The seasons in Los Angeles are spells. Most places call this week Indian Summer. In El Lay this is the season that sets the devil loose.
People call Los Angeles a basin but it is a cauldron, really. The city is surrounded on all sides by 3000-foot-high plateaus and 7000-foot-high mountains. You usually have to live here for about a year before you learn this because the mouth of the cauldron is 70-miles-across.
The Chumash called this “the Valley of Smoke.” Now the mountains and the plateaus trap so much car exhaust it must be measured in thousands of tons. It cooks all through the seven months of summer until it is magically transformed into a neologism called smog -a mix of smoke and fog.
People like that word because they think it cutely metaphorizes something only they are smart enough to see about Los Angeles -from far away on their lofty thrones in Boston, New York or Terre Haute. Fewer people like that word now, though, as its newness wears off. And, as more and more of America becomes El Lay.
Smog can only escape out to sea. In the heat of every summer day it stains the view of Catalina like a camera man’s gel. The sea resists this mix of ozone, sulphur dioxide and cadmium and chromium mists. The sea fights back with a breeze so the smog never makes it very far across the Pacific and every night it gets driven back where it belongs into the wrecking yards and paint shops and plating plants in Carson, Compton and South Central El Lay.
Abruptly, each year, things change. It snowed last week up in Reno and that is your principle warning to get your motorcycle to the beach-or at least inside and parked. For a couple of weeks at least.
The first snows in the Eastern Sierras are followed by frosts in the sage desert in Nevada and Utah. The cold air grows heavy and begins to flow like a glacier. It flows the only way it can go. The cold is trapped by mountains on the west and east so it spills south and as it spills it picks up speed like an avalanche.
If you are on a motorcycle out there-still stupid and bold and, against all logic, still alive after all these years-you have no choice about which way you are going to go.
A Little History
A couple of days ago, up in the high desert, the winds were blowing at 60-miles-an-hour. They are not the stubborn winds you can push against. They are the devil. They are the winds that wrestle with you, that pull and push and knock at you and try to kill you.
The Chumash called them the devil. The first Spanish who pushed into this cauldron called them Santanas, devils -Satan’s breath, Satan’s tongue, Satan’s wind.
But, the Jesuits who came with them insisted on a policy of see know evil. The winds weren’t Santanas. They couldn’t be. No, no. These winds were Santa Anas. They were the sweet whisperings of the mother of Mary that Christ was coming, Christmas was coming.
And, that may be the first recorded incidence of political spin.
An Eyewitness Account
I have wrestled with them. I think they are the devil.
I have seen the little tornados everyone calls devils. I have been in the blowing sand with a bandana tied around my face praying that my bike will still be painted when I get home. I have seen the broken power poles. I have heard the sound of a big rig falling.
You hear sheet metal complain that it is being tortured. That complaint harmonizes with the screams of the locking brakes and Satan’s roar. Then the whole freighter part of the rig just falls over. Like a tree.
I zip around. I do not stop. There is nothing I can do and if I stop I will be trapped. The California Highway patrol is about to close this road and I will be trapped.
And all around me in the blowing sand are speeding, panicked drivers who seem to be running for their lives. They are perfectly safe in their little, weather-proof compartments with their satellite radios and their flat panel TVs but they are still spooked.
They will do anything to get out of this. None of them will even think twice about running over me. They will just say what motorists who kill bikers always say. They will say they never saw me
Meanwhile, Back At the Chateau
Satan follows me home. The cold, dense air falls out of the desert and rushes down the passes like an angry river. So much air flows through so many narrow canyons that the winds heat from friction and they accelerate so that when they finally burst out into the cauldron they are gusting at 80-miles-an-hour and they have warmed to 100 degrees.
Satan finds a fire and paints his portrait with it. A dozen fires always seem to start at once, like magic, like black magic, and they make their own winds.
And, now I am trapped. I am really trapped this time. The only way to get a motorcycle out of this city now is on a boat. One by one the escape routes all close: The 210 and the 118 to the north; the 710, the 5, the 15 and the 215 to the east; and there is a fire burning at Camp Pendleton to the south.
Bad Boy, Bad Boy, Watcha Gonna Do
Satan always pushes west to the sea. In the end that is always what stops these things. The Pacific. Sometimes Malibu burns and sometimes it does not. Sometimes Topanga, sometimes Laguna, sometimes not. It will never get me. Not here.
If I stay where I am and do not ride my motorcycle I will be safe. If I do not go fire up the bike, right now, right this minute, and if I do not go out looking for him, Satan will never find me. And, if I do not let him find me he and I will not have to fight.
Let me think about that.
Let me decide what I am going to do.