Growing up in Southern California, we had one season: endless summer. Like that attractive person you want to date, it is often better as a dream than as reality. All the sunshine eventually turns monotonous and depressing.
When I moved to the Bay Area, I added one more season. It was a bit colder and a bit more rainy in the winter. The dream date had turned goth, at least for the winter months.
I also did stints on the East Coast, which gave me a sense of true seasons. This was real summer and winter, leading to some desperation in both: either you grew tired of soaking your boots in slush piles, or soaking in sweat while you race back to the AC. You get brief periods of California weather between these extremes, with more communal appreciation and more colors. Overall, I liked the whole annual theater of it.
Returning to NorCal for my second tour, I started spending a lot of time outdoors. For the first time in my life, I got to know local plant and animal species, observe microclimate oddities, and witness large-scale changes due to climate change.
This lead to the realization that there are three seasons in the Bay Area: wet, hot/cold, and fire. Here are my thoughts on each.
In December, rain comes in the form of a giant sigh of relief, a chance to sleep without fear of text alerts from Cal Fire and nightmares of apocalyptic conflagrations. I no longer have to worry about having five minutes to overturn furniture to find my cats, dump nostalgic photos into a backpack, and run out the door.
It’s a sad kind of relief though, because the sun is gone, and sometimes it’s gone for a while. Large storms move in from Alaska that can last a week. It’s often dark and grey.
In Tilden Park, South Park Drive is closed for newt crossings, creeks bulge, and Wildcat creek starts run a bit wild, like a mini Urubamba. San Pablo and Briones reservoirs fill up, removing the drought-induced bathtub rings of mud and drowning Laurel trees.
Farther away, Alamere Falls crashes on to the beach in Point Reyes, drowned out by colossal north swells. Mount Diablo’s name starts to seem less apt, as temperatures drop, and secret waterfalls emerge on its east side.
The hills of the East Bay start to turn from khaki to light green. The scarred land from last years fires begins to recover. Prickly lettuce and dandelion greens grow along the paths in the Berkeley Hills, providing a free spring mix.
Life returns, for now.
I spend the day in Napa, where it is 100 degrees with blazing sun. I drive back to the Bay, and by the time I hit El Cerrito, it’s 65 degrees, grey, and foggy. I could be in England, but I’m actually in the Hot/Cold season.
San Francisco is always enveloped in fog during this season. There the summer is the coldest winter you ever spent.
Across the bay in Berkeley, the summer is bipolar. The morning springs to life, only to fade into a dreary greyscale, as the fog marches underneath the Golden Gate and across the bay, and slams into the hills.
Speaking of the hills, I could of sworn that they were bright green last week, but now they’re brown again. In Tilden, tiny rainstorms form under giant Eucalyptus as fog runs over the ridges, creating little islands of life amid sun-scorched grass.
I climb from the Berkeley Hills up through Tilden to Volmer Peak. Riding in the sun, I’m sweaty at first, then I’m a bit chilly as I climb along the ridge. By the time I flip my bike around to descend, I have on two jackets, and it’s 25 degrees cooler. Thick cloud-like fog covers the city below as the sky seems to turn on its head. Someone hits a bong along Grizzly Peak.
Farther east, it turns into a perpetual sauna. I check myself for grill marks after climbing BBQ Terrace trail on Mount Diablo. In Pine Canyon, wild blackberries help to relieve my dry throat, as Peregrine Falcons soar above their nesting spots atop the sandstone hogbacks.
Out at Henry Coe, I catch a deep red sunset at Manzanita Point, forgetting how fast night falls after the sun dips below the hills. On the way back to my campsite, the headlamp illuminates eyes of various creatures hiding in the savannah. Mostly black tailed deer, but maybe a crouching lion. In the morning, a low mechanical drone starts at 5am, as the flies awake from their slumber, queued by the blazing sun.
It all starts one day when you wake up and notice that the sun doesn’t look quite right. It’s a sickly orange, like you’re wearing tinted sunglasses. The neighborhood has an uncanny glow. Windows are closed even though it’s 75 degrees out. It smells like someone just put out a campfire, but you’re far from any campsites.
Every year, it starts earlier. It used to begin in October, then September. Now I am writing in August and half the state is already burning up.
The fog is gone. Everywhere it is dry. Even the lightning is dry. Get the bags packed and make sure the cell phone is charged.
I obsessively check the weather and winds. Certain combinations spell disaster. Low humidity, high temps, and a strong Diablo wind. Dry conditions with occasional thunderstorms. I check the air quality. Beijing and New Delhi are much better.
All rides and hikes must have at least one escape route. Can I make it over 10 miles of ridges in smoke? We shall see. There’s only one way out, anyway.
I arrive to Bear Valley in Point Reyes with supplies for a two-day backpacking trip. We start down the trail, and immediately notice an odd dark cloud floating over the ridge. A wildfire has just erupted. We get in the car and drive back home, lucky that we didn’t head in two hours before. Camping in the state during fire season is like playing Russian Roulette.
Fire isn’t this season’s only monster. While offshore winds and north swells combine to create the year’s best surf, great whites migrate over from the western Pacific to feed on young elephant seals–a cruel joke for Bay Area surfers. In Henry Coe, juvenile cougars learn how to hunt, and tarantulas take to the trails looking for willing mates.
To make it more like a horror movie, the lights go out. Entire cities are in the dark, thanks to a private utility company who can’t keep up their infrastructure. I wait in the dark, dry leaves rustling in the backyard, hoping that single bar of cell service will be enough to get an alert if Tilden is ablaze.
Then one day, I hear a pattering in the backyard. Then the unmistakable smell of rain on parched, dry soil comes through the window. I crack a beer and do a rain dance. By the following day, it’s rained enough to signal the end of fire season. The Bay lets out a collective sigh of relief.
Until next year.