Medical News

What 129 Degrees Feels Like

A large digital thermometer sits at the entrance to the gleaming mid-century-modern visitor center in Furnace Creek, California. When I arrived on Sunday afternoon, it was thronged with people with their phones out, taking pictures. A mood of anticipation hummed through the crowd. A few hours east of us, in Las Vegas, temperatures would rise to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, smashing that city’s record by three degrees. But news reports suggested that here in the heart of Death Valley National Park, the high could reach 130, matching the hottest-ever day reliably measured on Earth. At 1 p.m., the big thermometer was already flipping back and forth between 126 and 127.

A ranger told us not to get excited, as the thermometer runs a degree or two hot. Our hopes were undimmed: There were still several hours to go before the day reached peak heat. In the meantime, a circus atmosphere was taking hold. I saw a man kneeling close to the ground, surrounded by a camera crew. I edged closer, thinking that he might have caught a scorpion or tarantula, and saw he had a frying pan instead. He was trying to cook a raw egg in the sun. When the clear and runny part turned white, he brayed at his doubters in triumph.

People stood together in clusters, wearing floppy hats and neckerchiefs. I heard lots of French and German, and a bit of Dutch. Over the years, I’ve run into many Europeans in the big western parks. Europe has no great desert, and as a consequence, its people have become great pilgrims of arid expanses: seekers of heat, space, and light. A trio of Germans took pictures of themselves pointing to the temperature. I, too, was a tourist, and I, too, had retained a childish enthusiasm for superlatives. I wanted to experience world-record heat, not as a number in a headline, but with my body. I’d heard that Death Valley’s summers were becoming hotter, as they have been in many other places. I imagined my physical person as a kind of tuning fork for planetary change.

At 3:18 p.m., the slightly overactive thermometer ticked up to 130; I later saw that, according to the National Weather Service, the temperature was only 129. I was no stranger to the scorching feel of a desert in high summer. My dad lived amid the red rock of Southern Utah for more than a decade, and I visited him in all seasons. I was just there a few weeks ago when temperatures reached 113. But 129 hits different. When you emerge into that kind of heat from an air-conditioned space, you feel its intensity before the door even closes behind you. It sets upon you from above. It is as though a clingy gargoyle made of flame has landed atop your head and neck. This gargoyle is a creature of pure desire. It wants only one thing, to bring you into thermal equilibrium with the desert. It goes for your soft spots first, reaching into the corners of your eyes, singeing your nostrils. After a few minutes pass, it tries to pull moisture straight through your skin. You feel its pinches and prickles on your forearms and calves. The breeze only makes things worse, by blasting apart the thin and fragile atmosphere of cooled air that millions of your pores produce by sweating. Your heart hammers faster and faster. Your cognition starts to blur. Only eight minutes in, I looked down at my phone. It had shut down entirely. I chose to view that as an act of solidarity.

The next morning, I went for a ride with Nichole Andler, the park’s chief of interpretation. She helps visitors understand what they’re looking at, so they do more than gawk at the park’s spectacular geology. She’d sent me an email a few days earlier, “to set expectations.” We could be outside her vehicle only for 10 minutes at a time, it said. I’d rolled my eyes—I confessed this to her later—thinking that her caution was excessive, but my encounter with the heat the day before we met changed my mind. We drove along the eastern side of the valley in a white Jeep Grand Cherokee. A walkie-talkie in the center console occasionally piped up with bursts of static or number-coded reports called in by other rangers. She pointed to a hill covered in black volcanic rock. She said that in the 1970s, Carl Sagan had used its terrain to test-drive a prototype of a rover that later landed on Mars. Death Valley has also stood in for fictional planets. The Tatooine scenes in Star Wars were shot in the park because it was the kind of landscape that could have plausibly been scorched by two suns.

We soon arrived at Badwater Basin, a playa wedged between two mountain ranges that shoot up straight from the valley floor. These mountains aren’t thickly forested like the Appalachians. They’re the stark, charcoal-and-brown peaks of the basin and range. The highest among them is 11,000 feet. A deep Ice Age lake once covered the valley, but after the planet warmed, it evaporated, leaving only trace minerals behind, mostly salt crystals. They lend the playa its distinctive white shimmer. At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America. There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky, not even a cirrus wisp or fading contrail. (The next day I did see a small cloud hovering over the valley’s edge, but it looked so out of place that I briefly wondered if it was a child’s lost balloon.) Without much atmospheric cover, July sunlight slams down into the valley, unimpeded, for 14 hours a day. The thick air near the bottom absorbs its heat, and rises, but not high enough to clear the mountains. Instead, the still-warm air settles back down to lower elevations and accumulates, an effect that Andler compared to that produced by a convection oven.

On certain days, she said, the heat feels like it has drilled through her skin and muscle and into her bones. After a brief spell outside in 120-degree heat, rangers are advised to take anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes to cool down. They do everything they can to shorten these cool-down periods, in case they’re needed for a rescue or other urgent business. But they have to be careful: “Sometimes I get back into a hot Death Valley vehicle, turn the air-conditioning on, and start to feel refreshed, only to realize that my back is a completely different temperature than my front,” Andler said. (I pictured the gargoyle smirking at her in the rear-view mirror.) Death Valley allows its rangers to leave their parked cars running, so they are ready to serve as cooling chambers.

The day before I arrived in Death Valley, the rangers had received a distress call from Badwater Basin. A group of six people had ridden motorcycles into the park and were showing signs of heat illness. “They were in the front country, and we knew their location, so rangers responded immediately,” Andler said. One of them was declared dead at the scene, not far from where Andler and I stood on the valley floor. Three others were brought to the visitor center for emergency medical attention, including one who was evacuated to a hospital in Vegas. The evacuation took extra time, because the air was too hot to send a helicopter into the park. “It’s tough when you’re on a motorcycle, because you’re exposed to the elements and you’re wearing heavy gear,” Andler said. “The only thing that I can assume is that they didn’t take enough time to cool down.” A sad silence passed between us.

[Read: A new danger at America’s national parks]

That night, I went to Zabriskie Point to watch the setting sun turn the valley’s wrinkled rock formations gold and pink. A crowd of extreme-heat tourists had assembled, but Andler’s story about the bikers made me feel less festive. After the sun went down, I drove back to Furnace Creek. Desert mice flitted across the road in my headlights. They were the only nonhuman mammals I’d seen apart from a coyote that padded through some sand dunes I visited at sunrise. It took two hours for Death Valley to darken. When the moon is full, the park’s salt flats take on an eerie glow, but that night the moon was just a thin crescent. It soon became so dark that I couldn’t see my own outstretched hand. One of the Milky Way’s starry arms arced from one horizon to another. I wanted to stargaze deep into the night, but could manage only half an hour: At 10:30 p.m., it was still 119 degrees on the valley floor.

On my way out of the park early the next morning, I turned onto a private road. I passed a no trespassing sign and made my way onto Timbisha Shoshone land. At a small administrative office, I met with Mandi Campbell, a 50-year-old woman who serves as the tribe’s historic-preservation officer. We had just sat down to talk when an extreme-heat alert lit up both of our phones. I asked Campbell what the tribe made of all the people who come to the park just for the thrill of experiencing near-130-degree weather in person. “We think that they’re crazy,” she said. “We don’t understand why they do it. I have a police scanner at home, and it keeps going off. I keep hearing, ‘dehydration, dehydration, dehydration.’”

Campbell is one of 25 tribe members who live in the Timbisha Shoshone’s ancestral homeland on the valley floor. Most have been here since birth. “This heat is nothing new to us,” she told me. “We know how to hunker down inside of our homes and try to stay cool.” Now that tribe members have air-conditioning, they live here year-round, but Campbell’s ancestors had the good sense to decamp to higher elevations during the hot months. They built a camp of summer homes on the shoulders of one of the park’s peaks centuries ago. “It’s 80 degrees up there right now,” Campbell said. “It’s nice.”

The Timbisha Shoshone had been in Death Valley for more than 1,000 years when white settlers arrived during the Gold Rush. The environment proved difficult for the extractive industries. Less than a century later, the major mining company in the area pivoted to tourism. One of its executives lobbied Herbert Hoover to make Death Valley a national monument in 1933. Its first superintendent spoke openly about his desire to remove the Timbisha Shoshone. In 1957, after tribe members had left the valley floor for the summer, the park staff called in fire trucks, and ordered them to turn their hoses on the tribe’s adobe buildings. Many of their walls were reduced to mud. Only six remain, including three that house tribe members to this day.

Despite this history, Campbell told me that she personally has a good relationship with the park, now that some of the tribe’s land has been returned. “We have to work together to protect this place,” she said. But she remains irked by the name Death Valley. “They called it that because they didn’t care for this place,” she said. “Their settlers weren’t making it here. But there is nothing dead about this valley. It is alive. There is plenty of food. My ancestors hunted bighorn sheep here. They hunted rabbits. They collected mesquite beans and ground them into flour to make bread. They knew where all the springs were. They had their trails, their ways. That’s how they were able to survive.”

Campbell’s aunt, Pauline Esteves, was the driving force behind the tribe’s effort to reclaim its land from the U.S. government. She served as both chief activist and negotiator. I asked Campbell about her. I must have slipped into that subtle tone you use when you assume that someone is dead. “She is still alive,” Campbell said, almost in retort. “She will be 100 in December.” Esteves lives only a few houses away from the tribal office, as do two of the tribe’s other eldest elders. “They’re tougher than us,” Campbell said, and then she started to laugh. “When the electricity goes out in the summer, we are screaming to leave, but not the elders. All they want is a wet sheet to be put over them. They don’t want to go nowhere.”