For a time you try to keep your head above the fray, struggling to focus on the tasks of the day. Then surrender, realizing that at the moment there is only one task: to find a place that’s cool.
What I’m describing is last week’s record-breaking heat wave that scorched the American West to the tune, in some places, of 123 degrees Fahrenheit or 50.6C! Believe me, I’ve experienced heat waves before. In the jungles of the Philippines, where I spend much of my time, it’s almost always hot and humid. And here in the Southern California desert, well, summer temperatures have never been low.
Somehow, though, this time it all seemed much worse.
“Drink plenty of fluids, stay in an air-conditioned room, stay out of the sun, and check up on relatives and neighbors,” a well-intentioned National Weather Service spokesperson told the Washington Post.
The problem for us was that the number of air-conditioned rooms in our house was, well, none. A big zero. How can that possibly be true in the desert, one might reasonably ask? Just give me a minute and I will explain.
Like most homes here, ours has a large evaporative cooling system comprising a huge blower on the roof that incorporates a water pump and hoses to feed vents inside. The cooling results from streams of hot air filtered through cold water. Which is perfectly adequate for prevailing conditions in the desert.
But not when the air is overtly humid. And most decidedly not when the temperature is so high that the water can’t stay cool. That’s when turning on your so-called “swamp cooler” feels like activating another heater. So the temperature inside our house rose to 107 degrees (41.7 C) as we wandered room to room like zombies blindly seeking a small spot of comfort.
I finally found mine at the local Home Depot store where, I’d been told, they were selling portable 14,000-btu air conditioning units. Unfortunately, another customer grabbed the last one before I could get there. But they still had three slightly-less-powerful units on hand. Two of them disappeared as I waited for service, so I literally sat on the third one until a salesman appeared. And thus, last night, slept in an air-conditioned bedroom for the first time in days.
In Palm Springs, about 45 minutes southwest of us, the 123-degree temperature matched only three previous record highs set in 1993 and then, two days running, in 1995. Which, I suppose, could stand as an argument against the idea of global warming; after a quick fluttering of dangerous highs, it appears, the city went 26 years without another flutter.
Though I have never been a climate-change denier, neither am I someone obsessed with that particular doomsday scenario. Yet, despite all evidence to the contrary, there is something uniquely transforming about feeling the heat yourself, especially as it’s searing your own ears, neck and collar.
“With upwards of 300 record-high temperatures in jeopardy this week,” CNN breathlessly reported, “more than an eighth of the US population — over 40 million people — are on alert across the western US for a long-lasting, potentially lethal heat wave.”
Added international climate researcher Katharine Hayhoe: “When it comes to extreme weather, climate change is loading the weather dice against us.”
Ah, but there’s good news in the offing: This week, according to weather reports, the great heat wave of 2021 will finally recede, leaving desert highs at a breezy 105 (40.6 C).
I guess we should return that air conditioner.
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David Haldane’s latest book, a short-story collection called “Jenny on the Street.” Is available on Amazon. A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he is an award-winning journalist, author and broadcaster dividing his time between homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines, where this column appears weekly in the Mindanao Gold Star Daily.