The Wind War


Illustration by Bill Brown

My drive home on the Night of the Winds, as I have come to call that evening late last year when all hell broke loose in the sky, started off placidly enough. The Santa Anas were predicted to unleash a ferocious howl, so I was prepared—I thought—for what was to come. Of course I hate the winds when they fuel raging wildfires or flip a big rig over on the freeway, but I find a perverse excitement in their otherworldly cries. I could not have dreamed how much this particular gust would change the canopy of L.A.

That night we were on deadline at the magazine, and I left the office exceptionally late. It was breezy but hardly dramatic. Halfway home to Eagle Rock I was wondering, False alarm?, when a squall cut through an intersection, rattling my car and my nerves. Newspapers and plastic bags began swirling ominously along the sidewalk, and within minutes it was as if a tornado had touched down in Silver Lake. A torrent of pine needles pummeled my car; street lights swung wildly. I gripped the steering wheel like a captain at the helm: Keep calm and carry on!

I have been driving in Los Angeles since I was 15-and-a-half years old, enduring all manner of auto trauma, but nothing prepared me for the next ten minutes. As I approached the freeway, palm fronds skidded across the on-ramp like wayward bowling balls. Blue lights from exploding transformers popped in the near distance. Gales coming at my car made it feel as if I were driving on a treadmill. At home I woke my husband, who was surprised by my panic until he stepped outside to take down a patio umbrella. “Holy crap!” he yelled over the maelstrom. The house lights heaved and went out. They stayed out for two days.

The next morning it looked like Armageddon had struck our yard. We were lucky, losing only one fragrant sumac, a truckload of branches, and the thatch roof off the pool’s tiki bar. The damage had forced neighbors—many of whom I’d never even seen before—outside. One wielded a chain saw in his robe and slippers. Fallen eucalyptus, palms, oaks, and power lines extended my commute to two hours and 40 minutes that day.

With so many trees down, and vistas altered by their absence, I realized how much I take for granted the magnificent boughs that spread above Los Angeles. Our trees define the look of the city every bit as much as the Griffith Observatory, the movie palaces, and the neon signs do. In this issue we celebrate 26 things that represent Classic L.A., including jacarandas, which were hard hit the night of the winds. The city was blanketed in purple petals the month I was married, and I associate their blossoms with my anniversary. They may be imports—many of our trees are—but they have taken to the place and us to them. I could live without the winds. Without the trees? Never.