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Blown Away
Long ago, a nice, stiff katabatic wind could've killed your ancestors. Now, one might just drive you crazy. By Tim Cahill

Illustration: wind
Illustration by Tim Bower
I've been thinking a lot about the wind of late. The town I live in, for instance, has been deemed one of the windiest towns in America, which could be good or bad. All I can say with certainty is that it blows here. Blows hard. Some people can't stand it. They move to this little Montana burg imagining they'll open another art gallery or a designer coffee shop and a year later they're gone with the wind. Sure, it's a bit breezy around these parts—we've got days of constant winds of 40 to 50 miles an hour (64 to 80 kilometers an hour) with gusts of 70, 80, and sometimes 90 miles an hour (up to 145 kilometers an hour). We like to think such breezes keep the riff-raff out.

These are hurricane-force winds, and I once tried to write about what they sound like when you're sitting in a reasonably well-constructed house. I wrote that "the wind whistled and boomed." A copy editor, unfamiliar with brisk weather, deleted the word "boomed" and wrote a stern note in the margin. "The wind," she declared, "does not boom."

Well, yeah, it does. When the wind hits our little town, I hear this constant, groaning, deep-bass whistle and then a sudden 80-mile-an-hour (129-kilometer-an-hour) gust hits my wood-frame home like an immense fist in a velvet glove and the house "booms." This is good news for some of my friends. They sit and listen and count both the booms and the time between them. If the former number is getting larger and the latter smaller, it is likely time to go body-flying. Frequent gusts of 70 miles an hour (113 kilometers an hour) and above make for perfect body-flying weather.

You gear up in swim goggles and a sturdy parka, then drive to the top of a mesa above a notoriously windy flat. It is a good idea to open the windows of the car before you get out. The breeze could easily make off with your car door if you open it to the wind without lowering the window. You just stand there, sadly watching your sheet metal rolling and hopping and bouncing across the top of the mesa until it disappears into the distance.

Nevertheless, certain otherwise sane persons with children and responsible jobs will go up to the top of the mesa, approach the slope—it isn't quite a cliff face—and then lean out over the edge. It's a bit like catching a wave while surfing. You have to wait for the gust, one of those 70-mile-an-hour (113-kilometer-an-hour) boomers. Lean out. All the way out. Just fall into the wind howling up the slope. Hold the parka open with both hands and you've got wings. The goggles protect the eyes from stinging pebbles. Folks who weigh in excess of 200 pounds (91 kilograms) can just hover there, in the wind, not exactly flying, but held aloft for some time by nothing more than booming air. Once, a rather slight woman fell forward into a gust that picked her up and sent her airborne so that she flew back over the tops of our heads and landed a bit behind us. Everyone agreed that she'd gotten the best ride of the day. We gave her tens all around.

STILL, PEOPLE IN THIS TOWN don't sit around praying for wind in the manner skiers pray for snow. Body-flying is really a process of making the best out of a bad situation. I've done it precisely twice in the 26 years I've lived here. It's moderately enjoyable, free, and is something to do in the sort of drafty weather that drives the unfit and wind-sensitive from our valley. I always imagine these folks screaming, soundlessly, in the howl and boom of a wind that sends trash cans clattering down streets all littered with branches torn from the living trees above. The next day, the silent screamers are gone. And even among those of us who choose to stay, no one I know actually enjoys our periodic gales. I never hear anyone say, "Golly, I sure wish the wind would blow hard enough to rip the shingles off my roof again."

The hard wind we get around here on the eastern slopes of the Rockies is called a Chinook. It's a katabatic wind and comes from mountains to the west of us and the mountains to the south. My town is located in a river valley. Cold air accumulates above us, and because cold air is heavy and dense, it wants to fall to the lowest spot available, which is right below where we are, all decked out in our parkas and goggles. Cold air pours through mountain passes and down along the courses of rivers, and its speed is augmented because the passes and the river valleys are narrow and concentrate the volume of falling air.

But there is another process at work in the Chinook. As the cold wind drops toward the base of the mountains, its weight compresses the air below. Compression is a warming process. Consequently, the Chinook is a warm wind, sometimes called the "snow eater." In such a wind, the temperature can rise 20 to 40 degrees (10 to 30 degrees Celsius) in a matter of minutes. These katabatic winds occur all over the Earth, at all latitudes. In Antarctica they reach speeds of 115 miles an hour (185 kilometers an hour). The mistral, blowing from the north over the northwest coast of the Mediterranean Sea, is a katabatic wind, as are the warm braw, in the Schouten Islands north of New Guinea, and the vardar of Greece.

Hot, dry katabatic winds, like the south foehn in Europe, the sharav in the Middle East, and the Santa Ana of Southern California, are all believed to have a decided effect on human behavior and are associated with such health problems as migraines, depression, lethargy, and moodiness. Some scientists say that this is a myth. Perhaps it is, but I know people who suffer all these problems and more when the whistling and booming starts around here. In lieu of empirical evidence, I would like to offer up a paragraph of literary support from the pen of Raymond Chandler, who in the story called "Red Wind" described the Santa Ana as "one of those hot dry [winds] that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen."

SO THAT'S THAT: We don't like the wind. Maybe it's genetic.

Except that I'm not so sure we shouldn't. I'm of two minds about these katabatic winds. Torn, if you will. I have another theory that, 10,000 years ago or more, during pauses in the hair-curling wind, ice age hunters prowled the edges of the retreating glaciers, hunting the massive, now extinct ice age mammals. There were huge beavers weighing nearly 500 pounds (227 kilograms) and giant ground sloths the size of an ox and saber-tooth tigers and mastodons and mammoths and enormous vultures. My idea is that all these animals hung around at the edge of the retreating glaciers. They would have survived in the tundra-like habitat the glaciers left behind. There would have been plenty of water flowing out of tunnels under the glacier and flowing in falls from the top of the melting ice sheet.

But most important, there would have been katabatic winds forming high up on the ice sheets and moving downhill, battering the mastodons and mammoths. At any great distance from the ice sheet, the wind would not have been constant and reliable. And there would have been insects. In my life outdoors, I've observed that animals of almost any variety will stand in a windy place rather than in a protected, windless area infested with biting insects. They would rather be annoyed by the wind than bitten.

I called a friend, the archaeologist Larry Lahren, and asked him if my theory sounded reasonable. He said it did and mentioned the work he'd done at a site near that mesa where people go body-flying when the wind booms. There had been nine or ten thousand years of continuous human habitation at that site. Hell, maybe the Old Ones went body-flying, too.

SO, I THOUGHT TO MYSELF, shouldn't we love the wind? Wouldn't it mean good hunting? How come nobody starts salivating when the wind blows?

A geologist named Paul Herr notes that the last glacier to cover North America was the Wisconsin glacier, which was a thousand feet thick around Baraboo, Wisconsin, and two miles (3.2 kilometers) thick a thousand miles (1,609 kilometers) farther north, in Canada. Herr notes that there were many mammoth hunters camped by the lake on the southern edge of the melting glacier. It wasn't that pretty. The ice itself would have looked dirty, covered in sand and gravel released by the melting ice. But there would have been beavers the size of small cows, and mammoths standing 14 feet (4.3 meters) at the shoulder.

Herr doesn't think the hunters stayed for the winter. Intensely cold air would have gathered on top of the glacier, in Canada. It would have flowed down the gradient to Wisconsin, picking up speed for a thousand miles, and could have poured off the glacier as fast as 200 miles an hour (322 kilometers an hour), bringing all the sand and gravel with it. That could make for some seriously unpleasant (and involuntary) body-flying for anyone without the sense to come in out of the wind. None of those fools were our ancestors, naturally, because our ancestors, each and every one of them, stayed out of that wind and survived to procreate. They taught their children to avoid the katabatic wind, and those children passed the information down to their children and so on, through a whole wondrous improbable process that led to you, sitting somewhere comfortable, reading this quaint material, in a room out of the wind.

Still and all, katabatic mechanisms sustained humans during the ice age—at least those sensible enough to stay out of the wind. At some deep level, don't we really and truly love the howl and whistle and boom of fast-rushing air? The answer, as the man sang, is blowin' in the wind.

And the answer is no.

Additional Excerpts
From the Print Edition, May 2004

National Parks 2004 Messner's Burden >>
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May 2004

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