I learned about this in 8th grade science I think. It’s when a higher layer of warm air holds a lower layer of cooler air down, like in a valley. I was a prepubescent, red-headed, son of a teacher and the only thing I had going for me was that I retained some things I learned in school. This didn’t help me in life, just on tests in school. I did exponentially better on tests regarding subjects in which I was interested. I was the only one in my class to get 100% on the sex ed test in Health. Everyone else was probably just having it.
Why am I thinking of thermal inversion now? It’s one of those things I learned and then was reenforced by actually experiencing it. This happened on warm, humid, New York, summer nights.
In the most distinct memory I’m driving my mother’s beige Ford Escort, a cassette tape player in the backseat, as this was a car we inherited from my grandmother and she was fine with the AM radio. I was not. Three of my friends are with me (not sure who at this point) and we’re headed to a house in the woodsy fringes of Middletown. A house of our friend with a pool and beer and parents in NYC for the weekend.
All the windows are open, we’re in shorts and t-shirts and the fecund air is rushing around inside the car with the music spilling tinny strains of Huey Lewis singing, “buzz buzz buzz goes the bumblebee, twiddley diddley dee goes the bird.” It smells like the ferns and fallen trees rotting back into the ground, the condensation on the leaves, it’s fresh and earthy and warm.
Warm until, that is, we come to a small “valley,” or long dip in the road. Maybe the ground gets lower because we’re passing over a small creek and the temperature drops, I don’t know how many degrees, but enough that the new colder air feels like a cool hand going up my short sleeve then dissipating against my body. It’s like drinking really cold water on a hot day, the way you can feel it go all the way down, and then it just disappears in your guts. I remember saying, “Oooo, thermal inversion,” whenever this happened. And I think I said it every time, “Oooo, thermal inverrrrrsion,” until my friends would tell me to shut up. Then I’d whisper it spookily, like an incantation.
What does any of this have to do with motorcycles? Well, I rode to work today. I was happy because it had warmed up over the past couple days so I knew I wouldn’t arrive at work a clawed, bent-kneed popsicle. And as I was getting onto 280 from 92, climbing that first hill, right past the vista point, the sun blasting straight into my forehead, I was thinking, “Wow, it’s actually kind of warm this morning.”
I knew 2 spots along the route where you get a thermal inversion at this time of day; one is at Woodside Road (a blast, seriously blast, of cold air) and the other is at the dip right before the Stanford Dish, just past the Linear Accelerator. This second one wasn’t just cold, it also smells like cow crap… cold cow crap. And the second one seems longer so I’m close to shivering as I climb back into the sun.
But every time I feel this phenomenon, I’m compelled to explain it to whomever I’m with and I think of 8th grade, or summer parties in the woods, I think of things you retain over the years or the things that have changed or that have been lost… If no one is with me, which is usually the case on the moto, I still just whisper it inside my helmet, an incantation, “thermal inversion…” It still has some power even if it is vestigial. Thermal inversion… Thermal inversion. Go ahead, say it. Thermal inverrrrrrrsion.