Novelist Raymond Chandler famously captured the eerie and unsettling experience of the Santa Ana winds that come roaring down from the desert across Southern California a few times per year.
They “come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch,” he wrote. “On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”
I first experienced those hot, dry winds in 2001, after we moved to Los Angeles. In the middle of the night, I was awakened by the rattling of bushes against the metal enclosure around our hot water tank, and the ghostly howl of the wind over the roof and through the trees. The nearby palms groaned and protested, the leaves clacking hollowly.
It was easy to understand how our superstitious ancestors believed there was something supernatural outside on a dark and stormy night.
While we don’t call them Santa Ana winds, Northern California has its own version of these unnerving winds.
Where we’re used to pleasant, moist ocean breezes, or else dead-still heat spells, a couple of times per year, usually in the fall, hot, dry winds begin to roar across the mountain peaks from the east, bringing that unsettling feeling that something wicked is out there.
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The morning of Oct. 8, 2017 was exactly such a day. As I sat in my second story office in Calistoga, I watched the trees in my back yard sway majestically. I hoped that the top-heavy pine would be strong enough to keep its limbs. Power flickered on and off ominously throughout the day. While there was no way I could have expected the fiery hell that was unleashed a few hours later, I remember distinctly being unsettled and alarmed by the winds.
As Chandler would have it, my nerves jumped and my skin itched all day. Wednesday night of last week was strangely similar to that day. Although the air was slightly cooler than 2017, the dry, gusty wind howled overnight, sweeping papers off desks, blowing leaves in through open windows.
In the morning, the house was a mess, like a ghostly hand had swept through, scattering anything light enough to blow. The winds had even demolished a puzzle my wife had been working Tuesday afternoon, since she was stuck home because her office was without power. The pieces were scattered across a debris field that ended with a pile at the base of the couch.
This year had a happier ending than two years ago, though it came at the price of millions of Californians sitting in the dark, wondering when they might be permitted to reenter the 21st Century.
We were lucky in Calistoga, at least my half of it – we were only down for about 12 hours, until PG&E could crank up a bank of huge generators it installed over the summer to keep the town alight during some maintenance work on a main line. But half the town remained in darkness through the week, just like the residents of St. Helena and large parts of Napa, and much of the rest of the Bay Area.
It seems that Chandler was exactly right: Nothing good comes to California when the winds blow hot and dry from the east.