Sun-drenched has always struck me as an oxymoron here in toasty Sacramento where people often say the old cliche, “it’s a dry heat,” with more than a little acid in their tone. Samuel Taylor Coleridge recognized the sun in a less friendly form in a favorite quote of my Dad’s from The Ancient Mariner: “All in a hot and copper sky,/The bloody Sun, at noon,/Right up above the mast did stand,/No bigger than the Moon.”
During a hot spell, old time Sacramentans would have opened their windows at dawn and shuttered them at 9 a.m. to keep in the cool. At night, they might have dragged their mattresses out into their one-car garage and slept under a wet sheet, hoping for the Delta breeze to come up. Damn the mosquitos.
Having spent most of my formative years in the cool Pacific Northwest, “hot” was reserved for road trips. Every so often, we drove over Chinook Pass and headed to Yakima to visit my grandmother and great aunt. The first part of the drive was spectacular, past sparkling streams of snow runoff, through fields of lupine and Indian paint brush. But then came the hellish drive on the winding canyon road that snaked beside the Yakima River, where no breeze penetrated, and where the sun was amplified by basalt ridges thinly felted with dead, brown grass.
When two of my three brothers were along, I rode pressed next to my father and mother on the bench seat in front. Where the fabric of my shorts left off, skin adhered to the plastic or leather upholstery. My mother, never modest, unrolled the window, unbuttoned her sleeveless blouse and let the breeze of the open window serve as fan. When it got to be too much, my mother advocated a stop to “hot our feet off,” often near Horseshoe Bend. Bliss, even if it was cut short by having to put our shoes back on and pile back into our then-hotter car.
Our summer drives often included a trip to Boise, where my mother grew up, or McCall, Idaho, where my mother’s uncle maintained a summer home. Driving to Idaho was a lot like driving to Yakima in our pre-air-conditioning-era car, but without the benefit of a river for relief.
Remembering those drives, I fully understand the meaning of the ad slogan, “the pause that refreshes.” Coca-Cola never tasted so good as when you were sweating profusely. I remember the excitement of pulling up to a gas pump in the Horse Heavens, past Rattlesnake Ridge, and being given a dime or a quarter. The gas station in my minds’ eye had an old fashioned (1950s) machine that looked like a big cooler or a small freezer. You reached in and pulled out one one of the frosty bottles, held by metal clamps that were released when you inserted your coin. Six ounces of caramel-colored, fizzy heaven.
I don’t remember those drives as especially comfortable, but I remember feeling secure between my Mom and Dad, with my brothers in the back seat, passing the time by playing “red car.” There’s something to be said about the days before air conditioning.