present increasingly difficult terrain. Crossing the axis of an irq of intermeshed barchan dunes can truly be said to be impossible for a lone wheeled vehicle, even one adapted for driving in loose sand with four-wheel drive and low pressure tires. Most other dune complexes can be negotiated by careful driving and many detours, but a backup truck with winch is a necessity. Only rarely did the two geologists of the reconnaissance effort described here work without a backup vehicle.
Complex Dunes Complex Dunes
Saudi Arabia has several microclimates less arid than the widespread true desert, particularly in the mountains paralleling the Red Sea, but elsewhere during most of the twentieth century water was in short supply except at oases. So baths were an infrequent luxury in a field camp. The odor factor grew with the weeks and months, fortunately mitigated by olfactory weariness and familiarity. To find an inch-and-a-half of water in a bucket after the storm of 29 March was an unusual but not unprecedented occurrence, although the annual precipitation in Riyadh, some 200 miles away, is three inches and the great sand mountains of the Rub al Khali are less than forty miles from the site of the deluged camp, its fringes nearly at their doorstep. The spotty nature of desert rain is well documented and the occasional heavy downpour and its results were experienced and reported by many Aramco observers. "March 15, 1950....The grass on plains is very high now and everything looks nice and green, many camels grazing and Bedouin moving with pasturage." The Bedu (nomadic tribesmen) welcome reports of precipitation so they can move their herds to the areas of new grass, for the desert blooms only days after even minor amounts of moisture reach the waiting seeds.  And not only plants, but also small creatures answer the call of H2O. Many of the annoyances and difficulties of working in the desert have been recounted here, perhaps with some exaggeration, but only one phrase in the preamble mentions rewards that to a large degree compensated for the hardships of this work. Professionally, studying a geologically unmapped area is satisfying, for every scrap of information gathered adds to the known. For a relatively unseasoned man the chance to work with a known and respected expert is invaluable. But even more satisfying to an aesthete is the beauty of the desert: The sweeping curves of a series of dunes seen at sunset when deep purple shadows mold the arcs of golden sands; the same sands viewed by moonlight when black shadows add mystery to sharply outlined yellow crescents. In the clear air of early morning there is the ability to see a full- circle panorama in which the uncluttered horizon is miles away. With the sun high this view becomes veiled in the mirage of a shimmering blue lake where a camel and its rider stretch high into the sky. At night the heavens are aglow with stars more numerous and brighter than in any place where humidity mars the pellucid air. It is no wonder that astronomy began as a science in lands equally blessed (or cursed) with a nearly waterless atmosphere. The four-hundred mile stretch of the Tuwaiq escarpment with its massive outliers rising 600 feet above the plains is outshone only by Monument Valley in Utah. More commonplace vistas were also attractive as the sunset photo illustrates.