Surf's up, but you'll swelter

Heat wave wipes out Charm City's shot at showing off its zest for adventure


"Baltimore, Maryland! We brought the waves to you!"

Make that the wave, singular. It is roughly a story tall and inflatable, curling over McKeldin Square. Nearby, a sweaty man with a microphone is shouting enticing lies ("We're having soooo much fun!"), and two young women wave their arms like beckoning sea anemones.

Yet hardly anyone steps up to ride the mechanical surfboard that protrudes from the wave's shadowy maw, despite that it is a trillion degrees and the surf simulator promises the illusion of oceanic escape. Instead, the few people silly enough to traverse these baking streets at high noon stop and stare at the thing, pulling deeply on the straws of their Slurpees.

"If it was real water, I'd be with it," says Sharon Palmer, who works at the nearby Bank of America office. But the water is fake, and she will not ride the wave.

Baltimore, this is the problem! The heat has broken our spirit. And yesterday a lethargic crowd helped prove the findings of a soap product's publicity campaign, which set up shop downtown because, according to a news release, we're one of the cities that needs to "boost" our "adventure profile." We need to ride the wave, scale the climbing wall and race the remote-control cars, all of which Zest body wash's Zest for Adventure Challenge Tour provided, in a carnivalesque and heavily branded setting.

Of course, the data that placed Baltimore a mediocre 18th out of 50 in an index of metropolitan intrepidness was collected in late June, when we - usually up for anything, we swear! - were already in drone mode, lulled by the mumble of air conditioners, stifled by shut blinds. No wonder four of the five most adventure-ready cities are in gorgeous, temperate California. This week it was 65 degrees and sunny in San Francisco. Guess what's ranked No. 1?

At the Zest fest, it is a freakish 106, counting the heat index - so hot that everything seems to sparkle.

The air is so humid that it feels squeezable, and even more so here, where water strongly laced with Zest's Ocean Power scent is misted over parts of the sparse and wilting crowd.

Twentysomethings wearing shirts that say "Do You Have a Zest for Adventure?" are cheerfully recruiting Baltimore's daredevils to appear in an online calendar. Jon Guidroz of New Orleans, the official Zest Adventure Man, is standing by to inspire them. To get this summer job, the 24-year-old submitted pictures and stories from a recent around-the-world trip, during which he jumped into a gorge in Africa, dove with whale sharks and helped discipline what he calls a "terrorist chimp." The hottest place he visited? Kampala, Uganda. "115 degrees, with full equatorial humidity."

But the Baltimore heat, he allows, "does kind of drain you."

After a long lull, another taker for the surf simulator materializes. Tonia Burris, a 40-year-old administrative assistant wearing a pink sweater, removes her sandals before mounting the yellow surfboard with the blue zigzag, which is controlled by a joystick (and, in the off-season, doubles as a mechanical bull). She wobbles briefly on the wave.

Afterward, she grins up at the windows of her nearby office building, where, she reveals, her boss and others are watching from the safety of 72 degrees.

"They dared me to do it," she says.

So much for the brave hearts of Baltimore.

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