Celebrating the Pacific fog

PACIFICA, CALIFORNIA ― Every September this city south ofSan Francisco holds an annual festival, which is not unlike othercity festivals in its atmosphere of churro-fueled good cheer,complete with stained-glass art and parading high school bands. Themain difference is the Pacifica festival theme. Let other civiccelebrations salute strawberries or peaches. Pacifica honorsfog.

"There was a bit of a fight when we started up," says FredHoward, a former mayor who serves as president of the Pacific CoastFog Fest, now in its 17th year. "People said, 'Why are wecelebrating our fog?'"

Why? Because as Idaho has potatoes, Pacifica has fog.

But I don't mean simply to single out Pacifica. In truth, fog isthe bane or blessing of the entire Northern California coast fromJuly into September. As it happens, I live 10 minutes north ofPacifica, in a San Francisco neighborhood named, with brutal irony,the Outer Sunset, the sunset being one of the things you seldom seein summer.

There is a meteorological explanation for the prevailing gray.To oversimplify, moisture-laden winds blow in during the summer andmeet the chilly Pacific off Northern California. They condense intoa giant fog bank. Meanwhile, interior California is baking, and asthe hot air there rises, it draws the fog in through any convenientopening―the largest one being the Golden Gate of SanFrancisco Bay. And that is why living in Pacifica or San Franciscoin early September is a lot like living inside the cotton waddingat the top of an aspirin bottle, only colder and danker.

No element has shaped visitor impressions of Northern Californiaso 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 OceanBeach, where the fog was so thick they were obliged to steer by thehorse's ears, "which stood up dimly out of the dense white mistthat enveloped him." Writing in the 1850s, one Mrs. Eliza Farnhamtook an especially bleak view: "San Francisco, I believe, has themost 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 easilyforesee."

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

As for the rest of us who spend entire seasons swaddled ingray―well, we use fog to establish moral and intellectualsuperiority. Fog―automatic air conditioning! Nature'ssunscreen! We enjoy watching Fourth of July fireworks turn thecloud banks red, white, and blue. Labor Day may mean bathing suitsand barbecues everywhere else, but here we huddle in Irish sweatersand think deep, brooding thoughts unavailable to inhabitants ofsunnier, more frivolous climes.

No. Who am I kidding? By Labor Day my family is out of itscollective mind. We drive as fast as we can to Southern Californiato soak up rays. I sit on the beach and direct my 5-year-old's gazeupward, like a wise elder in a movie about visitors from anotherplanet. "See?" I tell him. "The earthling word for that is sun."After a week or so, we head back north. Somewhere ― usuallyover Pacifica, as a matter of fact ― we glimpse the fog bankmaintaining its clammy hold on our coastline. We roll up thewindows; 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. Forinformation, call (650) 355-8200 or visit www.pacificcoastfogfest.com.

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