It’s a common misconception that southern California is bathed in glorious sunshine just about every day of the year. Before relocating here from the east coast I was guilty of having listened to too many Beach Boys songs and had also fallen into this mistaken belief. But the truth is (and much to the chagrin of many tourists who find our climate somewhat cooler than imagined) we have many days along the immediate coastline that remain shrouded in fog. Most days the blazing sun burns it off by 10AM or so, but it’s such a common occurrence during some months that it has earned the ominous nicknames of “May Grey” and “June Gloom”. During the months that lack convenient rhyming words we just call it “the marine layer” due to its formation from the temperature differential between warm land and cool ocean. Call it what you want it’s still just fog, and like any fog bank it’s easy to become lost within its midst.
Just the other night I was struggling in my own fog battling a case of insomnia. I generally sleep like Lenin in his tomb but for some reason I was having trouble sleeping. As everyone knows sometimes Life has a tendency to pile on like lemmings at the base of cliff, so after a few hazy hours of tossing and turning I finally threw in the towel on my fight with sleep and decided to go ride my bike for a few hours before work. I’d rather count pedalstrokes instead of sheep.
With dawn several hours away I switched on my headlight and ascended through the darkness from the trailhead into the Santa Ana mountains on a rising tide of fog that aspired to be rain but had become involved with the wrong crowd along the way. This stuff was good precipation gone bad, content to loiter in the beam of my headlight and soak my clothes through and through yet too damn lazy to fall to earth and give the parched ground a much deserved drink. A true slacker of a California fog if I’ve ever seen one.
I always climb better in the dark, especially within the disorienting shroud of a thick fog. I can only guess this reveals something about my mental strength (or lack thereof) but when deprived of external stimuli like this I always seem to focus better on pedaling and breathing instead of receding into the downshift of self doubt whenever the grade begins to reach its steepest point. Somehow I power through and find myself using bigger gears than when I can see what’s ahead of me. Though still groggy from lack of sleep, I was starting to feel much better as I rode up the fire road toward where it changes into singletrack in the higher elevations.
I’ve found that when the fog is this thick around here it often contains a hint of salt air which I find amazing since I’m a good 10-15 miles from the ocean out here on the slopes of these hills. This day was no different. Its cool dampness soothed my lungs as I inhaled within the murky fishbowl encapsulating my body then imagined air bubbles rising to the surface with each exhalation as I SCUBA’d my way up the mountain waiting to breach the surface like a whale and be free. Though soothing, the close quarters of such thick fog at night can at times be suffocating – it leaves me wishing for gills. Maybe that’s how whales feel too when forced to surface for air. Once again, I think I need to work on my positive visualizations as thinking of whales while climbing a mountain on your bike is probably not a good thing.
After close to an hour of bubbling and climbing, as I rounded a corner on the trail my aquatic hillside abruptly dissipated like contemplation from a monk at his moment of realization. The fog was suddenly gone. Above my stinking body soared a celestial disk of stars with only the peaks of the mountains poking through the low-lying levels of moisture. As I can only imagine a leper feels being approached by a missionary in starched clothing, I momentarily felt unclean in the clear air. The marine layer had been only a few hundred feet thick and the atmosphere changed immediately from cool and damp below, to dry and clear above as I gained the critical elevation. I had passed through the inversion layer and was alone in my island in the sky. Nevertheless, as I rode onward in the darkness, my mood was buoyed by the sudden lightness of the atmosphere.
The restorative power of the sun never ceases to amaze me. As anyone who has ever ridden through the wee hours of the night during a 24 hour race knows, the moment the first rays of sun begin bending around the horizon in their cosmic curveball of refraction your body begins to come alive. What may have been a death slog through the night suddenly becomes fun again. The will to live is regained and instantly your body responds in kind as it is released from its cage. Your pace increases, your heart rate rises and the body regains its efficiency. Just by adding light to the equation the world can suddenly change. We all occasionally make our own cages, but what we build with our minds we can also just as easily tear down.
Whatever the mechanism, what the lifting of the fog had begun the return of the sun then completed. My equation was solved as if Einstein himself were screaming at the top of his wild, math-haired lungs “Energy equals mass times the square of the speed of LIGHT”. Pedaling alone along the ridgetop I silently returned from the netherworld of the sleepless back to the world of the coherently alive. Though I was eventually forced to descend from the mountain back into the valley and its lingering fog, when I returned I was as wide awake as the horizon had been in my undercast world.
Sure beats filling yourself full of Ambien any day.