Imagine if they were dark enough to blot the sun, powerful enough to give your house not just a sifting but a pounding -- so forceful that they break your windows and force you to shovel your way out. Then imagine them lasting for years.
This isn't the latest Hollywood weather epic; it is American history. Timothy Egan, the Seattle-based writer for the New York Times, tells a richly detailed story of the Southern Plains during the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s.
In The Worst Hard Time, Egan painstakingly lays out the forces - both natural and manmade - that turned a vast stretch of breathtakingly beautiful grasslands into a raging hell that whipped the breath away from the people who had settled there.
A doctor, examining one suffocating ranch hand, bluntly told him, "You're full of dirt." Farmers and their families died, lungs filled with the dirt that once gave them hope.
The folk singer Woody Guthrie once rode out a duster in a room full of people taking shelter, the air so dark they couldn't see each other. That was his inspiration for the line, "So long, it's been good to know you."
Egan digs deep into the causes: Buffalo slaughtered to destroy Comanches, ranch land sold off to pay investors in London, prairie sod that took 30,000 years to form torn up mile after mile as stock market speculation fueled a wheat boom.
And then came the bust, the Great Depression, a drought and the dust.
It's too seldom discussed, this harsh chapter of America. The air was so dry during dust storms that barbed-wire fences glowed blue with static electricity; the charge was strong enough to knock people down when they shook hands. The dust, with a high silica count, was like sandpaper; it rubbed the hide off cattle. One man went blind with dust packed under his eyelids.
Egan's book is filled with plenty of pain -- physical, mental and spiritual. Once-prosperous sodbusters were reduced to eating thistle pickled in brine because there was nothing else after years with no rain. Their land was buried under dust and debt.
But it is a story also of endurance, hope and, thanks to soils scientist Hugh Bennett, of emergence.