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Know the West

How I survive scorching Phoenix summers


Every summer in Phoenix, I picture people in the rest of the country riding bikes through fields of purple flowers, picnicking in parks and strolling down leafy streets. I picture them summering, while I am simmering, trying not to melt.

When I step out of my house, I'm hit with a wall of scorching gas, like a Thanksgiving cook who opens the oven and leans over to check the turkey. I walk to my car and, after opening the door with a single fingertip, lower myself into the driver's seat and feel the heat through my shorts. Sometimes I drape a T-shirt over the steering wheel so my hands don't burn. If it's earlier than about 10 a.m., I use the bony bottom of my palm to turn the wheel as I back out. The air conditioner doesn't help; it can't begin to cool the interior until it's blown all the collected heat from the vents, so I just start the engine and go.

Between May and September, Phoenix endures an average of 100 or more days of 100 degree heat. When I wrote the above passage in July, the high was 108 degrees Fahrenheit, which the weather report said "feels like: 108." At 6 p.m., the temperature dropped to 106. By 9 p.m., 99. Midnight, 93.

I see other American cities' summer highs in the paper:
Seattle, Wash.: 84 F.
Burlington, Vt.: 79 F.

The reports fill me with envy.

The Sonoran Desert summer isn't summer. It's winter in reverse, a condition where climatological extremes force residents into a subtropical hibernation, as we wait for the weather to improve. I didn't always feel this way, though.

When we were kids, summer felt like a scam we perpetrated on adults. Three months free? To do nothing? So it was hot. My friends and I didn't care. We ran around our neighborhood, plucking oranges from trees and throwing them at each other. We skateboarded a nearby flood-control device. And on June 26, 1990, when the temperature at Sky Harbor Airport reached 122 at 4:27 p.m. -- Phoenix's hottest recorded day so far -- we didn't even notice. Flights were grounded. Cars broke down on the streets. And there my 15-year-old friends and I were, riding bikes through the blinding white midday of Eldorado Park.

Now at age 36, I find myself taking cues from the native mammals: Spend the days underground, emerge only at night.

My house on Phoenix's northern edge is surrounded by undeveloped desert. After the day's hottest hours have passed, rodents come out to feed, as do the owls, bobcats and snakes that prey on them. Desert mammals have developed numerous effective adaptations, chief among them nocturnal behavior.

Mammals bed down for the day -- under shrubs, cliff faces. When temperatures start to drop after sunset, coyotes howl to each other across great distances. Deer step through the darkness. Next to spring, summer nights are the most exciting time in the desert. It's when I go out. I carry a flashlight and headlamp and cut through the silent miles alone. The moon shines overhead. And aimlessly, I walk. It's hot, but I rarely sweat.

On nights when I don't hike, I read on my back patio. Partly because it's relaxing, partly because after being trapped indoors working all day, I need to get outside. The patio isn't comfortable at 10 p.m., but to me, dressed only in a pair of cotton boxers, it's bearable. From my deck chair, I can see the stars and hear coyotes.

Charles Kingsley, a 19th century English clergyman, said something that I once wrote down and taped to my wall: "We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life, when all that we need to make us happy is something to be enthusiastic about." In other words: If you don't like the heat, get out of the kitchen.

When October arrives, the high here will be 90, but nighttime temperatures will dip into the 60s. Soon the days will cool, too: 85 degrees here, 80 there. Then, long after the nation's deciduous trees have shed their leaves, images from up north will start appearing on the news: pedestrians sliding across icy Toronto sidewalks; cars spinning across Midwestern interstates. But here in the lowlands, I'll drive with my arm resting on the open car window. My friends and I will wear shorts and flip-flops. And for sport, I'll read the weather reports.

Chicago: 22 F.
Burlington: 11 F.

The last time it snowed in Phoenix was Dec. 22, 1990. We got 0.4 inches.

Fellow natives always laugh when we talk about where we were on that day. I was at my friend's townhouse, playing Super Mario Brothers, when he noticed the small flakes falling outside his window. He and I rushed outside in disbelief and stood on the lawn with our hands out and mouths open, the melting flakes leaving a constellation of tiny chills on our faces. The flakes were hardly flakes, more like wads of frozen rain that dissolved immediately. None of it stuck, and neither does my memory, because every winter, long after this season is over, I forget  again about what it means to sweat, what it means for images to warp through rising summer vapors and fingers to burn on car doors. Every winter -- with the exception of that one brief reminder when I open the oven to check my Thanksgiving turkey -- I forget what it really means to say that something is hot. And for that, I am grateful.

Aaron Gilbreath has written for The New York Times, Paris Review, Gastronomica, Gettysburg Review and Chicago Tribune; an excerpt from his novel in progress can be found at storySouth.