Question: When is the bikini-wearing, roller-blading, snake-toting, body-piercing, tourist-trapped beach community of Venice considered to be a little corner of heaven?
Answer: This week, when four reporters were sent around Southern California to savor the weather, which was hot (Silverado), hotter (Riverside), hottest (the West Valley) and cooler ("Momma, pack the pythons! We're moving to Venice!").
The Eskimos, it has been said, have dozens of words for snow. The idea behind the oft-repeated (and probably apocryphal) factoid is that when the white stuff is such an integral part of existence, words must describe its wide variety of forms in infinitesimal gradations.
In that spirit, perhaps Southern Californians should have a whole lexicon of terms for heat. Terms that would reflect not only the mundane particulars of temperature, but also intimate something of the speaker's attitude toward the soaring mercury.
In Silverado, a last rural bastion in Orange County--15 miles to the nearest hint of strip mall--we have what I like to think of as a country heat. The flies come out. Dust stirs along the dirt driveways and parking lots. The smell of sun-warmed sage rolls down the hillsides.
Many summer days here are tolerable, even pleasant. But when the temperatures rise above 90 or so, life here boils down to two simple rules: Find shade. Try not to move much.
Those rules were in force at noon.
The thermometer nailed to the front of the Canyon Market registers 95 and rising. Here in our downtown--the market, two restaurants, a tiny branch library and the post office--nothing stirs outside. A warm but welcome breeze blows, and the sky is a flat blue, sullied only at the far edges.
In the library, the air conditioning is blasting--the librarian says she turned it on early. Two children sit, reading and eating sandwiches, while the resident cat sleeps in a chair by the magazine rack. Nearby, outside the Silverado Cafe, a few cars crowd under the few available shade trees; inside, more escapees from the heat.
Silverado is a steep, narrow canyon at the foot of the Santa Ana Mountains, at an elevation (about 1,100 feet) that helps to accentuate the Southland's mild seasons. Here, it's hotter in summer, colder in winter. Many of the 900 or so houses here started life as tiny cabins back in the '20s, having been fortified and expanded to varying degrees of aesthetic success over the years. If you've never been to Silverado, think of Topanga--with more junked cars and without the residual hippie vibe.
These houses stretch out along the main road that snakes four miles from the market and cafe to a dead-end parking lot that, on summer nights, collects stray teens and broken beer bottles. But it's here that Orange County's back country opens up, with a truck trail that follows a tree-lined stream into the canyon's upper reaches.
I stroll, casually, with my toddler son, to a spot shaded deep within the alders and sycamores. Here, for a while at least, the heat doesn't seem so bad and the breeze keeps the flies at bay.
Patrick tosses pebbles into a quiet pool that is an enticing reminder of the winter's rains. I, meanwhile, observe my rules. I'm in the shade. I'm doing nothing.