Sizzling, blistering, brutal: Whatever adjective you use to describe the West's recent heat wave, it's not strong enough. Normally cool places like Portland and Seattle hit the 90s. Phoenix soared above 104 every day in June, reaching 119 once, and a few nights the low was a baking 91 degrees. Rattlesnakes huddled in garages, while non-reptilians submerged themselves in whatever water they could find, invaded the high country, swarmed air-conditioned malls, or else ran sub-seven-minute miles in Death Valley wearing Darth Vader suits. Seriously. Jon Rice, who does the Darth Valley run every summer, was probably the only one posting a 6:36 mile when it reached 129 degrees. Yet there were plenty of others in the Valley under sizzling skies -- hotels full of extreme-weather tourists, mostly from Europe. While Death Valley National Park officials appreciate all the attention, they're not too keen on a popular activity: They've asked people to kindly stop trying to fry eggs on the pavement or the Salt Playa at Badwater.
Could that heat and drought, along with suburbs in the woods and unhealthy forests, be responsible for the devastation wrought by this season's wildfires? Of course not! Forest jihadis are to blame. At least according to the American Center for Democracy's website, which noted that Al Qaeda's online magazine once ran an article titled, "It Is of Your Freedom to Ignite a Firebomb." The Center asks, "How many Tzarnaevs (the Boston Marathon bombers) are hiding in Colorado's woods?" A lot, if the Center's Bill Scott is correct. "In military terms, Colorado is a target-rich environment -- an arsonist's dream come true," he writes. Scott vividly imagines a terrorist flying a Cessna 172 over a tinderbox forest, throwing flares and igniting a massive fire near a town hemmed in by cliffs on three sides, where the feds are stretched too thin to fight the deadly fire that follows. Replace the Cessna-flying terrorist with lightning, and Scott's nightmare is not too far-fetched.
THE SOUTHWEST & MONTANA
It's hard to find anyone (aside from forest jihadis) who revels in the drought and heat, which are killing crops – and, tragically, firefighters. Boat launches at a major reservoir on the Colorado River, Lake Powell, which appears headed for record-low levels, remain high and dry. New Mexico state park officials say visitor numbers have evaporated by as much as 40 percent, partly because of "repetitious stories about the rivers and reservoirs going dry." (Apparently, journalists, not the climate, are to blame.) Instead of rowing through whitewater, commercial raft guides end up outside their rafts, pushing client-laden boats through too-shallow-to-float waters. Yet there's one group that's thriving despite the low flows: inner-tubers. As soon as the paltry spring runoff subsided enough for safety, they swarmed the rivers, wearing giant tubes and tiny bikinis, flaunting full-frontal sunburns and Pabst Blue Ribbons and thereby humiliating professional raft guides and their frustrated customers. But it took a deluge, not drought, to get Todd Hoberecht to float down 11th Avenue in Bozeman, Mont., on an inner tube. Hoberecht told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle that he was having a bad day when a rainstorm inspired him: "I always remembered: When things are bad, the best thing to do is just 'wahoo' and paddle hard," he said. "I ran home and just got my inner tube and went for it. ... If He gives you rain, you might as well go tubing."
And if you're given fish, you might as well catch them. That must have been what anglers thought when they started hauling big tiger muskies out of a warm water pond in West Salt Lake City. About 100 of the popular sport fish were caught, reports The Salt Lake Tribune, before one fisherman called the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources to inquire if there were any fishing regulations at the ponds. Unfortunately, yes: The ponds are part of the state hatchery, and fishing is illegal. But since there were no signs saying so, the anglers won't be prosecuted.
Montana's Beaverhead County is getting state emergency funds for a natural disaster. But it's neither wildfire, nor flooding; it's the Rainbow Gathering, which has drawn some 6,000 hippie revelers and thus far occasioned 49 visits to the emergency room, according to the Montana Standard. Meanwhile, Big Game Forever, an anti-wolf group in Utah, also received state funds -- some $300,000 last year -- but isn't saying exactly how it was spent, to the dismay of some Democratic lawmakers, says The Salt Lake Tribune. The group, which wants the feds to remove Endangered Species Act protections for wolves -- something likely to happen even without taxpayer-funded lobbying -- is slated to receive another bundle of state cash this year. Elsewhere, a 6-year-old boy from Wasilla, Alaska, perhaps inspired by former presidential candidate Mitt Romney's dog, rode on top of his family's minivan for three miles before falling off. He had apparently done it before and was not seriously injured.
Guest author Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor of High Country News.
Tips and photos of Western oddities are appreciated and often shared in this column. Write firstname.lastname@example.org.