In the movie Big Wednesday they’re spoken about majestically—
“In the old days I remember a wind that would blow through the canyons. It was a hot wind called a Santa Ana, and it carried the smell of warm places. It blew the strongest before dawn across the point. We would sleep in our cars and the smell of the wind would wake us, and each morning we knew this would be a special day.”
In the song “Santa Ana Winds” by The Beach Boys they get a beautiful rap—
Fill my sails
Oh desert wind
And hold the waves high for me
Then I will come
And test my skill
Where the Santa Ana winds blow free
In waves of elation
My part of creation
Becoming one with the boundless sea
But while surfers are the beneficiaries, for most So Cal residents they spell trouble, sometimes big trouble. Santa Ana winds often bring the lowest relative humidities of the year to coastal Southern California. These low humidities, combined with the warm, compressionally-heated air mass, plus the high wind speeds, parch local vegetation like a giant hair dryer, priming the area for wildfires. Think last year’s Thomas Fire, which, up until this year’s Mendocino Complex Fire, was the largest wildfire in modern California history.
And then there’s the way the Santa Anas affect the psyche—
My first brush with the Santa Ana winds had literary undertones. In the summer of 1977, the summer I started surfing, I met a local guru/surfer named K.D. (aka Krishna Das) who wore saffron robes and never wore shoes. Seated on the sidewalk in a lotus position, fingers making the gyan mudra, bearded face aimed towards the sun, eyes shut, he said, “You’ve got so much to look forward to, brother. Rincon on a big northwest. Supertubes on a minus low, heavy wind swell. Trestles. Redondo Breakwall. Oxnard in the fall when the Santa Anas blow.”
Sure enough, that fall a howling Santa Ana whipped up late one Friday night and shook the house, knocking over our next-door neighbor’s mailbox. It was creepy in the way that a band of yelping coyotes in the middle of the night is creepy. To fight off the hebejebes I turned on my stereo, Led Zeppelin IV, “Black Dog”’s “Hey, hey mama said the way you move…” infusing me with guts. The blue light from my stereo illuminated my board standing in the corner, a 6’6” Wilken diamond tail, single fin, blood red.
The next morning we headed north. Oxnard Shores was only waist-high, but the Santa Anas burnished the sea into a velvety sapphire blue. The A-frame peaks seemed to break in slow motion, forcing us to look closer, to admire their beauty. The offshore wind added new dimension to the wave, so that the cascading lip was mirrored by an ectoplasmic plume that blew out the back, then disappeared, like smoke. I thought about this between waves, Anacapa Island looking so close you could paddle to it. And I felt it duckdiving, the Santa Anas turning the flip side of those gorgeous waves into icy needles that prickled my head, stung me awake.