Bright Light, Big Valley

Excessive weather must be experienced firsthand to understand the true abstractness of the phenomena. Using words to describe the urgency of such moments is difficult, especially in conveying the thin line our psyches walk, knowing that bad decisions, or merely being unprepared, could lead to disaster. What we call normal becomes so through repetition, and does not just encompass things we do, places we see, people we meet, etc. It’s also the environment in which we live. Quick shifts that push the boundaries of our experiences with that environment can leave a person stunned, if only momentarily.

The official high temperature for the day in Death Valley was 127 degrees. The readout for the thermometer in the car quit after 131 degrees, the numbers replaced by dashes. We knew it was out there, on the other side of the glass, but we weren’t in it yet, only having had the briefest of exposures away from the air conditioning at comparably comfortable temperatures in the low 100’s. But now we were down on the valley floor at midday, foolish journey of foolish journeys. I marveled at the technology that led me to be here on the hottest day of the year and I didn’t even know what that meant yet. Generations of settlers, tourists, explorers, and Indians had walked this valley or rode these roads without the grace of modern amenities, protected by little more than canvas or felt stretched over their heads. What we were doing, wrapped in our bubble of processed air, could feel like cheating, until one was out in it. After a few steps you’d swear your lungs were sweating.

“What’s this place called, again?”

“The Devil’s Golf Course.”

“It’s fucking hot.”

“Amen, brother.”

At some point in heat like that you no longer care what’s in front of your eyes. They continue to take in information — it’s impossible not to when everything in front of you is so bright — but it all begins to blend together, the world turned into little more than an extension of the sun. It’s not just the ball of fire in the sky that is wreaking its havoc on you. It’s everything you may end up touching. All of it sucking up heat and holding on to it, waiting for living flesh to come along, something it can throw all that dangerous energy at like rocks at an execution, handfuls of hate that do little more than remind a person just how out of place mankind is in the desert.

But those are the words of someone unaccustomed to the environment in which they found themselves. 127 degrees was something completely new, a naturally sustained and wrapping heat wholly different from those long shifts on the line in a restaurant, where at least I knew around the corner all was normal again, that the heat was the strange phenomena, not the false atmosphere waiting back in the car. One would think there would always be a basis of comparison, some place I could always look back on and be reminded that, oh yes, I had known heat like this before, and then I was being paid to be in it. But it just wasn’t there. There was no signal recognized anywhere in my brain which told me I’d been through this, that this was nothing new. So we retreated back to the car, back to the air-controlled can, and rolled to our next stop. Another thirty minutes of fake air, followed by ten minutes of heat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.