My first memory of ever being in — or more aptly passing through — Manteca came in 1988.
My best friend at the time and his wife had moved to Pleasant Hill and wanted me to spend Christmas with them.
The plan was for me to leave Roseville after I got off work at 10 p.m. Christmas Eve. A few hours before I was planning to leave a huge pile-in zero visibility fog on the Yolo Causeway shut down Interstate 80.
I wasn’t about to chance the only other way I knew to get there — Highway 4 — through the Delta on a night when fog was pushing zero visibility. I called to tell them I wasn’t coming and why. They suggested instead I go over the Altamont Pass and gave me directions on how to get there using Highway 99.
They told me to cut over using the 120 Bypass past Manteca. I said I had no idea where the 120 Bypass was and was sure I’d miss it in the dense fog. They told me no problem. All I had to do when I got to Manteca on Highway 99 was stay in the right-hand lane, roll down my passenger window, and wait for the smell to hit.
I thought they were a bit nuts but I was game.
So shortly before midnight I was driving with my window down passing Yosemite Avenue when I caught my first whiff.
It stunk. Seconds later the exit sign for Highway 120 westbound came up although I could barely make it out.
Little did I know at the time the smell was a combination of the Moffat cattle feed lot and sugar beet pulp from the Spreckels Sugar refinery that were cloaked under darkness and dense fog.
Three years later I moved to Manteca. Within three years I had bought a house just over a block from the main gate to Spreckels. From our front window we could see the Christmas tree fashioned by color lights atop one of the 15-story sugar silos except on nights of thick fog.
As fog went back in the late 1980s, the perennial worst spots in California were a stretch near Fresno, the 120 Bypass in Manteca, and Highway 65 between Lincoln and Roseville.
Both were due to the Central Valley’s unique tule fog.
People who have never lived in the Central Valley and have resided in places with fog usually dismiss warnings about tule fog. Such cavalier attitude lasts until they get to experience tule fog first hand.
Tule fog typically starts appearing after the first significant rain of the rainy season. It radiates from the ground not the heavens or even still water. It is then trapped thanks to the 450-mile long Central Valley that is 30 to 60 miles in width being surrounded by mountain ranges.
The density of the cold and mountains taming the winds combined with higher pressure and warmer air above create the perfect conditions for tule fog.
You can drive up to Sonora in January and be in 68-degree weather with sunny skies. And then on your way home slip into fog blanketing the entire valley where temperatures don’t vary by more than five degrees during a 24-hour period.
Such was the case in January 1991. We had 22 consecutive days where we did not see the sun when I was living in Lincoln in Placer County just a month before I ended up in Manteca. The days were grayish. Between the 45-degree temperature and the wet fog was downright bone-chilling. Yet for every one of those 22 days I was able to bicycle east out of Lincoln toward Auburn and pass the 800-foot mark to bask in crisp temperatures pushing 70 degrees without a cloud in sight.
Being a native of the Central Valley tule fog is part of life.
So, you can understand why I love it and fear it.
“Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer” was the quintessential holiday song for me as tule fog meant Christmas was on its way.
The first triple fatality I ever covered was when I was 18 and tule fog had socked in the valley. As any tule fog veteran will tell you, visibility is never more than an eighth of a mile and can quickly drop to 10 feet and down to virtually zero visibility in a matter of minutes given ground conditions play a major role and vary greatly.
The accident was at 10 p.m. at night on Highway 65. A semi-truck had slowed down due to 40 mph due to visibility conditions. A Datsun B-210 that the CHP estimated was going the speed limit slammed into the back of the truck. A minute or so later a van plowed into the B-210.
Tule fog can completely catch you by surprise.
In January of 2002 I had gotten up to workout at InShape for a 6 a.m. class. Leaving the gym at 7:15 a.m. the skies were clear and not a whisper of fog in sight. By 9 a.m., the tule fog was so thick that it sent visibility plunging to zero. That led to three separate pile-ups involving 28 vehicles that occurred within 15 minutes between Austin Road and Lathrop Road.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, fog is the leading cause of weather-related traffic deaths in California.
Manteca along the 120 Bypass was the second place in the state to have a fog detection/warning system installed after one was put in place along a notorious stretch of Highway 99 near Fresno.
As streets and houses replaced the pasture and almond orchards that abutted the 120 Bypass, fog conditions have improved considerably as you pass through Manteca.
One of my favorite things to do is take a mid-morning jog along the edge of orchards pounding the moist dirt that borders the road when the fog has the valley encased in refrigerator weather with calm winds and a minuscule temperature variance.
It’s magical to see fog caressing the bare skeleton branches of slumbering almond trees or creating dew on pasture grass.
It also cleanses the air in a manner that is unique from the smell that pleases your senses after a fresh splattering of rain
That’s because it lingers longer and comes with the added bonus of miniature droplets of moisture that awakens your sense of feel as gently as the cleansed air heightens your sense of smell.
The late Herb Caen can have his San Francisco-style fog that emulates Carl Sandberg’s imagery of fog coming in on “little cat’s feet.”
I’ll take tule fog that pounces like a mountain lion and can strike fear and awe at the same time.
Respect tule fog like you do a mountain lion and you’ll be able to see things in a different — although somewhat grayish —light.