There are even places in California where a season will "beat you over the head" should you not be prepared. And sometimes, even then. If one January you chose to hang out on Donner Pass (see pic) in the Sierra Nevada, which boasts some of the heaviest snowfall in the US, you had better be prepared for some damn cold winter weather or you will end up loosing some digits to frostbite, or worse, dying of hypothermia (or starvation like the Donner party, the infamous tragedy of the mid-19th century that lent the pass it's current name). And if you were at that same locale on a sunny August day, you had better be lathered with sunscreen and have a water bottle in hand. There are great seasonal variations in temperature and precipitation in many parts of California. And as a young explorer, I learned this lesson, in part, the hard way.
An Early Lesson in Cold
Death Valley is an almost inconceivably expansive desert region boasting the lowest point in North America, 282 feet below sea-level, with the perennially snow capped 11,000 foot Telescope peak standing sentry to the west. It is a land of extremes with some of the hottest recorded summer temperatures in North America, a place where nighttime temperatures can plummet 35-40 degrees.
In my younger days I spent a fair amount of time exploring this region in 4X4 trucks and on motorcycles with stiff suspensions and torquey 2-stroke engines. One of my earliest trips to Death Valley started with a long day riding a motorcycle over mule trails and hoary mining roads followed by a few beers around a roaring campfire. Tuckered, at last I took my leave and snuggled into my cheap sleeping bag which I had spread out on a folding lawn chair inside my little A-frame tent. A Colman lantern hissed as I read a book on desert fauna and waited to get warm. It didn't happen.
The temperature continued to plummet as the night came on and I started to shiver, my teeth chattered...my body trying to warm itself. I grabbed some more clothes and stuffed them into the bottom of my bag to warm them before wiggling into the sweatshirt, sweats and hoody while trying to keep the cold air out. It was a bandaid on a big cold wound. I spent a miserable night in hallucinogenic half sleep curled up in a fetal position. The temperature was below freezing and I was dreadfully unprepared. A month later I put my entire teenage fortune towards a North Face mummy bag with a 15 degree comfort rating. Skimping on a sleeping bag was not an option when winter camping in Death Valley. I was learning that all of California did not sport the relatively moderate temperatures of coastal SoCal. Check.
The Distortions of Living on the SoCal Coast
I grew up about ten miles inland from the coast in Southern California, a place that IS known for its Mediterranean climate with dry hot summers and mild, slightly rainy winters. The winters could bring some cooler temps, some morning frost on lawns and north facing windshields. But these bits of cold were short lived and the days were often sunny and mild. When I lived in SoCal I welcomed the rain and the snow it brought to the local mountains. "Winter," I remember thinking, "is cool...I like the rain." Well, when I lived in SoCal where the average annual rainfall is 13 inches and the average number of rainy days is 35, I DID enjoy the rain. In those small doses.
El Nino and the SAD Years
Fast forward to San Francisco, 1997-98, a winter when el Nino paid a visit. San Francisco typically has about 62 days of rain totaling about 22 inches annually. In 1997-98 we saw rain for 119 days totaling 47 inches. We got hammered. Our weather typically comes from the northern jet-stream which often hangs out over Alaska before spinning fronts towards our coast. But in 1997, there was a huge front from the south, the Pineapple express, which dumped a ton of warm water on the deep snow-packed Sierras. The result was that much of the "spring" run-off, which usually takes most of spring to occur, happened in a couple of days. The western Sierran rivers became raging torrents knocking down bridges, ripping out trees, demolishing houses, breaking levees and inundating subdivisions across the valley floor. This flood is often referenced as a benchmark....there's the drought of 1976-77 and the 50-100 year flood of 1997-98. This is the year that I realized, I need sun. And I need it regular like.
I was living in Ingleside, a neighborhood in western San Francisco, a place known for cold and fog. That winter people had calendars out, hanging in shops, office cubicles, the corner store, where they X'd each day that it rained, logging consecutive weeks of cold wet darkness without a peep from the sun. We would have a cloudy rainless day or two, and then more weeks of uninterrupted rain. After a month or so of no sun, I started to slump through the world, shoulders low and head down while riding Muni downtown, staring off into space during meetings, sleeping more than I needed. What the hell is wrong with me I pondered. Slowly I realized I need to see the fucking sun without three months passing!
I started reading up on SADs, seasonal affective disorder, the contemporary diagnosis for "the winter blues." Research shows that many inhabitants in northern countries/states experience varying degrees of depression associated with less seasonal light, when the sun's visits are shortened and the angle of the rays more oblique. And SAD rates tend to be higher in women and people of Irish decent...umm, guilty, on both counts. I'm a women with a fair amount of Irish blood. Bummer.
So, I got me a light. A full spectrum light box that I sat in front of for a couple of hours a day. It helped. I also made a concerted effort to sit in the sun for as long as possible when it made appearances in the winter. This too helped. But the Bay Area, even when not a particularly rainy year, can have a lot of gray days. And I didn't always get a lot of time soaking in the rays in the winter. And every year, come February, the cumulative affects were acute, I was a little nuts, stir crazy, blue, not particularly motivated, and generally a bit cranky. So I announced to my friends and family that it was hence forth necessary for me to have mid-winter "sun-trips." To the south I must go for a few days, before February, before I started picking up cutlery and saying "here's Johnny!"Heading South for Sanity
Two years ago I took it all a little farther. I spent five weeks in Central America traveling all around Guatemala and into Honduras. By the time I got home I had been drenched in sun, tropical sun, higher altitude sun, walking around the streets of Antigua sun, and I did not get depressed one iota. In fact, when spring came and the rains abated (granted these past few years have been low water years) I actually craved some rain. I have found the cure, I thought. Spend December abroad, south, and avoid the winter blues. So I went back to Central America the next year and it worked again. It was like my SoCal days, where I appreciated the bit of winter instead of slumping through my life looking for a place to nap.
So Listen Here Folks!
Here by the coast we may not be hip-deep in the white stuff, huffing and puffing as we dig ourselves to the sidewalk or the car. And we may have a lot more spring, summer and fall, and it may blend a little more, be a little less defined than the winters you nor'easterners or mid-westerners face...and granted, in the Oakland hills most of the turning leaves of fall seem to be poison oak. But we have our seasons and to the trained eye they present their own subtle beauty. And every once in awhile the unbelievable happens.
One winter day in San Francisco I was walking down Ocean Avenue having just gotten off the K train. It was cold and raining and I walked with my head down, collar up, scarf pulled snug around my neck...and then it happened. I saw little white flakes falling gently onto the greasy sidewalk in front of me. They disappeared on impact so I blinked hard and focused, thinking I might be hallucinating. Then I looked up in astonishment. It was snowing on me! In San Francisco California! I walked dazed, head up, grinning as snow fell on my face and all around me. Ocean Avenue is 60 feet above sea level. The snow level got that low in coastal CA. Unbelievable! Of course none of the snow stuck, the flakes disappeared immediately upon impact with anything, including my jacket...but it was still fucking snowing in San Francisco! And this, I readily admit, DOES NOT happen very often. And no wellies or shovels needed.
I have lived in California most of my life and through the years I have driven in white-out blizzards in the San Bernardino Mountains and the Sierras. I have been trapped in a tent in teen-degree weather half way up Mount Whitney while hurricane force winds blew on the summit. I have baked in desert heat over 115 degrees Fahrenheit when my lungs felt like they might ignite. I have seen the destruction of small tornadoes touching down in Anaheim and I have hiked through snow in July on mountains over 10,000 feet high! I've watched this state burn in the summer and fall, and then slide into the sea in the winter rains. So back off folks. California does have distinct seasons. And in some places those seasons WILL beat you over the head. We are not all Pamela Anderson running around on the beach, boobs a flailing all winter long. I promise.