I sleep very well and it is dark gray this morning. Cold, wet, damp, it rains last night and the morning has layers of slate-colored clouds rolling low across the southern sky and the black birds are unsure---to fly and hunt or stay close to home and hunker in the trees and wait out the weather. I want to get outside and stand in a field. Feel the crisp cool air before it turns too hot in the summer, gather the last breaths of winter up and pack them tight in an overcoat, button up, feel the freeze until my toes are tight and drawn up against a thick wool sock inside a boot that sheds water and moisture, standing there breath freezing and flowing out through cold nose and damp mouth. There aren’t enough of these mornings.
Cold and breathy, wet and grey, dark holding out the light until late in the day, these wet days are the rare glimpse of the weather patterns that are forever lost to Southern California. Bare limbed tree branches etched against a wandering charcoal backdrop, we’re an arid transitional geography, the last chute of western coastal exposure, squeezing wind and incoming clouds between the San Gabriel and San Jacinto Mountains. Water is our friend, and we see too little of it. When it comes, sometimes in deluges that drench the ground and the hillsides for days, it is special, the effects short but wonderful. With the sun hidden and the ground soggy, the color drains from the usual vibrant landscape into muted shades of pale green and ash gray. It is jacket time, a hat day here and there, gloves if you’re up high in the hills or mountainous terrain, hard shoes instead of flip-flops or athletic shoes, long pants instead of the baggy cargo shorts that men wear with t-shirts in the worst of Southern California weather as if to stave off any semblance of cold in favor of the ever-present youthfulness of beach and palms. Maybe these perennial beach boys grew up Chicago, Duluth, and hate the six-month or more of winters where one wears long-johns even to bed, overcoats and mufflers and protection against real, brutal winter. For me, spending a few life-threatening December-Januarys in Wyoming, Colorado, and a few days of winter in Southern Utah, my choice is Southern California—no debate. A few days of wet winter clothing is a rite that I have earned, an appreciation of climate that ranges from something near freezing for a few days in winter, to the desert hot spells that bring temperatures in at several degrees above the century mark in mid summer. Bulk up, layer on, boot-laced, the chill on my face is welcome, but only for a few days. I’ll welcome it full force, but I don’t want it for months on end, sub-zero and holding for endless gray, sun-less days. I’m the eager sailor that hovers close to shore knowing I can make it in within a couple of hours. No one-way voyages into areas of no turning back. I’m a climate light-weight, with hints of winter wary memories that I can re-live with a pair of boots and heavy coat. Buckle up.
In 1978 I decided to move to Jackson, Wyoming. I had visited in the late winter to ski and visit cousins Joanne and her husband and family, and Jim and his wife Suzanne, who I had never met. I fell in love with Jackson, and Jim offered me a job driving for his taxi company, and I came back to Berkeley, announced my decision, and put my affairs in order to travel. I sold a Buick Riviera I had bought to restore, and made a hundred dollars. I traded my Fiat for a Chevy Van and I loaded the van with what I wanted to take with me; outdoor gear, boots a bit of camping equipment, my stereo that Dad had given me, a Fisher 100-T tuner-preamp and some glorious KLH bookshelf speakers that I still have today. What I didn’t want to take with me, we left in a corner of the apartment. The cleaning deposit wouldn’t be refunded anyway, the way the contract read, so why bother cleaning up? The owners of the building had died in some joint suicide they’d conducted in the garage of his parents, so before the new owners knew what had hit them, I was off and rolling in my Chevy with a new sound system pounding Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s Déjà vu album.
Before taking off, though, I remember telling a very special girl, Cindy Greer, of my decision. She and I worked together at Standard Oil cleaning offices and she and I had had spent more than one long night together in my apartment. She was one of the women who ‘got away’, as the saying goes. Cute, lithe, willing, and witty when she wanted to be, she was the kind of long-term person who had street smarts, sex appeal, and an attitude that projected an ‘I don’t really care what you all think’ and that was enough for me. We would correspond a bunch when I was in Wyoming, but we never hooked up again. But, for the few weeks before I left Berkeley, she was there, and she was mine.
There was an outdoor craft festival in San Francisco that she wanted to see, so we went together. I ordered a custom sheepskin jacket with elk buttons that was shipped to me at my apartment before I left. I wore that jacket almost every winter day. I doubt that I would have bought it had it not been for Cindy. The other indispensable item I remember purchasing when I got to Wyoming was a pair of Sorrel Pack boots, a winter must. Everyone wore them. They still sell them and they don’t look like they’ve changed the design one bit. They have lug soles, leather uppers, rubberized lower areas that seal off moisture, and a thick, removable felt liner that wicks moisture and keeps feet warm and dry. Keeping feet warm and dry during six months or more of brutally cold, harsh winter where you’re sometimes spending hours at a time in snow, is an absolute must. There is no substitute for warm dry feet. If you live in a winter climate area, you know what I mean. The Sorrels stayed with me until this day, I believe, and they’re still stashed in the garage on the lower shelf of the side cabinet. They look like they could go a few more years. I dressed the part. I stayed warm and protected, and while I wasn’t too keen on the length of the winter, and it eventually drove me out of there after two years of cold, I layered up and learned how to survive. I’ll never forget that lesson.
In my judgmental days, seeing men wearing shorts and t-shirts in the coldest and wettest Southern California days, while it is of course their right, I look at their indifference as a lack of respect for the mild weather, not as a display of macho bravado. To me, it’s a sign of lack of awareness, the opportunity to buckle up and batten down for a couple of wet, cold days. The searing heat will dry up the land for the entire year, given the July-September temperatures around here. For the few winter days we have, I give it my all, and I sneer at those too callous to respect the climate’s fickle whims.
Thinking back to Cindy and the last few weeks in Berkeley, it seems to me that I did ask her if she would go with me. I must have. Maybe I wasn’t entirely serious, or convincing, I wasn’t much of anything emotionally then, or now, but I sort of remembering suggesting, asking, but definitely not pleading in a romantic sort of way, for her to join me for the great Rocky Mountain adventure. Of course, she declined. And we quickly fell into a correspondence routine of some kind, a few letters here and there, and I always felt she was special, a home-grown girl next door type with real feelings, a true heart, and a free spirit that was appreciated by me, if not articulated.
I loved her.