I spotted this sign while driving through New Mexico recently, and it piqued my curiosity. Dust storms may exist. As a dedicated rationalist, I was frankly surprised, for I was certain that by now, these claims by some for the existence of dust storms had been stamped out. But to my chagrin, I was soon to discover that the existence of dust storms is still hotly debated in some of America’s more backwards regions. New Mexico, for example.
I spoke first with Dr. Stephen Rodriguez, resident philosopher and sometime snow plow operator for the New Mexico Department of Transportation.
“What you must understand is that we are a very conservative state with deeply traditional roots.” Rodriquez spoke to me from his cluttered office in Santa Fe, and I could tell that he was somewhat reluctant, even embarrassed, to have to defend the signs.
“Surely,” I replied, “New Mexico is aware of the constitutional separation of weather phenomena and state?”
“Yes, yes, of course. Certainly. What you must understand is the level of intense debate this issue has stirred up around the water cooler. Before we erected those signs, a state of civil war existed between the dust storm agnostics and the true believers. They would hurl insults at each other in staff meetings. We couldn’t get anything done. The signs are a compromise. A bone thrown to the fundamentalists, if you will. New Mexico takes no official position on the existence of dust storms, but merely encourages the motoring public to consider the matter and make up its own mind.”
I was to discover that not everyone took the issue quite so calmly.
“Dear god! I am a man of science, and those signs have made us a national laughing stock!” His deep voice boomed down the hall, startling carefree students making their unhurried way to classes. The speaker was a burly, red-faced man in his late sixties with wild silver hair and a long-cold pipe dangling from a pendulous lip. He had been half-obscured behind a massive mahogany desk piled high with books, journals, photocopies of articles and empty Starbucks cups. He was standing now, his fists punching the air with every word. My quest for answers had taken me to Albuquerque and the office of Dr. Lev Schoenholz, President of the New Mexico Academy of Sciences.
“We live in a g-d-damned age of scientific rationalism! These zealots should be shot, but don’t quote me on that. Last year we lost a $300 million grant because of those yahoos! I say to you categorically, unequivocally, dust storms do not exist! This is not the Middle Ages! But it’s politics, of course. Those backwoods snake-handlers elected the governor and he isn’t about to offend their ignorant beliefs, no matter how laughable.”
I opened my mouth to ask a question, but wasn’t quick enough.
“And it gets worse! Up in northern New Mexico, the fundamentalists have put up signs that say ‘Gusty winds may exist!’ Dear god! Next thing you know, they’ll be cautioning people about the Easter bunny.”
“Dr. Schoenholz, I spoke with Dr. Stephen Rodriquez and he assured me that the state takes no official position on the matter. His point seems to be that the signs are merely a way to placate weather conservatives,” I offered.
“Yes, yes, politics, as I said. Look, Steve Rodriquez is a fine scholar and a damned funny man when he gets stoned. I like Steve. We smoked a lot of weed together at Columbia. I just think he could have pushed harder. That phrase ‘may exist’ is terribly troubling. I would have preferred something like ‘are alleged by some misinformed anti-science zealots to exist,’ but of course, the signs would have been much larger.”
“We managed to get the schools curricula changed so that dust storms are only taught now in an elective survey course of world mythology. These signs, frankly, are a big step backwards.”
He sighed deeply. “You know, I miss the academic freedom and clarity of the east. You can travel up and down the eastern seaboard without ever once seeing claims about dust storms. But, I’m hopeful. We did a survey two years ago and found that less than 8% of the public claimed to have had a personal encounter with dust storms. That’s down from 15% in 2000. They’re a dying breed, these true believers. I may yet live to see the day when we can take the damn signs down for good.”
And there you have it. As unbelievable as it may sound, there is a far-away corner of America where some still believe black cats are evil and George Bush won Florida in 2000, a place where a few “traditional” families still interpret the skies and take shelter from gathering storms that never seem to materialize.
I wish to assure my readers that as a journalist, I take no position on the existence of dust storms myself. My job is simply to point out the obvious truth, that signs like these are only found anymore along rural tracks deep in the most backwards and remote regions of New Mexico and Arizona. Places where time somehow seems frozen and the age of secular rationalism has somehow overlooked. In visiting such places, your intrepid reporter almost had the feeling that he was leaving the world of accepted truth and rational certainties, and stepping into… The Twilight Zone.