As I sit at my desk looking out the window and see the shimmering air rising at midday from the concrete, I note that my thermometer by the door reads a toasty 104 outside, and yet I feel none of the soul-draining malaise that used to mark my earlier days in the Sacramento Valley, days when I allowed my spirits to wilt, when I had not yet come to trust the regular arrival of the cooling relief engine from the west.
Now, I make sure that I've parked my car in a shaded area it is summertime, after all and then go about my work, secure in the knowledge that most days, by the time I'm ready to go home, the weather will have started to cool down, perhaps by as much as 10, 15, even 20 degrees. By that time, the temperature is usually perfect for a quick dip in the pool, followed by a relaxing break on the shaded back porch, where a chaise lounge and perhaps a martini or a glass of wine awaits.
When my wife, Lisa, and I decided to move to the Central Valley to raise our children away from the smog and bustle of greater Los Angeles, I don't think we were quite prepared for the summertime here.
The first summer we had quite a few days where the thermometer peaked at over 105 degrees, and even though we joked to our far-flung families, "But it's a dry heat," there were many days when the weather threatened to do us in.
Why this should have been the case was somewhat of a mystery. After all, I always considered myself a warm-climate kind of guy. I was born in Houston, and it is safe to say that the summers there are hot. So, possibly because my body had acclimatized itself early on to temperatures in the 90s and 100s, I didn't expect that severe heat could ever be a problem for me.
Beyond that, I had paid my dues living in cooler spots and wanted no more of them. When I was 12, my family moved from Houston to California and we settled in Belmont, halfway down the San Francisco peninsula, where the weather was nice but generally on the cool side, especially in the summers.
The place just never seemed to heat up.
As an adult, I kept finding myself returning to San Francisco for job opportunities and cultural stimulation, but somehow the transplant never quite took, mostly because it was never, ever warm. On four separate occasions over about a 15-year span, I moved back to the city by the bay; I believe that the longest I ever made it before lighting out for warmer pastures was about one year, at which time the cold weather, fog and wind drove me out, and always to more temperate climes Southern California, Spain, Washington, D.C., Senegal.
So when we moved our family here, I felt in some real sense that I was coming home, full circle back to a locale where summer meant heat and lots of it. The real deal! Bring it on! I thought I was emotionally and physically prepared to face whatever blistering summer weather the Valley could throw at me.
There were a few times, though, when I thought I'd figured wrong.
I remember one time driving down Interstate 5 from Ashland, Ore., in our Volkswagen van, which was not equipped with an air conditioner. The temperature was well over 100, and Lisa spent most of the drive spraying an atomizer of water into my daughter's face, which was pretty much the color of a fresh Delta beet. The kids' early summer camp experiences always seemed to feature outrageously hot outings, bike rides and hikes where by noon the children would have wilted like week-old lettuce. I remember Little League games where the moms did nothing but spray water on the players (and their coaches).
In time, of course, we adopted as second nature some of the coping techniques that alleviated the worst of the heat's effects. We got up earlier, closed the blinds in the house, avoided working out or gardening or even being outside if possible between noon and five, ate meals that required little or no cooking. We joined the local swimming pool, which nicely complemented our backyard blowup swimming pool, since immersion in water seemed to be a must. We threw ice cubes and even store-bought ice blocks into our new hot tub. We bought a few Costco shade structures and could throw one of them up in under five minutes.
But during all this time while we were withering by day in triple digits, gradually we became more and more aware that only rarely did the scorching heat persist into the evening. Nearly always, by dusk, relief was well advanced.
This is certainly not the case in most other hot summer areas of the world, whether they be Houston or New York, Beijing or Dakar. If these cities, and most others, are sweltering in a heat spell, the arrival of darkness most often has very little impact on lowering the temperature. And yet, here in the Central Valley, the heat breaks nearly every day with an almost clockwork regularity.
Why should this be?
The answer is that no matter how stultifying the weather during our hot months, this area is blessed with a meteorological anomaly that automatically, as it were, resets the natural thermostat nearly every day back to a less tropical realm. And this, we have come to learn and appreciate, makes all the difference in not only surviving the hot season, but reveling in it.
That difference is the Delta breeze.
Ironically, this great cooling mass of air gets its energy from the Valley's summertime heat. We all know that hot air rises, and as things heat up inland during the day, the warm air rises off the Valley floor and creates a vacuum effect, drawing in the much colder air that perennially hovers over the Pacific Ocean. This huge vacuum creates a powerful wind pattern through the Golden Gate, across San Francisco Bay, and then up the Sacramento River basin, where it spreads out and begins to warm up slightly as it passes through and over the Delta.
It's neat to realize that this benign thing that gets to us in the Valley as a refreshing nightly breeze begins its journey more than a hundred miles away, where it is often a gusting maelstrom pushing winds of 40 or more miles per hour, shrouded in fog, at temperatures that rarely exceed 50 degrees. This is the terrible weather that drove me out of San Francisco not once, but four separate times.
By the time the leading edge of this has crossed the bay, usually the fog has dissipated, but anyone who has driven over the Carquinez or Benicia bridges in the late afternoon or early evening knows that the wind at this stage can still pack a wallop. In Fairfield and Vacaville, the trees along Highway 80 are all bent to the east as the wind tunnel whips across those communities.
But then the Sacramento River channel widens into the Delta and the cold, ground-hugging wind begins to slow down and spread out as it picks up heat from the land over which it's passing. By the time it hits Dixon, it has mellowed into what we recognize and welcome as the Delta breeze.
A gentle cooling waft rustles the trees. The moving air keeps down the bugs. The humidity is essentially nonexistent, and Lisa and I wonder why anyone would want to live anywhere else. We like to believe on nights like this that the Garden of Eden probably did not have weather this perfect day after day after day.
So here we all find ourselves again in the middle of the hot months. But rather than let those few daily hours of high double or triple digits get us down, let us instead pause for a moment to sing the praises of summer in the greater Sacramento area the dry heat, the blue skies, the vistas of the mountains on either side, the glorious delectable fruits and perfect vegetables that thrive here in the long days of sunshine.
And, of course, perhaps most of all, let us give thanks for the Delta breeze, which cools our nights, soothes our souls, and provides the last missing ingredient that makes even the hottest summers here not a burden to be borne, but a joy to be savored.
Hot days and cool nights for a warm weather guy like myself, it doesn't get any better. So let me recommend that tonight, or tomorrow it's never more than a couple of days away whenever you next feel the cooling breath of the breeze blowing over the land, take an extra minute and just enjoy.
That's your very own Delta breeze, and it deserves a warm welcome.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Lescroart, who lives near Davis, is the author of "Damage" (January 2011), a New York Times best-seller. His next novel, "The Hunter," is scheduled to be published in January 2012.
Visit his website at www.johnlescroart.com.