One hundred and fifteen degrees

In 1972 I lived in the foothills of St. Helena in the Napa Valley. It was a modest little house with a swimming pool built in the 1950s by the man who created Meadowood, now a world-famous luxury resort; he and his family lived there for a while. Three elderly gentlemen lived in the original turn-of-the-century farmhouse on the property; the oldest of the three was named Fred and was 101 years old, and Gordon, who was around 70, claimed to be in communication with entities in “the other world.

Anyway, the property had once been a fruit orchard, mostly plums. The fruit trees had been planted in terraced sections of the hillside, and I’d never seen or tasted as many varieties of plums in my life. The local deer enjoyed the plums, too; I’d hear them coughing up the pits while they were in season.

Speaking of seasons, I saw it all while living in that spot for three years. One winter it began to snow as I left home to head down to San Francisco. I had a graphic design business on Second Street near Mission, and since gasoline was only 28 cents a gallon in 1972, the commute was not terribly expensive. The traffic, by the way, was far lighter than it is today. Anyway, as I reached the valley floor and drove down Silverado Trail I realized the snow storm was a biggie; I turned around to head back home but the Highway Patrol had proceeded to close Deer Park Road headed into the hills, stranding me down in the valley. I walked home, climbing an old dirt road up the hillside wearing my leather dress shoes. Around me, branches heavy with wet snow were snapping off with a loud “crack!”.

By the time I made it back home there was six inches on the ground, but the snow had begun to change to rain. It rained the rest of day and night, and by the next morning, the entire Napa Valley floor was flooded from Highway 29 all the way to the Silverado Trail. Everything under water, the valley had become Lake Napa.

Summer season was entirely different. The Napa Valley’s one mountain range further east, and normally the temperatures are higher than in Sonoma Valley. One summer’s day, however, it felt like the Sacramento Valley. The day dawned like any other, with a cool morning. But by noon, I could tell we were in for something different. My thermometer said 99 degrees, and it was not yet the hottest time of the day; over the next few hours the temperature climbed higher.

When it hit 115 degrees a phase shift happened and nature pulled a switch. In an effort to protect itself from dehydration, the leaves on an old English Walnut tree near the swimming pool literally turned brown in two hours and all fell to the ground. So too did other broadleaf deciduous trees suddenly drop their leaves.

I jumped into the pool, which felt good, but upon getting out I’d begin sweating before the pool water had even evaporated off my body. Even breathing felt different; like the trees, my own body needed to retain its moisture and it was all I could do to just lie down and move as little as possible.

As I write this at 3:20 in the afternoon it’s nearly 110 degrees in Sonoma. I’m watching the trees.

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