Reading California: John McPhee’s “Los Angeles Against the Mountains”

September 11, 2011 at 7:32 pm (books, California)

I love California. And I love reading about California.

Last June I spent several days visiting family members in the South Bay Area. I stayed in their home in Los Altos Hills, a place I’d never heard of before they moved there last year. I had almost no familiarity with that part of the state. But when I got there, I felt as though I had landed in paradise. The enchantment began on the way back from the airport and became more potent in the ensuing days. It did not lessen when I returned home on the east coast but only grew in retrospect. “Everything is larger than life out there,” a friend recently observed. Exactly.

The Golden Gate Bridge

A stand of redwoods

Alcatraz Island

A cell phone tower in disguise!


Once back in Maryland, the need for some California-based reading asserted itself. Although I had been in the northern part of the state, it was Los Angeles I wanted to read about. This is because my recent sojourn had brought vividly to mind a piece entitled “Los Angeles Against the Mountains” by John McPhee Having first appeared in the New Yorker, this remarkable  essay was subsequently included in a collection called The Control of Nature. 

I read this book when it came out in 1989. “Los Angeles Against the Mountains” has stayed with me since then, largely because of the story with which McPhee begins the piece:

One night in February, some years back, the Genofile family – Bob, Jackie, and their two teenaged children – were awakened by a thunderous crashing sound:

Ordinarily, in their quiet neighborhood, only the creek beside them was likely to make much sound, dropping steeply out of Shields Canyon on its way to the Los Angeles River. The creek, like every component of all the river systems across the city from mountains to ocean, had not been left to nature. Its banks were concrete. Its bed was concrete. When boulders were running there, they sounded like a rolling freight. On a night like this, the boulders should have been running. The creek should have been a torrent. Its unnatural sound was unnaturally absent. There was, and had been, a lot of rain.

There were, then, two ominous sounds: loud noise and silence.

Jackie and the children, Kimberlee and Scott, gazed up the street from a window in Scott’s bedroom, which was located at the back of the single story structure. This is how Jackie describes what they saw:

“It was just one big black thing coming at us, rolling, rolling with a lot of water in front of it, pushing the water, this big black thing. It was just one big black hill coming toward us.”

What happened next happened very fast. John McPhee is such a terrific storyteller, and the story he tells here is so harrowing, it beggars belief. Events are extremely compressed, taking just under four pages to relate.

The phenomenon being described is called a debris flow.


Then, of course, there is fire….

Here, McPhee explain the origin and nature of the famed Santa Ana winds, and the effect they have on the city’s mountainous ecosystem:

In the long dry season, and particularly in the fall, air flows southwest toward Los Angeles from the Colorado Plateau and the Basin and Range. Extremely low in moisture, it comes out of the canyon lands and crosses the Mojave desert. As it drops in altitude, it compresses, becoming even dryer and hotter. It advances in gusts. This is the wind that is sometimes  called the foehn. The fire wind. In Los Angeles, it is known as Santa Ana. When chamise and other chaparral plants sense the presence of Santa Ana winds, their level of moisture drops, and they become even more flammable than they were before. The Santa Anas bring what has been described as “instant critical fire weather.”

McPhee quotes Charles Colver of the Forest Service: “‘…moisture evaporates off your eyeballs so fast that you have to keep blinking.'”

John McPhee


Much has been written about California and its varied landscape, its cities, its people, its singularity, strangeness, and  beauty. I found these recommendations in a guidebook:    


I love  crime fiction set in the L.A. region. Ross MacDonald is one of my perennial favorites. And I just had a darn good time with Double Indemnity by James M Cain. (The Usual Suspects are discussing  this taut little noir gem Tuesday night.) Ron and I just watched the film – yet again, and yet again it was terrific.

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray

In “Los Angeles Against the Mountains,” John McPhee introduced me to a rather singular scholar. British by birth, architectural critic Reyner Banham cherished an extravagant love for the City of Angels. He’s the author of a book to which I’ve seen the adjective “seminal” applied more than once:  An outfit called Esotouric offers a Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles Bus Tour. And the BBC made  a documentary of the same title in 1972. Here’s a short video from that production:


  1. Nan said,

    I just heard a bit of a rerun NPR interview with John McPhee and I began to think I’d like to go on a little JM reading marathon. I read the article you note, and Uncommon Carriers, but I’m not sure if I have read any others. What interesting topics he writes about. Oh, and I just put Double Indemnity in my Instant Netflix queue. :<) You've probably seen Chinatown and The Long Goodbye?

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Yes, Nan, I’ve seen both Chinatown and The Long Goodbye, but it’s been a while!

      Thanks as always for leaving a comment on Books to the Ceiling.

  2. Yvette said,

    And if you’re ever in the mood for a great detective series set mostly in Los Angeles,n Roberta, I do recommend the Elvis Cole and Joe Pike books by the wonderful Robert Crais.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thanks, Yvette. I read one of these novels some time ago & enjoyed it, but I did need reminding!

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