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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  12/1/1999

Winter in the Wine Country

One occasionally hears the comment--usually voiced in a critical tone--that California has no seasons...just one long, balmy semi-summer, all year 'round. This is wrong, and I've decided that those who make such claims either don't live here or haven't lived here long enough to understand the subtleties of our seasonal changes. What we don't have are seasons exactly like those archetypal American seasons beloved of calendar illustrations: the flaming Vermont maples and the deep, pillowy snow of Wisconsin. But if you live here awhile and pay attention even a little, you will come to appreciate a very pronounced progress through the turnings of the year.

(And of course, I should note that California is a vast and varied smorgasbord of landscapes--from the misty redwood forests of the north to the sere, salt-pan emptiness of the southern deserts; from the alpine, snow-mantled peaks of the Sierra to the fog-shrouded, rock-ribbed headlands of several hundred miles of coastline--and each of those landscapes shapes and is shaped by its own unique climate. In the present instance, I am reflecting primarily on the version of California we know and love as the Wine Country: the hills and valleys stretching away to the north of the San Francisco Bay.)

We certainly know how to do Summer here: hot and bright and sun-splashed, with miles and miles of golden grasslands in every direction. (Never mind that we often see the best of this "summer" in the time slot other parts of the country reserve for "fall.") We also do Spring very well, and in a passably conventional format, with blooming wildflowers by the acre and trees trying on their first frilly petticoats. Better yet, we jump start our Spring in March or even February, while much of the rest of the country is still wearing its winter woolies and digging out from under the last, slushy drifts of snow. We do Autumn too, in our own way, and although we don't have the extravagant, fiery woods of New England, we do have a fair number of turning trees, from poplars and cottonwoods to sycamores, and we have something else that's almost as splendid: the corduroy folds of vineyards splashed with the reds and golds of Autumn's mineral-rich palette. Best of all, we have the golden-amber light of Autumn...California's generous sunshine filtered through the dense lens of late-season sky.

Perhaps the most under-appreciated of our seasons is Winter. It's true, snow is a rarity here, and never, ever gets to the point of being a season-long presence (until long after you've had your fill of it). If we see snow at all, it's just a light dusting on the higher hills, with maybe enough of it up on the Geysers to make a snowman or have a snowball skirmish. But while we may lack this signature Winter hallmark, we do have many other signs of the times to tell us we're in the long winter night.

One of the most magical moments of Winter, and the one that signals the beginning of the season, is the greening of the hills. From June through Ocotober, the rolling, grassy meadows that cover so much of California are burnished to a brassy, golden shimmer (that has as much to do with this being called the Golden State as the discovery of any precious metal.) But sometime around mid-November, after the first rains of the winter-to-come, Mother Nature performs her favorite conjuring trick: pulling whole meadows of new, green shoots out of tiny, sleeping seedpods. In a matter of days, a chlorophyl-green fuzz spreads across the hillsides; creeps, like an incoming tide, up the creek beds, and quietly muscles the Golden State's golden grasses offstage for another half year.

Few people appreciate these changes as much as cyclists, who probably spend more time out of doors and out in the wider, wilder world than any other group, save perhaps the assorted professionals who work outside, such as rangers and linemen. And while cyclists in most of the rest of the country have to resort to rollers or wind-trainers to stay in shape while the snow drifts round the door, here we can go out and revel in our Winter from the front-row seats of our regular bikes. It's true, we do have to joust and dodge with winter storms. Those hills don't become green without a fair amount of watering. We all know the miseries of riding in wet, cold weather, but when conditions let up just enough to let the roads dry out, we can find a lot to like out there on the nippy days of December and January.

For one thing, there is the crisp, clear, storm-scrubbed atmosphere. In the summer, from the top of Campmeeting Ridge (home of Meyers Grade Road), even on a supposedly fog-free day, one can just make out the coastline far below. Certainly it's a spectacular panorama, but only in a hazy, soft-focus way. In the winter however, that same view has a cut-crystal clarity. One can pick out every detail, all the way down the coast, past Bodega Head and down the length of Tomales Bay, past Hog Island even, and all the way to Inverness. It's the subtle sort of seasonal difference that you might miss if you only saw it once--in one season or the other--and especially if you only saw it from a car. You have to have been there in both seasons to appreciate the difference, and being out in the open on a bike is the best way to soak it in. Once you do "get it," the difference stops being subtle and becomes spectacular.

Another nice winter touch--at least in areas with deciduous woodlands--is that, with the leaves off the trees, one sees all sorts of things that are hidden behind the foliage the rest of the year. Ever wonder what stately home lies hidden up beyond those imposing gate posts? Wonder no more: there it is, back among the bare branches. Or perhaps another, humbler home is revealed: the stick and twig thatch of a bird's nest, cradled in the crook of a limb.

Then there are the only-when-it-rains streams, turning our dry, rocky arroyos into splish-spashing cascades straight out of a Tyrollean idyll. These might be taken for ho-hum little streams in another state, where snow melt or constant rain keep them running year-'round. But here, we appreciate them all the more for only seeing them for a few months of the year. We pull up on our bikes to ooh and ahh at a frothing cataract that was just an empty gorge a few weeks before.

By these and other, even tinier telltales do we recognize the passage from Fall into Winter. And if our dark time of the year lacks the knock-out punch of six-foot deep snow drifts or months on end of sleet and freeze, well, so who's complaining? We're still riding!

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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