HEAT TOURISTS? You gotta be kidding me. I heard this story yesterday in my car, which was about 150 degrees inside because it’s black and it’s July in Austin, Texas. Which doesn’t explain exactly why it becomes a blast furnace even when I park in the shade, but I like a little mystery in my life. I only park in tree shaded spots because I love grackles anyway.
This story on NPR, called Heat Tourists, freaked me out a little.
Here’s an excerpt:
It’s no secret that Death Valley, Calif., is one of the hottest, most unforgiving places on Earth come summertime. July 10 is the 100th anniversary of the hottest temperature ever recorded on the planet — 134 degrees Fahrenheit — and the heat is drawing tourists from all over the world to Death Valley.
Like Terminal 5 at London Heathrow Airport, Death Valley becomes a melting pot of foreign accents. On a recent afternoon, Belgian tourist Yan Klassens admires the view of the Badlands from Zabriskie Point, describing it as “nice, awesome and colorful.”
But the 122 degree heat?
“Oh! Warm. Too hot! Very warm,” the tourists say. “We like it!”
Klassen and his friends Yulka Derlay and Frieda Van Campenhotte are visiting from Belgium. Voluntarily.
“Always a wall of heat,” Klassen says. “When you get out of a room or a building or a bus, with air co, and you get out, the wall of heat. Boof!”
It turns out these Belgians are among a throng of international tourists who come here in the dead of summer to experience this heat. In fact, July is now Death Valley National Park’s busiest month. And you can’t turn around without seeing Germans, Chinese or Kiwis. The term for this type of traveling is called “heat tourism.”
But this being America and the age of ‘the free market solves everything’ [that's sarcasm, BTW], I thought, OK, a money-making opportunity here: I can rent out our garage as a bed & breakfast. It must get up to 180 in there by mid afternoon. Two-car garage, no ventilation, no insulation. It really sucks in there, bad. Then around five o’clock, when I get back from my satellite office at the espresso bar and Lois comes home from the Austin Chronicle, both cars in there, it’s a little tight, but Jesus Christ, the mercury zooms way up with those hot engines, probably up near 170, 180. Plus you get the fumes and the sound of the ventilation fans, hot radial tires and all that. It’s like a spa for the zombie generation.
Actually, I stole this idea from our cats. Often during the hottest time of the day, when we’ve got the AC blasting, Sam the Tabby and Moe a k a Chavez will petition us for entry to the garage. We let them out and they sprawl on the concrete floor and promptly lapse into some kind of euphoric coma. I guess the concrete conducts some combination of hot and cold and oil leak fumes? I dunno. It’s a cat thing.
Back to the NPR story:
And then there’s the guy in a Darth Vader costume. John Rice, the man behind the mask, is helping uphold Death Valley’s reputation as a magnet for the eccentric.
“Well, I am attempting to set a world record for the hottest verified mile ever run by a human being,” he says. “And I decided that wasn’t tough enough, so I would do it in a Darth Vader costume, to just, you know, add to the spice.”
Rice, who is from England and lives in Colorado, calls this mile the “Darth Valley challenge.” Several scenes from Star Wars were filmed just down the road. Rice returns from his run down the Tatooine Desert in less than seven minutes.
Which reminds me. A couple of weeks ago, when The Skunks played the Continental Club, I have this bizarre memory. Lois and I were sitting at the corner of the bar against the west wall of the club, with our pal, the writer Minerva Koenig. And we were talking and I was having a Bulleit rye, as usual, and I kept seeing this Darth Vader mask sitting in front of her. Actually it was a black plastic electric fan, but in the dim light of the bar, it became a Darth Vader head. This weird combination of dim light, alcohol, loud music and, sometimes, just the right amount of heat, is part of the magic and surrealism of the night life that has so many of us in thrall. There’s eight million stories about a night in a bar, you know. Make that eight million billion zillion.
Maybe that’s what the cats are feeling in the garage. Maybe that’s what the heat tourists get out of it. I don’t know. All I know is every summer it hits me. You walk outside and your body slams into this wall of hatred. The sun hitting the back of your head like a hammer. Concrete conduction melting the soles of your shoes, broiling the bones in your feet. Get in the car and swoon and fumble for the ignition and turn on the AC to Max and you accidentally hit the chrome part of the seat buckle and it sears a brand into your skin.
And that’s at 10 AM in the morning. I ask myself: Why do I live here? Every summer, it’s like this. I grew up here. I remember being a teenager and digging fence post holes for $2.50 an hour. One summer we dug through solid rock to excavate a hole for a cattle guard. We got halfway down before we thought to rent a jack hammer. We were working for this part-time burglar, a wack job with a long pointed nose that always had these whiskers sprouting out of the end, kind of like a prickly pear. And it was at the end of this three week job, one hell of a hellish job, that the SOB left town without paying us. He owed me $180 and I’ll never forget it. I still want that money.
Anyway. Why do I live here? Why does anybody live here past one summer? You think about the first suckers who stumbled across this area and set up camp. It had to be during the spring or late fall. Next summer comes around and they get their brains fried in the sun. Everything around them dying. A wasteland of grey weeds and wilted wildflowers, dry creeks and dust and rocks hot as a griddle in a cheap diner. Why didn’t they pull up stakes and move on to some more welcoming, less homicidal climate?
I don’t know. But I have theory. It’s called Heat Amnesia. Maybe that’s what keeps the Heat Tourists coming back? Maybe that will make our South Austin Garage Spa a big money maker. After a couple of summers of solid bookings, we’ll make enough money to move to Paris or Barcelona. It gets hot in those places too, but HEB-parking-lot-on-a-July-afternoon-hot. Brain omelette hot. No, it doesn’t.
I’ll keep you posted.
PS: Just got another shipment of my latest novel, Grave Digger Blues. Write me if you want to order a special signed copy.