Skip to content

Joan Didion Essay On Santa Ana Winds San Diego

South and West: From a Notebook
by joan didion
knopf, 160 pages, $21

“There is,” says Don DeLillo, “a motel in the heart of every man. Where the highway begins to dominate the landscape … this is most likely where it stands.” This line from Americana captures the spirit of Joan Didion, who has always seemed at home in anonymous, transitional places. Her troubled heroines turn up in airports, casinos, and hotel coffee shops. They wander the Los Angeles freeways or stay too long on tropical islands—tourists without a schedule or date of return. Movement itself becomes the goal, an evasion of anxiety and failure. In her fiction and essays, Didion captures the lure of motion and the dread of something in the rearview mirror, a threat that closes in as the world flashes by. Inevitably movement stalls, and terror ensues. Tourists leave the island, options dwindle, and the highway leads to a reckoning in the desert.

In South and West, her newly published notes from 1970, Didion checks into a series of motels on her trek across the Gulf South, a region sunk in history. Vines rupture the sidewalk in New Orleans’s elegant Garden District while the residents, aware of the encroaching swamp, mask their unease:

In New Orleans they also talk about parties, and about food, their voices rising and falling, as if talking about anything at all could keep the wilderness at bay. In New Orleans the wilderness is sensed as very near, not the redemptive wilderness of the western imagination but something rank and old and malevolent, the idea of wilderness not as escape from civilization and its discontents but as a mortal threat to a community precarious and colonial in its deepest aspect. The effect is lively and avaricious and intensely self-absorbed, a tone not uncommon in colonial cities, and the principal reason I find such cities invigorating.

Faced with a strange and forbidding landscape, one soggy, humid, and alive with snakes, Didion likewise becomes self-absorbed and desperate for refuge. She seeks it in the anonymous comfort of postwar suburbia, which at that time barely existed in the Gulf South. In Biloxi, where the pool at her hotel smells of fish, she escapes to a new shopping center surrounding an air-conditioned mall, a lonely outpost of “mid-stream America.” Later, in Meridian, she finds unlikely bliss at a Howard Johnson’s: “Sitting by the pool at six o’clock I felt the euphoria of Interstate America: I could be in San Bernardino, or Phoenix, or outside Indianapolis.” At the pool, a boy tells his mother he wants to live at the motel—a rather Didionesque sentiment. As the journey wears on, her urge to escape becomes ever more pressing.  She eventually avoids cities large enough to support a national airport. The temptation to board a flight back to California would be irresistible.

This yearning for California seems odd in view of the work that established Didion’s reputation in the ’60s and ’70s, especially Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Play it as it Lays, and The White Album.  She mentions “the redemptive wilderness of the Western imagination,” but her writing undercuts that romantic frontier narrative, just as it reveals the dark side of footloose wandering. In her essays and novels, people who flee to the wilderness do not find redemption from the world and its illusions; they find emptiness or death. Some go to the desert in search of God and die of rattlesnake bite. Others die and become food for coyotes or go mad and start raving about underground nuclear tests. Didion shudders at the thought of moccasins in southern waterways, but horror of snakes (especially rattlesnakes) is a recurring theme in her California books. Play it as it Lays opens with a reflection on the nature of evil and an image—plainly biblical—of a pygmy rattler in an artichoke garden. Rattlesnakes also appear in “Los Angeles Notebook” and “On Morality,” which Didion wrote on a hot night in Death Valley. Floods, earthquakes, and the Santa Ana wind further support her view of nature as blind or hostile to human needs.

Society amounts to little more than a game played against a background of cosmic indifference. In Play it as it Lays and elsewhere, Las Vegas is an apt symbol of human life—a chancy venture with no external meaning or significance. Even so, the game exists for good reason: to shield those who play from the surrounding darkness. Las Vegas might be garish and fake, but those who wander outside its pulsing glow do not find meaning or salvation. What they find negates meaning and threatens reason. In this way, Didion the taciturn Westerner has more in common with the garrulous residents of New Orleans than with the utopians and dreamers of her native state.

It’s worth remembering that Didion supported Goldwater’s campaign and launched her career at Buckley’s National Review. Indeed, her early work represents a brand of conservatism that has all but vanished from America. This disposition rests not on piety, patriotism, or defensive nostalgia (the opiate of the South), but on a bleak assessment of human possibilities. Whatever its flaws and limits, Didion suggests, the game is the only thing standing between our world and the abyss, and it is imperative to keep it going. In “Slouching Toward Bethlehem,” her famous critique of the Summer of Love, Didion observes the rootless youth of the Haight-Ashbury and attributes their plight to the breakdown of “the game we were playing,” which the preceding generation failed to pass on. Bereft of community and extended family, these young people fill the void with improvised communities and second-hand slogans. Elsewhere in her work, Didion focuses on people who cope in private with the general dissolution. They move around without a plan, chasing the promise of Interstate America—the open road to anywhere-but-here. This solution works until the rhythm stops and vague possibilities crumble on contact with hard realities.

South and West only hints at this larger context. Consequently, this slight volume may hold little interest for readers unfamiliar with Didion’s writing. In his preface, Nathanael Rich tries to link Didion’s notes to the politics of the Trump era. This seems glib to me, a strained attempt to give the document contemporary political relevance. True, South and West has something to say about the region’s reactionary politics and their waxing influence from that time to now. But if anything, her comments anticipate not the distant future but the shape of the Nixon administration and the national backlash against civil rights legislation and the sexual revolution—events close at hand in 1970. Rich contends that “nobody” in Los Angeles or the Bay Area could foresee the power of that reaction. If true, that speaks not to Didion’s prescience but to the absurd provincialism of certain urban elites, who only needed to drive south on the San Diego Freeway to discover that their views did not represent most of California, much less the whole country. Didion does not rise to prophecy, but she offers something more reasonable: a vivid glimpse of the past—which still bears on the present—and a moment in the life of Joan Didion.

How compelling that moment is will depend on the degree of interest one takes in Joan Didion. For my part, I enjoyed watching her respond in her precise, inimitable voice to the Gulf South, a place familiar to me but strange to her. I would have liked a longer account of her meeting with Walker Percy at his camp near Covington. Percy praised Didion’s work and devoted his own to similar themes: alienation, dread, detachment. Didion’s description of New Orleans society recalls Percy’s Love in the Ruins, an apocalyptic comedy in which chatty Louisianans seem oblivious to the vines overtaking their world. Unfortunately, South and West contains only a passing glimpse of that meeting on the bayou.

Of course, Percy approached the themes of the day from a religious perspective that Didion resists (“No eye was on the sparrow,” she declares in her memoir of grief, The Year of Magical Thinking). How does she endure such a bleak view of life? In Play it as it Lays, Mariah Wyeth takes up the crucial question—Why stay in the game?—and answers with a shrug: “Why not?” Fortunately, South and West proffers something more substantial: an intimate love of home. Despite Didion’s disenchantment with California, the final pages of this book do not show a wandering, alienated critic. They tell instead of coastal hills and the Central Valley’s agricultural vistas. They show someone at ease in the world, if only for a time. It’s a small grace, perhaps, but a welcome respite on a long, hard journey.

Richard T. Whittington serves as a priest for the diocese of Little Rock.

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.

More on: Popular Culture, Literature, Joan Didion, The South, American Literature

Prev Article

Next Article

In California fires, a starring role for the wicked wind of the West

By Anne C. Mulkern, E&E News

Originally published by E&E News

Powerful winds are spreading Southern California fires that have destroyed at least 175 structures and forced more than 27,000 evacuations.

The wind is expected to bedevil firefighters for several more days, with large blazes raging in Ventura, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties. And while the fires' causes are under investigation, it's clear that high winds made the conflagrations so destructive.

Called the Santa Anas, the dry winds typically hit in late fall and are infamous in the Golden State.

California's biggest and deadliest fires have been propelled by Santa Ana winds, which can gust to 100 mph (161 km/h). That wind speed makes smothering fires nearly impossible, said Chief Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which is best known as Cal Fire.

"In many cases, it's all we can do just to try to control the path of the fire, trying to keep it away from people and homes," Berlant said. "Stopping a fire when wind is 50, 60, 70 miles per hour is almost not possible."

He added, "These fires burn into anything that's in their path. A wind-driven fire is like a freight train, and stopping a freight train on a dime doesn't happen."

Helicopters can't drop water or flame retardants in high winds, he said, because the gusts blow the liquids away.

Santa Anas also dry out trees, shrubs and grasses, turning them into tinder and spreading the blaze, he said.

"It's the winds that spread the embers and fan the fire," Berlant said. "That makes the fire burn fast and jump ahead, as embers fly in the high wind."

Climate change factors also play a role.

Rain hasn't fallen in Southern California since spring, leaving vegetation as dry as in summer. Then, during the week of Thanksgiving, Los Angeles temperatures hit 95 degrees Fahrenheit. That set the stage to make the Santa Anas even more dangerous, UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain said.

"It's sort of the worst of both worlds," Swain said.

It's a sort of double whammy wind event that we're getting,

Daniel Swain, University of California, Los Angeles

Santa Anas occur when high pressure over the Great Basin — a vast swath of Nevada, Utah and California — compresses air, cooking it, Cal Fire Captain Mike Mohler said.

That hot air then pushes southwest toward the coast.

"Our temperatures skyrocket," Mohler said. "Humidity decreases down to single digits."

The current Santa Anas also came as a result of cold, dense air forming in the region near Joshua Tree. That wind starts at a higher elevation, falls lower, then accelerates as it whips through canyon passes, heading for the coast, Swain said.

"It's a sort of double whammy wind event that we're getting," Swain said, with both the Great Basin region and California deserts contributing.

Wind-driven catastrophes

When Santa Anas arrive, arson, downed power lines, small plane crashes and other events have sparked catastrophic fires.

The Cedar Fire, the largest conflagration in state history, burned 273,246 acres in San Diego County in October 2003. It destroyed 2,820 structures and killed 15 people. Powered by winds, the blaze jumped a major highway. And it temporarily stopped incoming flights to San Diego International Airport and Los Angeles International Airport.

Santa Ana winds also drove the Witch Fire in San Diego County, which in October 2007 charred 197,990 acres, destroyed 1,650 buildings and killed two. That same month, there were seven other blazes pushed by Santa Ana winds. Cal Fire dubbed it the 2007 Fire Siege.

The Northern California version of the Santa Anas is called Diablo, or devil, winds, which are also east-to-west gusts.

Blowing at speeds of up to 79 mph (127 km/h), they pushed fires in October that charred parts of Napa and the surrounding areas. The Tubbs Fire in Napa alone destroyed 5,643 structures.

That group of Northern California blazes is expected to be the most destructive firestorm in state history, with insurance claims at more than $3 billion and growing. State Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones is scheduled to announce undated figures today.

Max Moritz, a fire specialist with the University of California's Cooperative Extension, said the state needs to incorporate wind corridors into its fire hazard severity zone maps. Stricter building codes apply in places designated as high-risk (Climatewire, Nov. 29).

Cal Fire's wildland fire scientist, David Sapsis, said the state is working to develop "area-specific wind and dryness regimes" to incorporate into revised maps of areas slated for development.

The fire threat is likely to be even greater in the future, according to a study out of UCLA, the University of California, Davis, and UC Irvine that says climate change will make the destruction from all blazes worse.

Southern California fires are very, very weather-driven. If you change the weather, you would imagine that fires might change, too, and that's exactly what we found.

Alex Hall, University of California, Los Angeles

The researchers examined five decades of fires and found that the Santa Anas were responsible for 80 percent of the cumulative $3.1 billion in economic losses from 1990 to 2009.

Santa Ana fires spread three times faster, occurred closer to urban areas and burned into areas with greater housing values, the study said.

"Southern California fires are very, very weather-driven," said Alex Hall, one of the study researchers and a climate expert with UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.

"If you change the weather, you would imagine that fires might change, too, and that's exactly what we found," Hall said.

The study applied climate modeling to fire patterns and projected that fires in Southern California will become more destructive. Because of drier conditions, by midcentury, the area burned in Santa Ana fires is projected to increase 64 percent. Hotter temperatures will make non-Santa-Ana fires worse, as well. By 2050, the area destroyed by non-Santa-Ana fires is expected to grow 77 percent, the study said.

'Close to the edge'

That destructive force has made Santa Ana winds part of the Southern California culture.

They haunt books, movies and songs.

Joan Didion famously wrote in "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" that the "violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are."

T.C. Boyle's novel "The Tortilla Curtain" makes drought, the Santa Anas and a forest fire central to his story of race, class and labor in Los Angeles in the 1980s and '90s, said Allison Carruth, an associate professor of English at UCLA.

Novel-turned-movie "White Oleander," from Janet Fitch, casts Santa Anas as an omen of destructive behavior.

"The Santa Anas blew in hot from the desert that fall," it says early on. "Only the oleanders thrived. Maybe the wind was the reason my mother did what she did."

They even appear in children's fare. The short movie "Halloween Is Grinch Night," written by Dr. Seuss, mentions the howling "sour, sweet winds." Dr. Seuss, aka Theodor Seuss Geisel, retired in San Diego.

Santa Anas star in music, too. The song "Los Angeles Is Burning," by Bad Religion, warns, "When the hills of Los Angeles are burning, palm trees are candles in the murder wind. So many lives are on the breeze, even the stars are ill at ease. And Los Angeles is burning."

Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from E&E News. Copyright 2017. E&E provides essential news for energy and environment professionals at


More from News

Anne C. Mulkern, E&E News

Anne has written extensively about California's climate law, the state's push on renewable power, electric vehicles, drought, and the people leading key energy developments.