In November 1997 I saw snow fall for the first time. The tiny, white flakes came gliding toward our windshield as we drove through a mountain pass toward our final destination of Seattle. The back end of my husband’s beloved green muscle car loosened in the turns. The 30-year-old heater, inadequate to fight my first experience with real cold. My life of six lane freeways was suddenly reduced to a one lane highway. So many trees and darkness. I was frightened by the warp-drive illusion of driving through the falling snow.
Flakes of snow. Flakes of ash. They are not so different in their behavior. Each one unique in composition, carried on a wind current, slowly dancing its way to the ground. Neither one less beautiful in its wind dance. Under the right circumstances we can be terrified by both.
When you grow up in the chaparral of Southern California, fire is a given. The brush fire burning in the canyon is a way of life. Early autumn sends out her messengers to swap colors of leaves. She fights with summer, a season of excess in a land that shivers when the temperature drops below 70 degrees. Those of us who live here, know that the winter sweatshirts we pull on in late September, will once again be replaced by tank tops, some time before Halloween.
From her desert slumber in the east, summer will reassert her will and blow hot, gusty winds we call santa ana. Though the season began months ago, it is only in this ungraceful exit of summer that we become fully aware of this truth: in the chaparral, the only season that matters is fire season.
Lightning strikes a dried out tree. A smoldering cigarette butt is tossed out of a car window. A power line is blown loose by an 80 mph gust.
There is smoke in the distance.
It’s summer’s last hurrah. The bitter protestation of undying youth. He’s not too old for Chuck Taylors. Her favorite jeans still fit. They die their hair because they like it that color. Not to cover the grey.
Fall is coming. Fair isle sweaters, browning the gravy for the turkey. Mortgages, masters degrees, tailored slacks, comfortable shoes. Like the red and yellow leaves of an oak tree, these things appear out of nowhere. The late, hot nights of sumer are still fresh in our brains, but the subdued comfort of autumn arrives silently, just the same.
Then comes the santa ana, stirring old memories. The winds are an all 90’s weekend on your favorite radio station. That song they played at prom. Those three ballads from your first mix tape. Remember tapes?
Santa ana is merely a youthful rant. A midlife crisis. She’s not refusing to grow up, but to let go. Her grundge flannels, apathy, and rage send turning leaves flying from dry branches. He stirs embers, scatters them throughout the grey-brown landscape, ignites an inferno. She is now a firestorm, a youth gone wild.
Like all storms—the blizzard, the hurricane—the firestorm leaves as suddenly as he arrives. All that’s left is the rubble, the smoldering soot, the flakes of falling ash. There will be rebuilding. There will be letting go and moving on. But the smell of that smoke, the crematorium scent of so many murdered dreams, will linger for weeks to come. Until once again autumn grabs hold of us, stings our cheeks with the prewinter air, bidding us to move on.