It is late summer, and I am stretched out on the couch on the screened porch. It has been overcast all morning, and the local radio station has been calling for rain this afternoon. And this is as it should be. The couch is on the porch of my childhood home; the house is in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains, and late summer can mean afternoon rain showers. These are not, however, the same kind of summer rain showers that locales further south experience. If you have ever been caught out in a Florida afternoon thunderstorm in July, you know what I am talking about. The rain will come fast and thick and hard, so hard that you can barely see through the windshield of the car. Then, as if someone turned off the spigot, it’s over. But the summer rain showers in the mountains of the South are of a much different character.
The Great Smoky Mountains receive between 55 and 80 inches of rain per year, with higher accumulation in the higher elevations. Only the Olympic Peninsula in the Pacific Northwest gets more rain than the Great Smokies. At just under 1,300 feet in elevation, Gatlinburg receives just over 55 inches of rain per year. Other cities in the Deep South may get more rain – Miami 62 inches, New Orleans 64 inches, Biloxi 65 inches – but the majority of this accumulation falls during the warm summer months. In Gatlinburg, however, the rain falls nearly all year around. Storms can be strong with high winds, thunder, lightning, and hail, but a slow, steady, soaking pour that occurs every few days or so is more characteristic.
The other major difference between rain in the Mountain South and the Deep South is what the air feels like after the rain. It has been my experience in the Deep South that an afternoon rain shower will leave the air heavy, sticky, and close – my mother’s word for that thick feeling to the air. Momma grew up a city girl in St. Louis, Missouri, and loved the smell of rain on hot asphalt. A rain shower on a hot August afternoon in Houston, Orlando, or Columbia holds out the promise of some relief from the heat, but the locals know better. It may cool briefly while the rain falls, but the humidity will only exacerbate the heat. In the mountains, though, a rain shower means a drop in temperature precedes the rain event and will generally hang around for a while after the shower, especially in the evening. The wind will pick up and add to the cooling effect. The air smells clean and fresh, like sheets washed and then hung to dry on the line. The rain may start heavy and then taper off to a gentle shower that can last a few minutes or several hours or all day. And unlike in the Deep South cities where you can almost set your watch by the afternoon rain showers in the summer, the Mountain South rain occurs any time of the year. Here in the Smokies, you get used to a rhythm of a few days dry followed by a few days rain followed by a stretch of dry again.
And it is the first day of rain after several days of dry that finds me prone on the couch on the front porch of my childhood home. The wind has freshened a bit, and, even though I am reading, some part of my mind recognizes the imminent weather change. I place my book aside to listen to the rain as it comes down the hollow along John’s Branch. This is not a storm, but a steady pounding of big drops on tulip tree, sourwood, and dogwood leaves. I sit up to watch as the curtain of rain makes it way east toward the house and anticipate the sound of it hitting the tin roof of the barn. Once I hear that, I hear my mother’s voice in my head, “Here it comes. Better check the windows.” That brief chore finished, I return to the couch on the porch with a light blanket as the temperature has dropped ten degrees. I settle in to breathe the freshly scrubbed air.
by Barbara Lee Bolt