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But It's a Dry Heat

Yes, thanks very much for asking, it is hot enough for me.

 

The popular question this time of year, "Hot enough for ya?," is presumably rhetorical. At most, the questionee might be expected to respond, "Sure is!"—or with some other empty assurance that, in common humanity with the questioner, he or she is suffering from the heat (or at any rate is equally bereft of any fresher conversational fodder). No one ever answers, "No, actually, I'd prefer the temperature to be about 15 degrees warmer." Or "Are you kidding? This 95-degree stuff is for wimps! It won't be hot enough for me until the top of the thermometer pops off, roadway asphalt turns to lava and little Pekingese dogs are boiled alive in their own fur!" Thank goodness.

If the question is not entirely rhetorical, then—at least here in the Southwest, where hygrometers hardly ever need that surplus second digit to measure the humidity—the traditional rejoinder would be, "But it's a dry heat." And thank goodness for that, too!

I've spent two summers in the South, where the adjective "dry" simply gets retired from about April to November. The first time, I was just a boy and my parents were guest-teaching at the University of Kentucky in Lexington for the summer session. We stayed in the temporarily-vacant house of some regular faculty members, long-ago friends of my folks, who may have been the same professors they were substituting for. Unlike our house back home in South Dakota, which air conditioning (known to Southwesterners, I now realize, as "refrigerated air") kept cool inside even when 100-degree temperatures swept across the empty prairie like the blast from the open mouth of an oven, this Kentucky house had only fans to keep it comfortable. This was the 1960s, so perhaps air conditioning—like other modern conveniences such as integration—had not yet reached the South.

Let me tell you, I don't know how—much less why—places like Kentucky or Alabama, where we spent a sticky summer not long after we got married, ever got settled in the first place before the advent of air conditioning. Surely if Daniel Boone or my Southern pioneer ancestors had possessed any sense at all, after the first July in that gigantic sauna they would have hightailed it for New England. July? Who am I kidding? Down South, the heat settles in not long after the vernal equinox and sits there, like a wet washcloth that's been microwaved for about an hour, until it's just about time to haul out the Christmas decorations.

That endless, air-conditionerless summer in Kentucky, I thought my parents had dragged me off to hell. Mostly I recall that summer as a heat-hazy blur, sitting in front of the biggest fan in the house, trying to read comic books as fast as the fan flipped the pages.

You know that other cliched saying, "It's not the heat, it's the humidity"? Truth is, it's the heat and the humidity. My mom, who grew up in Alabama in the era before air conditioning, recalled that you couldn't keep Saltine crackers crisp when she was a child. Later, she and my dad used to go to the movies because that was the only place that did have air conditioning; it didn't matter what picture was playing.

At least during our own 13 long months in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, our apartment had air conditioning. This was a pretty ritzy place, by Tuscaloosa standards: Joe Namath had once lived in the apartment next door, when he played quarterback at the University of Alabama (though how a poor college student could have afforded such a nice place is beyond me). Air conditioning in the office of the magazine where I worked (recently relocated from New York City, apparently in an effort to make Tuscaloosa the Manhattan of the South) was more iffy. It was the town's former library, which the publisher was restoring until her divorce settlement ran out. If we had to choose between paying the printer and paying the electric bill, the staff would have chosen electricity for air conditioning in a heartbeat.

I remember stepping outside one Alabama summer day, with the notion of taking a brisk walk around the block at lunchtime, perhaps a sack-lunch picnic in the park. The air was a solid block of hot wetness, like diving face-first into a bowl of soup. My clothes instantly stuck to my body as though glued on. Lunch at my desk suddenly seemed appealing, after all. Heck, there would be calls from unpaid freelance writers to field. (Tone of feigned surprise: "You haven't been paid yet? I'll notify accounting right away," I'd lie, knowing such notification would be pointless, then go right back to eating my now-soggy sandwich.)


So, yes, at least it is indeed a dry heat here in southwest New Mexico. I've come, however, to respect the power of the sun to crank that dry heat up to an effective temperature just a few degrees shy of noon at the equator on the planet Mercury. Those shiny, silvery car-windshield screens have become standard equipment in our vehicles, lest the car seats turn into hot, bubbling goo. I've learned to disregard the readings on the thermometer that catches the afternoon sun—no, it's not really quite 107 degrees in Silver City today.

The real upside of that cliched "dry heat," though, is that even when it's triple digits in the sun, you can be reasonably comfy in the shade. Yesterday, when 10 minutes in the sun was enough to leave a person feeling like an overdone pot roast, we sat quite comfortably in the shade for hours. We were warm, yes, but it was more of an electric-blanket sort of warm than that Alabama feeling of being run through the dishwasher's pots-and-pans cycle.

And, at least in places like Silver City, it cools off at night. Summers in the South or even in South Dakota, where God apparently decided to compensate for the lovely Black Hills with the worst year-round weather (blizzards! heat waves!) on the planet, can mean being cut off from outside air for weeks at a time, even at night. There, the chirping of crickets (and, let's be honest, the buzzing of hordes of ravenous mosquitoes) is drowned out by the hum of round-the-clock air conditioning. Here, we sleep with the windows open to beckon in the night air.

In places like Tucson and Phoenix, of course, the heat island of ever-expanding concrete has raised the average temperature and retains the scorching energies of daytime well into the night. It may be a dry heat, but when the mercury barely dips below 80 even at three in the morning, that's just damn hot. Metropolitan Arizonans must scurry from air-conditioned cars to air-conditioned buildings like frenzied lab rats. "Evaporative coolers" won't really cut it at those temperatures—bring on the "refrigerated air"!

Here at almost 6,000 feet, where not even our driveway is concrete, our swamp cooler has been working quite nicely this summer, thanks. (Though now I've probably jinxed the balky thing! Honey, the fan's stuck again!) We supplement it in stuffier rooms like my office, where the humungous printer puts out heat roughly equivalent to that of an iron smelter, with window-mounted "refrigerated air." Once we realized (again—we have to relearn this every summer) that we had to shut the door between the swamp cooler and the air conditioner, everything's cool. For a day or two previously, of course, the swamp cooler was furiously pumping out wet air while the office air conditioner labored frantically to take the moisture out of the air. Oops.

The idea of putting moisture into the air to make it more comfortable was new and downright counterintuitive to us, naturally, when we moved here from the steamy valley of Cincinnati (just across the Ohio River from, yes, Kentucky). Sort of like standing in front of an open refrigerator door, trying to warm up. But, by golly, it works.

That's because—everybody now, repeat after me!—it's a dry heat.

So where are we going for a few days this month—in, yes, July? To visit our daughter in Nashville, Tennessee. As you'll recall from geography class, that's the state roughly sandwiched between the sweaty summer hellhole of Kentucky and the humid Hades of Alabama. But it's her birthday and she can't get away to come here (where it's a dry heat), so off we go. We must really, really love her. Or be crazy from the heat.

I know the first thing I'll be saying when we exit the airport and the damp warmth of summer in Tennessee all but knocks us back onto our suitcases.

"Hot enough for ya?"

 

As soon as he finishes writing this, Desert Exposure editor David A. Fryxell is going to turn on the window air conditioner in his office.


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