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Know the West

Some like it hot; the West’s unluckiest man; Phoenix’s future

Mishaps and mayhem from around the region.



A British-owned newspaper is such a spoilsport, issuing dire warnings to Phoenix-area residents that they’re living in a fool’s paradise of bluegrass lawns and cooled pools. The nation’s fifth-largest — and growing — city is dangerously overstretched, warns the Guardian. Its “megapolitan” area has become “a shrine to towering concrete,” and when you drive through the sprawl of its satellite towns up to 35 miles away, it’s all too easy to imagine “there is no such thing as a water shortage.” Yet drought is a perilous threat, says writer Joanna Walters. Phoenix gets less than 8 inches of rain each year, and it’s dependent on the ever-shrinking Colorado River, 300 miles away. Phoenicians might have noticed recent warning signals about the local impacts of global climate change: In February, “the U.S. government calculated that two-thirds of Arizona is facing severe to extreme drought, and last summer, 50 flights were grounded at Phoenix Airport because the heat — 116 degrees — made the air too thin to take off safely.” Nonetheless, proposals for new growth abound, including a plan from Microsoft founder Bill Gates to build a “smart city” on undeveloped desert west of Phoenix. Gates reportedly invested $80 million in a development firm that would build 80,000 new homes. Still, the city has not declared any water restrictions, and the state government has not drawn up a drought contingency plan. The same old “solutions,” however, keep popping up: “The conversation … turns periodically to the outlandish ideas of drawing water from the Great Lakes 1,700 miles away or building expensive desalination plants on the Pacific Ocean…” If the past is any guide, Phoenix could be headed for depopulation: In the 15th century, the 40,000 original inhabitants of Phoenix, known as the Hohokam people, fled the area “for reasons believed to relate to disagreements over scarce water.”


While Phoenicians endure summer heat that hovers above 98 degrees night after night, summer visitors to Death Valley National Park really like it hot. They travel thousands of miles just to experience air so intense that it shimmers, and they delight in seeing mirages on the horizon. “August has become one the of the busiest months of the year,” reported National Parks Magazine. Most visitors come from Asia and Europe. A German tourist told writer Kate Siber that he relished the extreme temperatures on his first visit, but returned a second time for the landscape: “There’s heat and stone and silence. In a world with so much built up, this is hard to find.” The record for hottest-hot in the world was set in Death Valley in 1913, when temperatures soared to 134 degrees. How hot is that, you ask? So hot that a ranch caretaker reported seeing swallows fall dead from the sky at midnight. But 2017 was no slouch in the sweltering department: A summer scorcher sent Death Valley thermometers to 127 degrees. That kind of extreme heat turns 15 minutes of exposure outdoors into an endurance contest. In any season, dehydration and heat exhaustion remain problems, say park rangers, and each year the search and rescue team responds to about 180 medical emergencies. Tragedy occurred in 2014, when a Frenchman on a bus tour wandered onto the dunes during a break. The temperature in the parking lot was 117 degrees, and though he was found within four hours, the man died. On a happier note, in August rangers sometimes treat visitors to “dashboard cookie day.” All it takes to bake delicious cookies, says park staffer Isabelle Woodward, is a closed car and relentless heat: “When you move to an extreme place, you have to learn to make your own fun.”


Folks with a taste for wanton destruction seem to harbor a grudge against Utah’s dinosaurs, reports The Associated Press. Over the last six months, vandals have flung hundreds of ancient raptor tracks — incised in sandstone — into the reservoir at Red Fleet State Park. “Some of the slabs sink to the bottom of Red Fleet Reservoir, some shatter upon hitting the surface, and others dissolve entirely,” said Utah Division of State Parks spokesman Devan Chavez. “Some of them are likely lost forever.” The park is putting up more signs asking visitors not to touch the stone toe tracks, and staffers are also considering sending a team of divers to recover what it can from the lakebed. Some 193 million years ago, the park was a bog where carnivorous Dilophosaurus raptors “ambushed other dinosaurs while they were resting or drinking from the swamp.” The park’s fossils have been targeted before; in 2001, three teenagers were tried in juvenile court for destroying a paleontological site there.


Twenty-year-old Dylan McWilliams, who was dragged out of his sleeping bag by the head and bitten by a bear in Colorado, a few years after he was bitten by a rattler in Utah and, more recently, bitten by a shark in Hawaii, is “one of the unluckiest people on the planet,” says National Geographic. McWilliams, who is thrilled to be alive, disagrees, telling the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel: “I’m thinking I should buy a lottery ticket!”

Tips and photos of Western oddities are appreciated and often shared in this column. Write [email protected] or tag photos #heardaroundthewest on Instagram.