Heat Seeking in Death Valley

Entropic extremities

Photos by author, taken on an ancient and broken Zeiss Contessa.

What possesses any moderately intelligent being to seek out hellish, record-breaking temperature? The curious may be cauterized, but there does exist a draw — and so on the first day of summer, the year 2017, I set out for Death Valley National Park in search of high heat.

There are two road routes entering the center of the park on either side like pincers. I took the eastern path, up the baked, tire-torn Interstate 15 toward Las Vegas, veering west again in Baker, California, then up through high desert until I reached the roaring, striated mountain ranges that border the valley. Once in the park official, you quickly descend three or four thousand feet until you approach the basin. As I parked my car at the Furnace Creek visitor’s center, 190 feet below sea level, the digital thermometer at its entrance read 130 degrees Fahrenheit — only four more to reach the highest temperature ever recorded on the surface of the Earth.

That claim of 134, however, recorded here in the Valley of Death in July, 1913, has recently been disputed. “Weather nerds,” a park ranger tells me, claim the record-setting temperature was documented with then inaccurate instruments. The true, perspiration-soaked peak is likely 129. The visitor center display runs hotter than reality, I’m told.

My father, after serving tours in Iraq, once told me how his eyeballs would sweat in that extreme desert heat, the soaring temperatures worsened by pounds upon pounds of necessary gear. “Your body adapted,” he said, “but mentally I don’t think anyone ever got used to it.”

Heat, it seems, exists separately in the mind. Californians often move east and refuse to leave their flip-flops behind, doing not much else but giving Californians a bad name, ridiculously slapping sandals down the sidewalk in petrifying winters. A neighbor who worked construction once sang the praises of drinking hot, hot coffee in the summer, claiming the boiling internal temperature counteracted the external effects of the sun. Mind over matter, maybe, but here in Furnace Creek the task seems death-defying.

I’m sweating like a flash flood, saltier than ever. The actual high this day is 126 and it feels like a fire. It weighs down on your skin, suffocates as you suck in dry, broiled breath, and cooks your insides. Walking a short distance zaps your entire body as if you’d just ran miles…with a fever.

Heat rises, I remember learning, but here on the very bottom floor of America it swirls and multiplies. The high valley walls cage it, sending it downward and compressing the hot air even more, packing the basin in moving masses of super-heated ether.

Heat is a quantity, a measured amount of energy transferred between two systems. A cube of ice doesn’t contain a definite amount of heat. In the freezer, the mechanically cooled air keeps its state. Place a flame beside it and the energy passes on, absorbed by that which is lacking. This entropic discombobulating of two beings reminds me of loving or being loved. My being holds no definite amount of love, is only measured by the quantity I give or receive.

Maybe the heat is getting to me. My eyeballs are sweating.

Two people perished due to the temperature last year, the ranger plainly states, but these extremities rarely produce fatalities. It’s the slightly lower temps that claim lives. A measurement of 110 degrees is more likely to fuck the being from a being—the tourist hiker mistaking the temperature for what it “feels” like, maybe closer to 80, 85—keeping them from imbibing adequate amounts of water.

Many visitors to the park come from far-off lands, planning their vacations for a time of year more moderate. It seems to be a case of “locals only” when it comes to visitors enticed by the mercury-surging spikes. Despite recent newspaper reports, the park ranger tells me they haven’t seen many “destination heat-seekers.”

Heat-seekers. Crazed missile humans targeted toward some thermodynamic draw.

Contrary to the ranger’s observation, the LA Times and CNN both reported on specific bodies hunting the Valley’s boil this week. Anomalies, the lot of us. Which makes sense, I think, as I push through hot whipping winds ascending Zabriskie Point. Heat is not sought out.

As I leave the park, utterly diminished, my body all buzz or howl under the influence of heat, I wonder what has been given to me by the searing sun, by the broiled air in the trapping terrain. Have I been temporarily altered, my molecules all in disarray by the transference? Maybe, maybe not.

But this I do know: the true beauty of the harsh desert, or any conditions of extremity, displays a sneering existence, a life laughing in the face of logical death.

The world may be burning yet here I am kicking; tanned and triumphant.