Gray matters

Celebrating the Pacific fog
Peter Fish

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 oversimplify, 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." Writing in the 1850s, one Mrs. Eliza Farnham took an especially bleak view: "San Francisco, I believe, has the most disagreeable climate and locality of any city on the globe ... so damp with fogs and mists you are penetrated to the very marrow. ... What sort of end the unfortunates, who spend their lives there, can expect under such circumstances, one does not easily foresee."

One does not. Of course, creative types have turned fog to their benefit. Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade would be nowhere near as noirish without fog; Tony Bennett built a whole career singing about morning fogs that chilled the air; in John Carpenter's 1979 horror flick, Jamie Lee Curtis may have won top billing, but The Fog got the title role.

As for the rest of us who spend entire seasons swaddled in gray―well, we use fog to establish moral and intellectual superiority. Fog―automatic air conditioning! Nature's sunscreen! We enjoy watching Fourth of July fireworks turn the cloud banks red, white, and blue. Labor Day may mean bathing suits and barbecues everywhere else, but here we huddle in Irish sweaters and think deep, brooding thoughts unavailable to inhabitants of sunnier, more frivolous climes.

No. Who am I kidding? By Labor Day my family is out of its collective mind. We drive as fast as we can to Southern California to soak up rays. I sit on the beach and direct my 5-year-old's gaze upward, like a wise elder in a movie about visitors from another planet. "See?" I tell him. "The earthling word for that is sun." After a week or so, we head back north. Somewhere ― usually over Pacifica, as a matter of fact ― we glimpse the fog bank maintaining its clammy hold on our coastline. We roll up the windows; we turn on headlights. We steer into the shifting gloom. Oh, it's good to be home, if only we could find it.

Fog fest
The Pacific Coast Fog Fest runs September 28 and 29. For information, call (650) 355-8200 or visit www.pacificcoastfogfest.com.