Joanna Schroeder explains the glorious drama and sensual joy of standing in the middle of a swirling wind.
When I moved to Los Angeles in 2000, I thought I understood wind.
Where I grew up, in Michigan, we had wind. In the winter, wind was the difference between being comfortable in your pea coat and cute gloves, and being miserable even in your ugly-ass parka and ski mittens. A winter wind will chap your skin, burn your face, crack your lips, and freeze the snot into your nose hairs.
In the summer, we had electrical storms with gusts that lifted shingles off roofs. The winds picked glass tables up off decks and tossed them into lawns, broken into hundreds of tiny, deadly shards, glittering like devious confetti. One day before seventh grade started, my friend Angela and I rode our 10-speeds to the beach to jump off the pier and talk to boys. We swam out into the water and looked over Lake Michigan as a sudden and profound blackness began pushing hard and fast through the fluffy white clouds. The lake underneath it, pushed up by a wind we could not yet feel, looked like it was foaming.
We climbed the rusty metal ladder up the pier, and ran along the cracked concrete. We hopped on our bikes as the darkness crept up behind us like a guy in a mask in a haunted house—we knew it was there but we were too scared to turn and look. We pushed our feet hard down against the pedals. We downshifted, we tied our t-shirts around our heads when it started to rain and scrunched our eyes against the dirt and leaves being slapped across our faces by the gusts. We screamed when thunder boomed and cowered at the knowledge that lightning couldn’t be far behind.
Everything around us turned that shade of green you only see during a bad summer storm. Hail pummeled our backs and bounced off the sidewalks. We ditched our bikes in the dirt of our shady neighborhood park and ran through the giant oaks and maples. Trees heaved and groaned above, one cracked behind us. As the tornado sirens started to wail, we slammed through Angela’s front door, locking it behind us, and ran into her basement with her hamster.
I don’t know if a tornado ever emerged. I just remember how it felt to be on a bike, riding into and out of swirling winds, which at times pushed against our backs so hard we felt like we were flying.
In The English Patient, Almásy (Ralph Fiennes) tells his beloved, illicit lover, Katharine (Kristin Scott Thomas) about the different types of winds. I saw it in the film first, and read it in the novel second, and only a few lines have stayed with me. But this scene, between the two lovers trapped in a sand storm, has always haunted me:
Here in Los Angeles, we have a special type of wind called The Santa Anas. Surfers and beach folk refer to the winds as being “offshore”. These winds are hot and dry, they make your lips bleed, make your skin feel like it’s pulled tight against your flesh, and cause a particularly uncomfortable situation inside your nose that is probably too gross to get into here.
But they are beautiful, and they do drive people mad. If you live in the mountains outside the city, as I do, they’re as terrifying as they are glorious. If you’re lucky, you can get to the ocean where you may bear witness to the damp, sea-scented onshore winds as they battle against the dry, floral, musky ones coming out of the desert.
They’re also filthy. They pick up pollen and dirt along the hundreds of miles they travel, and they carry it right to your door and into your sinuses. They knock over power lines and pick up sparks from bonfires and cigarettes and they burn down dozens of homes at a time, consuming hundreds of acres of wild growth whenever they get a chance.
But these winds are still one of my favorite things about this city. On Halloween, I felt the Santa Anas trade off with the chilly ocean wind and change not only the temperature, but also the costumed revelers’ moods. They snuck up behind me and blew up the back of my shirt. I turned around to face them, and my hair was lifted off my neck and flew behind me like a cape. I closed my eyes and smelled the herby scent of the chaparral they’d had to travel across to arrive here.
And I was happy.
So this November, I am thankful for the winds. I am even more thankful that so far this week they haven’t turned ino fires. But I am mostly thankful for the balance so many of us strike with the winds—one of fear and desire and sensual, bawdy enjoyment as we strip off our autumn sweaters, down to our underlying tank tops and raggedy tee shirts, and for just a few days in the middle of autumn, we trade in our boots for bare feet.
More gratitude , from The GMP series “A Month of Thankfulness”
Photo: Flickr/Larry & Teddy Page