Indian Summer in Morro Bay

by Joe Dunlap

Indian Summer in Morro Bay in the Fifties and Sixties was, Iím sure, different from the experience in other parts of the country. While it did meet the criteria of a period of warm or mild weather as described in Websterís, there was more to it than that. Warm is a relative term. The climate in Morro Bay when I was a kid never seemed to change much all year round, at least it seemed that way to me. Mild to cold weather ruled the day, and one rarely went anywhere without a jacket or at least a sweatshirt. Not that it ever got bitter cold. Days below 40 were rare indeed, even in December and January. February and March usually brought rain out of the northwest, and if we were lucky, it would continue into April and early May. But come summer, we departed from the accepted norm as far as weather is concerned, and it was this departure that made our "Indian Summer" unique.

Summer in Morro Bay really wasnít summer in the accepted sense. A hot day there (any time of year, not just summer) was anything over 75 degrees, and in summer it rarely reached that. In fact, if the word summer had ever been used to describe the months of July through September in tourist information put out by the City of Morro Bay, they could have probably been successfully sued in a court of law for false advertising. A more accurate term for those months would have been...Fog. We never called it that of course, but we could and probably should haveÖ.Morro Bay during those months became a fog magnet. I have many black and white pictures taken during my childhood in Morro Bay, and nearly every one of them was taken on a foggy day. The background in those pictures always looks the same. A flat, featureless, grey sky and no shadows.

Much has been written of the legendary fog of San Francisco, and Carl Sandburg once wrote of fog "coming in on little cats feet", but that doesnít even come close to describing Morro Bay style fog. Certainly it came in slowly (sometimes) and silently, but it was more like an albino elephant than a cat, plodding slowly and silently in, and then sitting down with all its oppressive weight, with the trumpeting of the distant fog horn to announce its coming, and intention to stay for a good long while. Thick, grey/white, and wet, it would slowly roll in, first engulfing Morro Rock, the peninsula, and the PG&E power plant stacks. Slowly it would climb the cliff of the Embarcadero and fan out like a flood, engulfing the entire town. From our little house a couple blocks from the waterfront, I could see it coming from well out at sea, and slowly the colors of the world would turn from blues and greens to varying shades of grey. On those rare occasions when it wasnít too deep, you could see the sun as a dim orange ball through it, and the world was still somewhat colorful, albeit more pastel with the white of the fog muting everything.

Unfortunately, this was the exception, not the rule. Most of the time, it was probably several thousand feet deep, completely blotting out the sun. It was wet. Like heavy dew, everything exposed to it was soon covered, or saturated. A walk for any distance would soon have a cotton sweatshirt glistening with tiny beads of water. Walk a while longer, and it would soon begin to soak through. The eucalyptus trees that dominated Morro Bay back then thrived in that climate, and the leaves would collect the moisture. The sidewalks and ground under them was always wet from the dripping leaves, almost like a mini rainfall beneath them. You learned to avoid having your path take you under them, as not only did you get wetter than you already were, you would also pick up that peculiar odor that eucalyptus gives off. Some like it, but most like myself canít stand it.

The fog would sometimes hang on for weeks, never allowing the sun to shine on the town. As a kid, I was aware of it, but never really paid it a lot of attention. Being occupied as I was with baseball and other things that kids do, I just accepted it as the norm. It had always been that way, hadnít it?

As a kid I didnít notice it, but in later years when I worked in San Luis Obispo, where the sun seemed to always shine, I could feel my mood change as I drove home to Morro Bay. Driving through the sunshine and approaching the outskirts of town, you could see the wall of fog begin anywhere from the top of the hill approaching town to a couple of miles inland. Most of the time, it was a very sharp and clearly defined line. From a distance in the bright sunlight, cars ahead of you would punch into it and quickly disappear, being replaced by the headlight on the cars coming out of it in the opposite direction. It was like driving into a dimly lit tunnel, and your mood would change from bright and sunny to sullen just as quickly as you entered it. In spite of all this, it wasnít all bad.

As cold and dreary as Morro Bay could be in the summertime, San Luis Obispo, and the towns of Atascadero and Paso Robles to the north could be equally scorching hot! San Luis Obispo, being at the end of two valleys that run from the coast has a more traditional climate. Summers can be warm, but the cool ocean air that sweeps up the valleys tends to keep the summer temperatures below 90 degrees most of the time, and down into the 60's and 70s at night. Atascadero and Paso Robles are on the other side of the Coastal Range mountains however, and temperatures there soar into the 100s during the day, and often only cool down into the 80s at night. For someone who grew up in the cool foggy air of Morro Bay, working in that climate could be excruciating. Driving home in the evening, I found that I couldnít wait to go blasting into that big grey wall. My car didnít have air conditioning back then, and I would drive home with all the windows rolled down trying to cool off. Usually about a mile or so before reaching the fog, I could feel the temperature drop suddenly. It was like walking into an air conditioned room from outside on a hot summer day. The temperature change could often be as much as 30 degrees or more in the space of a mile or two, and the relief would be overwhelming. In that respect, ones mood could change from dark to bright very quickly.

So, where does Indian Summer fit into all of this? Actually, in Morro Bay, Indian Summer was reallyÖ our summer! The problem was, from the standpoint of a kid whose only interest in life was baseball, the timing couldnít have been worse. It always began about a week before Labor Day, which of course, is immediately followed by, (Argh!), the start of school!

To this day, I donít understand the meteorological reasons for it. Maybe its the sun shifting to the southern sky, or some other reason, but come the approach of fall, the fog would suddenly get up off it haunches and overnight, amble back out to sea, leaving us with sun streaming through our south facing windows most of the day, and the constant drone of the foghorn gone. As the days grew shorter, we tried to make the most of them, soaking up the sun as much as we could. My friends and I would get together and play baseball at the park, or even in the street, anything to just be outside and enjoy the warmth in those last few days before school started. After a summer spent in grey, wet, shadowless surroundings, we welcomed the sun on our faces, and squinting into the sun that, now low in the sky, seemed always to be in our eyes. Not only was it warm and sunny, but there was a stillness in the air that I cannot describeÖ.The month of September was especially still. You could hear birds chirping, something they didnít do all summer. Sullen like the rest of us I suppose. For the most part however, the stillness surrounded you. Not even a breeze whispering through the pines and eucalyptus that covered most of the town.

Sounds you were never aware of, like the crunch of gravel underfoot or the sound of your own breathing, became amplified. The only background noise(and you had to be near the harbor to hear it) was the subtle, constant whine of the turbines at the power plant, and when and if there was a breeze, the sound of the surf rolling in on the beach or crashing against the breakwater at the mouth of the harbor. Our last chance to enjoy this wonderful weather ended with Labor Day. When school started shortly thereafter, we sat in classes whiling away the hours, knowing that there would only be a few short hours after school before it would get dark. The same warmth and stillness would creep into the classrooms where none of us really wanted to be. Afternoons were the worst. The sun, now so low in the southern sky, would shine through the windows, warming the room and casting long shadows (wow, shadows!) across the floor and desks .Couple this with a Civics or Business Math teacher droning on about something a 16 year old boy could not begin to comprehend, and you had the perfect cure for insomnia. More than once, I found myself nodding off, my head bobbing up and down like a fishing line float. Occasionally there was the distinctive sound of a forehead cracking against a wooden desk, which lead to some giggles, and snickering, and sometimes- outright laughter. Sadly, it was all over within a few weeks. Like an invasion of locusts or the coming of the cicadas, our Indian Summer was gone as quickly as it had come. The days grew shorter and shorter, and life in Morro Bay returned to its old familiar grey.