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Winter unveils Southern California's wonders

Winter turns our air crisp, our hills green. Our vistas open, and we see the full splendor of our snow-capped mountain ranges.

February 24, 2009|HECTOR TOBAR

In Southern California, winter is our season of renewal.

Summer is hazy and hot. Fall brings smoke and fire. Sure, spring has its enchantments, but every native Angeleno knows that winter is the real showstopper, a spectacle of nature that reminds us why our ancestors came here.

Winter turns our air crisp, our hills green. Our vistas open, and we see the full splendor of our snow-capped mountain ranges.

Now the days are getting longer, the breezes warmer and the sun higher. Already, winter is slipping away, though I wish it would not. I'd like to postpone spring until July and put off summer until 2010, or until the economy recovers -- because living through a 95-degree recession won't be pretty.

So today I will try to prolong our Southern California winter. I will stretch out winter simply by praising it, by listing its virtues and celebrating its gifts to our weary city. At the very least, maybe I'll be able to coax one more storm from the sky before March 19, when we officially bid winter goodbye.

For starters, California winters lift a veil.

I live in Mount Washington, just north of downtown Los Angeles. I don't have the city views of some of my neighbors, but if I walk a block or so I can see Lincoln Heights any day of the year.

In winter my vision reaches much, much farther. Last week, I saw two dozen spindly cranes at the port on Terminal Island, 23 miles away. With binoculars, I could make out the span of the Vincent Thomas Bridge.

Farther in the distance, on one especially clear recent morning, I saw the silhouette of Santa Catalina Island -- 52 miles away.

In a certain sense, in the winter an older version of the Los Angeles Basin comes back to life. We see the vistas the Gabrielinos and the Spanish friars saw.

In winter, you can see the ocean from the only streets in the city of Los Angeles named Sea View, which were carved out of Mount Washington around 1910. Back then, Los Angeles had trolley cars but no freeways, and thus no pollution to obscure the ocean vistas from Sea View Lane and Sea View Drive.

In summer, Jerry Schneider and his wife Gloria look down from their home on Sea View Avenue and see the rail line that leads north from downtown. In winter, they can see past the plains of Hollywood and the distant towers of Century City to a denim-colored strip of the Pacific on the horizon.

"Late in the afternoon, we see the sun reflected off the ocean," Jerry Schneider told me with a sense of wonder. He's 69 and grew up in L.A. and can remember the bad old days of the 1950s when he stood on the UCLA campus and struggled even to see Bel-Air through the smog.

"Every day brings something different," he said of modern L.A. winters. Sometimes he sees freighters traveling up the coast, at least 20 miles away from his window.

If you're newly arrived in Southern California, you might take our winter views for granted. But we older Angelenos know that in an era of less -- less available work, less money -- there is one thing we have more of: clear days, especially in winter.

With crisp air and moist skies, we discover the majesty all around us.

Every storm that rushes through the Los Angeles Basin brings a show of light, shadow and color.

We can go to the beach and watch the rains approach and the sky darken as the sea churns gray, blue and indigo. Or we can simply stand in our inland backyards and feel the wind push the clouds over us.

On Monday morning, while making breakfast for my children, I looked out my kitchen window and saw waves carved into the overcast sky. The clouds above us resembled an upside-down ocean the color and texture of mother-of-pearl.

I asked my 4-year-old daughter if she saw the waves in the sky. "No, Papa," she said. "I see whales." I looked again and saw a pod of whales swimming southward.

When our storms pass, the overcast shatters, opening up a blue canvas painted with white puffs of cotton and yellow bursts of sun. Distant Mt. San Antonio, also known as Mt. Baldy, emerges dressed entirely in snow.

At dusk the sky turns first orange, then coral and crimson. Even the snow-covered peaks of Mt. San Antonio change colors in the fading light, a sight the likes of which you'll never see in Paris, London or New York.

After the last big storm to pass through the city, I stood with my father at the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area in Baldwin Hills. We took in the panorama to the east, which included the skyscrapers of the financial district and thin fingers of snow on the San Gabriel Mountains. We could also see the San Bernardino Mountains, some 80 miles away.

"From up here, Los Angeles looks small," my father told me. And it was true -- the big mountain ranges seemed to shrink the city below.

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