While the rest of the country bundles up for the winter, Southern California smugly puts on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. Part of the thanks, or the blame, belongs to the Santa Ana Winds. They help keep Southern California warm during the winter, but they bring their own temper.
The winds are formed when the inland Mojave and Sonoran Deserts are cold, usually from October through March. Known as downslope winds, air is drawn through the mountains down into the Los Angeles Basin, Orange County and northern San Diego County. Winds reach speeds of 70 mph, which qualifies as hurricane force. Sometimes the Santa Ana Winds force pollution from Los Angeles across the Pacific Ocean out to Catalina Island.
Sometimes they are enchanting and seductive. The warm currents feel silky on your skin and you find yourself looking up at the sky, taking a deep breath of nature’s heady soul.
Other times the Santa Ana winds are heavy and ominous. Sharp, jagged palm fronds fly through the air. Strong, fast winds reach under your clothes to puppy shirts Washington grab at your skin. You close your eyes and mouth to shut out the gritty dirt hurling at you and past you, whipping your hair into tangled knots. Dust Devils spin past, picking up trinkets and carrying them high into their tall curving funnels.
Raymond Chandler wrote about the Santa Ana winds in the opening line of his story Red Wind;
“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot, dry, Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. 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.”
When the Santa Anas blow strong, animals get a wild edge. The dog stares at me from across the yard with a low, hunched-down gaze. His eyes look small and beady. Some primal instinct makes me want to pick up a club or a spear. Instead, I close the door, deciding the dog would enjoy more time outside. Indoors, the cat drops by for a quick snack. He has covered himself with dirt and stalks through the house like a panther, flipping his tail impatient and prickly.
The native Chumash Indians know of the winds from long ago. Shamans can understand their meaning and read secrets carried on the winds. The winds sometimes foretold the coming of gods. And Mother Momoy promised if the winds got too bad she would protect her people in her sacred abode in the mountains.
Mysterious, seductive and strong, the Santa Ana Winds are one of the unique things that gives Southern California its allure.