Tuesday, July 8, 2008

"..but its a dry heat!"

Sacramentans have transformed the somewhat boosterish grin-and-bear-it response to their hot summers into an ironic statement. At 100 degrees and up it doesn’t matter if the heat is dry or wet, it’s just hot.

Native Sacramentan Joan Didion has a perfect passage on the hot Sacramento summer in an early essay, “Notes of A Native Daughter”:

“ ..It is just as hot in the summertime, so hot that the air shimmers and the grass bleaches white, and the blinds stay drawn all day, so hot that August comes on not like a month, but like an affliction…”

The essay itself is an excellent little memoir of the city and its surrounding countryside, told from the perspective of the heiress to an “old settler” legacy; Didion is of an old ranching family that came over in the gold rush days. As she tells it this class remained prosperous but increasingly irrelevant as Sacramento grew from an agricultural trading center into a metropolis.

Around the turn of the last century, when the larger ranches were being subdivided into ranchettes and irrigation colonys, promotional literature or the era usually mentioned fruit and orange groves and palm trees, giving a somewhat arcadian cast to the place.

This was deceptive, because the Central Valley is in reality a semi-desert.
The golden hills of California are not golden, they are dry dead grass, turned maybe a light brown rather than gold, during the dry season.

And there are really just two seasons. Hot and dry and rainless in the summer, rainy and cool (not cold) in the winter.

And smoky in the fall, when they burn off the rice paddies between Sacramento and Yuba City.

In the summer those rice paddies form a little microclimate. Driving down off the foothills and across the valley-floor range land, in the hot dry air with your windows open, dropping into the expanses of the diked lowlands of the paddies closer to the river humidity from evaporation hits like a wall, the heavy wet air leaving one gasping for breath a little.

Tule Fog

What is not mentioned is the peculiar winter weather phenomenon (when it’s not raining) of tule fog.

Named after the tulares, the reed beds that once filled the delta and lowlands of the valley prior to reclamation, tule fog rises in these wet low spots to fill the valley from the Coast Ranges to the Sierra foothills.

This is not an ordinary fog, as it is exceptionally dense and exceptionally long lasting, filling the valley floor for days on end.

In fact so dense that CHIP will form up and lead convoys of vehicles across the valley as it is unsafe to drive across solo, except on the interstate, where one is at risk of sudden death at 80 MPH in the inevitable multicar collision.

But in Sacramento, in Capital Park and the tree lined streets of the old city, tule fog is sort of romantic and cozy , muffling the city sounds in a white gauze

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