Gray Matters. (Western Wanderings)

By Fish, Peter | Sunset, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Gray Matters. (Western Wanderings)


Fish, Peter, Sunset


* PACIFICA, CALIFORNIA--Every September this city south of San Francisco holds an annual festival, which is not unlike other city festivals in its atmosphere of churro-fueled good cheer, complete with stained-glass art and parading high school bands. The main difference is the Pacifica festival theme. Let other civic celebrations salute strawberries or peaches. Pacifica honors fog.

"There was a bit of a fight when we started up," says Fred Howard, a former mayor who serves as president of the Pacific Coast Fog Fest, now in its 17th year. "People said, 'Why are we celebrating our fog?'"

Why? Because as Idaho has potatoes, Pacifica has fog.

But I don't mean simply to single out Pacifica. In truth, fog is the bane or blessing of the entire Northern California coast from July into September. As it happens, I live 10 minutes north of Pacifica, in a San Francisco neighborhood named, with brutal irony, the Outer Sunset, the sunset being one of the things you seldom see in summer.

There is a meteorological explanation for the prevailing gray. To over-simplify, moisture-laden winds blow in during the summer and meet the chilly Pacific off Northern California. They condense into a giant fog bank. Meanwhile, interior California is baking, and as the hot air there rises, it draws the fog in through any convenient opening--the largest one being the Golden Gate of San Francisco Bay. And that is why living in Pacifica or San Francisco in early September is a lot like living inside the cotton wadding at the top of an aspirin bottle, only colder and danker.

No element has shaped visitor impressions of Northern California so much as fog. Alas, there is no proof that Mark Twain ever said, "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." But Twain did write a memorable account of a carriage ride to Ocean Beach, where the fog was so thick they were obliged to steer by the horse's ears, "which stood up dimly out of the dense white mist that enveloped him. …

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