Into the valley of Death rode the 2 million

July 28, 2005|By KEVIN COWHERD

IT'S BEEN hot here, all right, but we've handled it with our usual stoicism, with not a word of complaint from the citizenry, without the TV stations making a big deal out of it or scaring all the seniors with their "INSTA-WEATHER HEAT ALERTS!" and the local rag trotting out the usual Tips for Beating the Heat.


On the other hand, you have Death Valley, Calif.

Death Valley is known as the hottest and driest place in the country. It's one of the hottest, driest places on the planet.

It was 117 degrees and hot enough to roast a pig on the sidewalk when I called the other day. The next day it was going up to 120.

But that was nothing. That was a cold front. A few days earlier, it had hit 132 degrees, which was two degrees shy of the all-time high set in 1913.

But at least they don't whine about the heat the way we do in Baltimore.

"Are you kidding? You bet we do," said a woman named Kat Eisenman, who works for the Death Valley Chamber of Commerce. "We get crabbier than heck."

OK, so much for that theory. Apparently, extreme heat brings out the Inner Whiner in all of us.

Eisenman was speaking from the Death Valley National Park visitor center, which is located in Shoshone, just a few miles from Furnace Creek as the crow flies, providing the crow doesn't burst into flames in midflight.

(Furnace Creek, now there's a name that makes you want to dial your travel agent and pack a bag, huh?

(What, was Pizza Oven Brook already taken? What about Waffle Iron Springs?)

Then again, why wouldn't the place be oppressive in summer?

Hey, it's in the desert! The average daily high temperature in June is 109, 115 in July, and 113 in August.

Then it starts to cool off in September, when the average daily high is 106.

The locals - about 250 people, mostly park workers, live there this time of year - say: "Boy, you should have been here in the summer of '74, when we had 134 consecutive days of temperatures above 100.

"Or the summer of '96, when we had 40 days over 120 and 101 days over 110."

To which I say: Gee, I'm sorry I missed it.

It sounds great. What was a typical day like? Everybody up early to stomp scorpions and look for bleached oxen skulls in the sand?

Actually, a typical summer day, said Mary Ann McNeill, the Chamber of Commerce administrative manager, is like this: "You go outside and it's like a blast furnace hits you in the face."

That's why you don't go out much. No 11 a.m. tennis, no golf at 2 in the afternoon, unless you enjoy keeling over a couple minutes later and being packed in an ambulance.

No, whatever outdoor activities you have planned, you do them early in the morning. Early as in, oh, 4 a.m.

Well, maybe not even then.

"Walk outside at 4 a.m. and it's [still] 100 degrees," said Eisenman.

After that you stay in the air-conditioning the rest of the day.

Or else you die.

And when I say you die, I mean that literally.

Eisenman said the park reports a couple of hiker heat-related deaths every year, which is why they hand out these nifty "Heat Kills" posters to remind visitors they're not exactly in the Swiss Alps.

And still, killer heat or no, the visitors come.

The park attracts some 2 million visitors each year, with waves of Europeans and Asians making a special point of visiting in the summer just to experience the hellish heat, which seems to fascinate them.

"They ... stand next to the thermometers and get their pictures taken and think it's a big deal," said Eisenman with a laugh.

Then again, about the only ones who don't think the heat is a big deal are the park rangers and people like Eisenman's husband, Larry, who runs a maintenance crew.

Eisenman said Larry and his crew laid pipe during a week in which it hit 127 degrees every day, ignoring federal standards by which they're legally required to work only 15 minutes of every hour in that heat, and use the other 45 minutes to rest.

As for the rangers, said Eisenman, "They wear bullet-proof vests and they're gung-ho ... and their summer uniforms are 40 percent wool. They consider themselves tough.

"But the rest of us? You bet we [complain.] We hem and haw and complain - and dream of September."

Right, September.

When Death Valley becomes a regular garden spot again.

When temperatures can actually dip below 100 on occasion.

"Oh, 99 degrees is nothing by then," said Eisenman. "The end of September, the beginning of October, it gets into the high 80s and people are reaching for their jackets."

When it hits the 70s, they're probably breaking out the scarves and mittens.

And waiting for Furnace Creek to freeze over, too.

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