Intersections: Put on edge by the Santa Ana winds

The floor was covered with shattered glass from the patio table. The mangled umbrella was halfway in a pool filled to the brim with leaves and debris.

The strange and yet familiar phenomenon known as the Santa Ana winds was in town.

They have formed a constant rhythm in my Southern Californian identity and, like many, I always remember Joan Didion’s famous essay when the winds show up, wreaking physical and often emotional havoc in one swoop.

“The violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability,” she wrote. “The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.”

I felt that edge more than ever this week. Of course, waking up to your backyard covered in glass will do that to you, but it also feels like the La Crescenta area, in particular, experiences the Santa Ana winds in their rawest, most destructive form.

Even as far back as 1890, the winds were severely affecting the balcony of Southern California when the La Crescenta Hotel (also known as the Silver Tree Inn) was built and then almost immediately destroyed by the winds, “killing a woman who had ironically come from the Midwest to escape tornadoes,” wrote Mike Lawler and Robert Newcombe in the La Crescenta edition of the “Images of America” series, chronicling the history of towns in the United States.

Thirty years ago, fires ignited by the Santa Ana winds destroyed homes in La Cañada. A local resident was tragically swept off the Angeles Crest Highway while in his van and died of a broken neck.

In 2007, crime fiction writer Robert Ellis included the following line in his novel, “City of Fire”: “Today, with the Santa Ana winds still blowing, people in La Crescenta were losing their homes.”

In 2011, La Crescenta was among the hardest hit areas when the winds came blowing through, knocking down trees while leaving many without power.

This year, it is not just the tangible destruction that I am acutely aware of more than ever before. When the winds are around, my mental state feels swept up in them, too, tangled and floating like the foreign branches in the pool that formed so much of my childhood, but that hasn’t been used for years.

I am angry, irritated and emotionally on edge. But the nighttime symphony of winds comforts me and often puts me to sleep, too. The way the trees sound as if they’re being raked by a wide-toothed comb, the heaviness of the air’s presence in absolute darkness also makes me feel grounded. This imbalance can only be felt when the winds are here.

Yesterday, for the first time in my life, I forgot one of the keys to the house and sat on the grass outside for over an hour, waiting for rescue. In 60 minutes of idle time, I contemplated everything from what I had left to do on my to-do list that was never going to be done because I was probably never going to be able to get back inside to how nice it was being forced to just sit still outside without a computer screen permanently glued to my face.

It was a laughable, manic and unforgettable hour of extremes, all of which I blame on the winds, including my initial forgetfulness which caused the whole episode.

All who call themselves Southern Californian know these winds as well as the infuriating traffic of our freeways and the many redeeming, magical qualities of L.A. to which only a local is privy. But it’s La Crescenta — that often forgotten, unincorporated area with its small-town feel so far removed from all things “L.A.” — where the city’s most infamous “devil winds” seem to leave their mark long after the howling has stopped.

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LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Paste magazine, New America Media, Eurasianet and The Atlantic. She may be reached at liana.agh@gmail.com.

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