The air has finally cleared up enough to see Downtown Los Angeles and the mountains. After several weeks of smoggy days, wildfire smoke, and occasional gloom, it’s nice to be able to see something other than a gray blur in the distance!

Also interesting: seeing how much the view changes from late afternoon to really late afternoon. These shots were taken at 4:22 and 5:52pm on the same day. Unfortunately I seem to have held my camera at two different heights, so the foreground jumps around, but the skyline and mountains are in nearly the same spots, and you can see not just different colors, but different details as the shadows move.

Years ago, when I’d drive along the 405 freeway late at night, I’d catch glimpses in the distance of what looked like a cluster of tall buildings in a city center. Not knowing the area well, I’d wonder whether I was seeing glimpses of Long Beach, or some other city in the area that I didn’t know. And then the freeway would curve, and I’d never quite figure out where those buildings were, and I’d mean to look it up on a map, but by the time I got home I’d be so tired I’d go straight to bed, and I’d forget all about it in the morning.

It always made me think of the kind of fantasy story inspired by mirages, where someone sees something from a distance, but when they get close it turns out not to be there, or to be far less grand than expected.

Somewhere along the line I realized that those lights I was seeing in the distance weren’t a city far off from the freeway. They were the lights on the oil refinery right next to the freeway a few miles down in Carson. I’d just catch glimpses of it between trees and closer buildings. With no reference points and no sense of scale, it wasn’t clear that I was looking at a compact cluster of small towers, not a larger cluster of taller buildings. By the time I got close enough to see the actual refinery towers, they looked different enough that my sleepy and driving-focused brain didn’t make the connection to those distant lights.

The South Bay is dotted with oil refineries, built here in the days when it was a major oil producing region, and I assume kept here because it’s so close to the Port of Los Angeles. [Edit: Actually, the area still produces quite a bit of oil, but the remaining wells are much better hidden.] Every once in a while I’ll be driving or walking over a hill and catch a glimpse of a too-regular “skyline” where all the lights are yellow, and I’ll think back to the time when I wondered about a vanishing city.

Photo: Exxon/Mobil Torrance Refinery, seen from a hill up on 190th St.

As long as I’m debunking myths about Southern California, check out this picture of the Los Angeles skyline:

LA Skyline Mountains by Nserrano CC-BY-SA-3.0 Wikimedia Commons

Granted, I doubt it looks like this very often (the mountains only get snow in winter, and you can only see them like this on a clear day). Source: public domain photo on Wikipedia.

Update January 2008: I see this post is getting a lot of attention with the recent snowstorms. I’ve posted a panorama photo of almost the entire mountain range covered in snow.

Update January 2016: Apparently the photo I originally had here was deleted from Wikipedia years ago because it wasn’t actually in the public domain. I’ve removed it and replaced it with a photo by Nserrano from the Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC-BY_SA 3.0. It’s not quite the same view, but it’s just as impressive.

Update February 2019: We’re having another winter with lots of storms. I’ve posted some of my photos of the mountains from this month.