There’s always something to howl about

From sunny Phoenix, a love letter to the summer heat…

I wrote this four years ago at Given all the pissing and moaning going on nationwide about — get this — summer weather, I thought I’d give you a taste of what real heat feels like. –GSS

We’re in negotiations to list a house in the Coronado Historic District of Downtown Phoenix. The temperature hit 110 this week, and the seller has determined he would rather live elsewhere.

If you live anywhere but in the Desert Southwest, 100 degrees probably sounds unbearably hot to you. Eight-five degrees is hot. Ninety is a scorcher. Ninety-five is intolerable. One hundred degrees is the stuff of “you don’t know how lucky you kids have got it” family legends.

I have news for you. In Phoenix, we might see a 100 degree day as early as March. Once those temperatures arrive in earnest, we will go for 100 days with 100-degree-plus temperatures. How much plus? The hottest day on record was 122, but 115 and above is not uncommon.

How can we stand it?

Well, for one thing, you get used to it. If you live here for three years, your blood will thin out. Summer will seem much easier to bear than you remember. But Winter will be a bear, particularly if you go back home for the holidays.

But for another, the people who stay here by choice just like the heat. It’s not all that pleasant getting into the car when the interior is 160 and the steering wheel is even hotter than that. But to step outdoors in the late afternoon, when the heat is at its absolute worst, to feel those irrepressible waves of warmth flowing in on the Western breeze, to see forever by the light of an unrelenting sun…

If you hate it, you hate it, and, like our client, you can’t live here for long.

But if you love it…

I rode my bike today. I went out at 10:30 in the morning, so it was only about 93 degrees outside. Shorts, tee-shirt, sneakers and my iPod, all on a mountain bike. We live along the Arizona Canal in North Central Phoenix. The canals are like urban rivers, used to carry fresh water to the treatment plants. Some are developed as parks, but others are just long stretches of linear desert running right through the city, a place to walk, run, ride in silence and solitude while the world whirls on all around you.

Push off with The Caves of Jericho from The Band’s post-Robbie Robertson line-up. That same album had amazing covers of Atlantic City and Blind Willie McTell. The whole thing is freedom, the bike, the sun, the sound. Phoenix gets 87% of all possible sunlight. Seasonal Affective Disorder is just an inexplicable sound that sometimes emanates from the television.

More than halfway through the first lap, I’m No Stranger To The Rain comes up, Keith Whitley at his stoic, tragic best. There are piles of pine needles just off the path, baking in the sun. This is exercise, riding hard to build muscle. It can be fun to take things slower, to take in everything, but today’s goal is to ride as hard and as fast as possible.

About halfway through the second lap, Joe Ely comes around with My Baby Thinks She’s French, a wonderful reflection on the affected urbanity of urban living. Everything is very easy, and the heat is there as a friend, the invited guest of the sunlight.

Roger Miller’s My Uncle Used to Love Me But She Died bumps the tempo at just the right time. It’s a dumb song my father used to sing to me, and I’ve inflicted it upon my own son, but it’s just the right tune for pushing and pushing when things start to get a little warm.

And then there is Johnny Cash covering Depeche Mode with Personal Jesus, a perfect driving rhythm. The ride is fast, fast, fast, but there’s still time to take in everything, still time to see and hear and smell this desert where there should be no desert.

Just when things are starting to get hard we’re hit with the brutality of Barenaked Ladies’ The Old Apartment. It might be hard to imagine riding this hard and still having the energy to punch back at the wife-beater in the song, but that’s the kind of energy you can draw from this sun.

And bearing with her a perfect redemption is Mindy Smith singing Come To Jesus, her voice as clear and blue as the sky itself.

We’re maybe four laps in and the easy part of the ride is over. So it’s a magical kind of random serendipity that brings up Tom Petty with I Won’t Back Down. Art is the stuff that sticks with you when everything else has fled. Petty has hundreds of letters from people who stood firm against unbearable pressure because of that simple little pop song.

And the fifth and sixth laps are the easiest times to quit, the easiest times to rationalize quitting, but Petty comes back again with The Waiting Is The Hardest Part.

And we can’t quit now, because here comes The Boss himself with the original version of Atlantic City. The universe itself is hot and tired, breathing hard, pushing harder. And a breeze has kicked up, pushing back.

But here is Needles and Pins, Sonny Bono’s private lesson on the power of sticking with it.

And then, just when the idea of going home and cooling off seems sweetest, there’s Ray Charles with Baby, What’d I Say. You can pound into what by now feels like a solid wall of heat because the light is right, the air is right and the music is completely right.

Warren Zevon moves things down the road with Accidentally Like a Martyr, a song undemanding enough that it is possible to sing along even with no breath.

At the eighth lap, Mindy Smith comes back, this time with Dolly Parton along, doing a haunting cover of Jolene. Nothing is easy by now, but quitting is not even an option: It’s the same ride home either way.

Even so, Elvis Costello is there to make it easier with an acoustic demo of Green Shirt, a blistering tempo in the blistering heat.

We rode hard for an hour in the heat — it was 97 by the time I got back home. It takes every bit of energy and will to move the bike that hard, that fast, but the mind is free, and the sky and the silence are vast and perfect.

But, brother — it is hot! Your breathing will settle down in 15 or 20 minutes, but the sweat will pour out of you for an hour or more.

If you love this desert, there’s nothing like it. In other places, this kind of recreation is an activity, something to plan for, to buy gear for, to drive to. Here it’s just here, a normal part of everyday life. It’s hotter than anyplace you’ve ever lived. But if you learn to love the heat, you’ll never live happily anywhere else…


24 Comments so far

  1. Mark Madsen July 22nd, 2011 8:57 am

    I can’t complain about the Vegas heat to you, because it’s about 10 degrees hotter in Phoenix than here. But, I hate the heat. 85-90 is about the max I can stand.

    However, there are a few weeks in the winter months where it’s a warm 60-70 out, the air is calm, sun in the sky and all is perfect. Those few winter weeks is what makes the summer months easier to bare.

  2. Greg Swann July 22nd, 2011 9:46 am

    The fun part for me, in this national discussion about the heat, is that Phoenix had a very cool spring, and so far we’re having a fairly cool summer. Late yesterday afternoon I was standing facing west, just letting the heat roll over me, and I remembered this essay. The only thing better for me than 104 degrees at 7% humidity is those same conditions in the late afternoon on Las Vegas Boulevard. I expect the view west from the pools at Caesars Palace is blocked by the convention center by now, but that’s the best place I can think of to take a firm stand against the summer’s heat.

  3. Russ July 22nd, 2011 11:37 am

    You guys have dry heat. 100 degrees in the desert is not nearly as bad as 90 degrees with 90% humidity imho. Here in Chicago we just hit 100 with about 80-90% humidity. The humidity adds a whole different level of suffering…

  4. Greg Swann July 22nd, 2011 11:42 am

    I’ll trade you 115 with 40% humidity, which we will get to more then once in the next couple of months, but I’ll concede your point anyway. I grew up in downstate Illinois, and I can remember some miserable days. Meanwhile, our AC systems are built for extreme heat and yours aren’t. True misery is an Arizona summer in an Illinois car — especially one with no air conditioner at all!

  5. Teri Lussier July 22nd, 2011 2:33 pm

    >100 degrees in the desert is not nearly as bad as 90 degrees with 90% humidity imho.

    I’ve been to Chicago during killer (literally) heat waves. Brutal.

    But I don’t know that one is worse than the other, it’s just different heat. One is sticky and the air is hard to breathe, but the other? That relentless shadeless desert sun? UGH. My skin turns to blisters just thinking about it. I’m no fan of summer either way, but I’ll take the summer that’s kinder to my fair complexion.

  6. Greg Swann July 22nd, 2011 3:48 pm

    Indeed. Hell is for people who can’t handle heaven. 😉

    As above, your air conditioners aren’t very robust. I expect you don’t insulate the freon line from the compressor to the air handler. You don’t tint the windows on your houses or cars, nor do you buy sun-sheilding screens for your windows at home. We don’t prepare much for cold weather, and not at all for snow. Y’all don’t know how to manage heat, so you have heat-related fatalities every summer — accompanied by fake-surprised headlines every year.

  7. Teri Lussier July 22nd, 2011 4:06 pm

    It’s true, we do lose a few folks each summer, but the weekend I was in Chicago during a heat wave, 50+ people died over 3 days. That’s brutal, I don’t care where you live.

    >You don’t tint the windows on your houses or cars, nor do you buy sun-sheilding screens for your windows at home.

    Absolutely not! We need all the sun we can get the other 10 months of the year, lest we throw ourselves into the path of oncoming trains due to our collective Seasonal Affective Disorder. 😉

  8. Greg Swann July 22nd, 2011 4:25 pm

    > That’s brutal, I don’t care where you live.

    But it doesn’t happen here, where it’s much hotter for a much greater span of time. People die back east because y’all are not prepared for weather you get every summer. Not a criticism, just an observation. Easterners should be here for your vacations right now, anyway. That way we could kill you with the desert, the Red Rocks, the Grand Canyon — the way god intended.

  9. Robert Worthington July 22nd, 2011 4:22 pm

    Nice quote Greg about hell is for people who can’t handle Heaven.

  10. Teri Lussier July 23rd, 2011 7:37 am

    >But it doesn’t happen here,

    Sure it does. You have immigrants who die crossing the Sonoran Desert, you have babies who get left behind in parking lots, it’s the same sort of thing, fake-surprise headlines and all.

    >People die back east because y’all are not prepared for weather you get every summer.

    Not quite.

    The people who die from our typical annual heat waves (the current heat wave is very unusual, btw) are not healthy to start. They are old, infirm, or have some mental issues. Believe it or not, they probably would have survived with just a window ac unit, or if they had simply *used* their ac at all. We can live without ac for 362 days of the year, those other 3 days you need to make like a Boy Scout. These are people on the fringes without a support system to help them through those few days.

    We have some form of cloud cover about 230 days a year. Protection from the sun is gifted to us from the heavens.

  11. Greg Swann July 24th, 2011 10:11 am

    > you have babies who get left behind in parking lots

    Not so much. We drown ’em in swimming pools. We kill unwanted dogs in hot cars.

    > Protection from the sun is gifted to us from the heavens.


  12. Tom Bryant July 23rd, 2011 11:13 am

    I appreciate the winters in Phx. But there will come a time (within 5 years, I hope) that I’ll never spend another summer day here. I like to run and hike, and if I miss a little window of opportunity in the summer mornings, no run on those days.

  13. dquote fatan July 23rd, 2011 5:05 pm

    I can`t say a lot here since I`ve never been there, I`am from lombok ( Indonesia ), by the way what is that tree in the picture ? we don`t have it here in Lombok.

  14. Greg Swann July 24th, 2011 10:01 am

    > what is that tree in the picture ?

    That’s a young agave plant in love. You know of the agave as the sugar source that results, after it is fermented and distilled, in Tequila. What you are seeing in the photo is a spirited display of male fertility: The agave shoots up a huge stalk that then throws forth those seed pods. If you watch the movie Tombstone, you will see a huge number of Century Plants, Agave Americana, with their seed stalks high and proud. The exteriors for that film were shot along the San Pedro River, near the actual town of Tombstone in Cochise County, and the Century Plants — which only reproduce once in their lives — were in full flower as they were shooting the film.

  15. Diane Brennan July 23rd, 2011 10:38 pm

    It seems tougher every year to put up with the summer heat, I keep having to remind myself that it’s still better than snow in the winter.

  16. Teri Lussier July 25th, 2011 4:16 am


    Fair enough.

    >But it doesn’t happen here

    More likely it gets reported differently.

  17. Greg Swann July 25th, 2011 7:32 am

    > More likely it gets reported differently.

    Is there a report on all the people who fall off the Red Rocks? We’re not a welfare-state state, and the desert and mountains kill people here. Big Mother kills your folks by training them to think they can live without having learned how to live.

  18. Teri Lussier July 25th, 2011 8:43 am

    >Big Mother kills your folks

    I see.

  19. Greg Swann July 25th, 2011 1:20 pm

    >> Big Mother kills your folks

    > I see.

    Is there a problem? Shall I pull some newspaper clippings so we can work out how the victims of what Zonies would regard as pleasant weather died because they relied their whole lives on other peoples’ brains, rather than their own? The worse curse, frankly, are the people in welfare-state states who die needlessly because the state won’t permit them to defend their own lives against criminals.

  20. bob hunter July 25th, 2011 10:28 am

    “But it’s a dry heat”

    My favorite retort:

    “Yeah, so is the inside of an oven”

  21. Greg Swann July 25th, 2011 1:29 pm

    > “Yeah, so is the inside of an oven”

    That’s the way I describe if: “Like living with the oven door open.” If you don’t like heat, that sounds bad. But if you do… It’s heaven. Very moist today, not so nice. But the dry late-afternoon heat, 105 and cloudless, with maybe 7% relative humidity — that’s just wonderful.

  22. Teri Lussier July 25th, 2011 3:48 pm

    Greg, heat-related deaths are preventable regardless of where you live. That is not an east-of-the-Mississippi or welfare-state state isolated phenomenon. If you are too stupid to take water while you wander the desert like Moses, it’s the same as the old guy who thinks he can tough it out in a brutal Chicago heatwave without opening a window and turning on a fan.

    >what Zonies would regard as pleasant weather

    98 degrees and 70% humidity is not pleasant. No, not even for Zonies.

    >The worse curse, frankly, are the people in welfare-state states who die needlessly because the state won’t permit them to defend their own lives against criminals.

    Well, sure.

    And now I’ve spent enough time discussing weather, I’m bowing out, albeit not-so-gracefully…

  23. Greg Swann July 25th, 2011 4:14 pm

    > That is not an east-of-the-Mississippi or welfare-state state isolated phenomenon.

    But clearly it is.

    > If you are too stupid to take water while you wander the desert

    No one feels sorry for you. If you’re lucky enough to get rescued before you perish, you get billed for the full cost of your stupidity. Note that people who die in our deserts, on our mountains or in our canyons are almost always from out of state. The exception would be convicts who escape from the state penitentiary in Florence and try to walk to Phoenix by the straight-line route. A few Zonies run into the legislation that is literally called The Stupid Law when they drive their cars into flooded washes or normally-dry riverbeds. Very few fatalities, but the cost of fishing their cars out of the drink presumably makes them more prudent, going forward.

    Sorry to make you hot under the collar. I was just kibbizting y’all for being such big babies about weather that is not even close to being hot. But the sad fact is that you’re big babies because the state has told (many of) you all your lives that you don’t need a brain, just a baby monitor. That’s false to fact, and the deaths that result from pursuing that strategy are all but entirely unnecessary. Nature is just: Fools and their lives are parted in due course. For the most part, in Arizona we don’t commit the crime of lying to our fools, and the desert is the world’s most patient school-marm. It will inflict as much passive pain as is necessary to help you overcome your foolishness. Don’t believe me? No need to risk your life. Just go spank a cactus and see how much wiser you are thereafter.

  24. Steve July 29th, 2011 5:52 am

    Heat is one of the worst things that get into you and when you have humidity its so irritating that you sweat day & night.

    Heat waves have always spelt doom for many but I know people who can withstand heat as they have a fit body and good ressistance so we can’t blame the heat alone.

    The picture you put in this post indicates to me that we need to plant more trees was that your intention while posting the pic too Greg??