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Made in the Shade

Tis the season for getting out of the sun.

 

Rather to my surprise, June is typically the hottest month here in the desert Southwest. Growing up in the Midwest, June was more of a thunderstormy ramp-up to the real heat of July and August. Freshly out of school, we could enjoy summery days that weren't quite real scorchers, with mosquitos not yet the size of F-16s, followed by long, lingering evenings when darkness held off until almost bedtime. Not quite the light-all-night "midsummer" of Scandinavia (where many South Dakotans' ancestors had lived), June evenings were nonetheless invitations to stay outside as the porch lights slowly winked on, until our parents hollered it was time to quit kick-the-can and dawdlingly come inside.

continental divide

Unless, of course, a thunderstorm built and blew up in the humid Midwestern skies, driving us into the house with pelting rain and hailstones. Or a tornado warning sent us deeper still, into the relative shelter of the basement.

Such stormy weather typically doesn't materialize here in the Southwest until early July, with the much-anticipated arrival of the annual monsoons. So, lacking that relief, the heat just builds during the long, sunny June afternoons. These are the days when one wonders: Really, is a swamp cooler enough? Honey, maybe it's time to finally spring for "refrigerated air." Or at least a window air conditioner or two. Or three.

 

Still, one can't stay sitting directly in the path of the swamp cooler all day long, no matter how tempting. Errands must be run, groceries restocked, the box at the post office emptied. Besides, the car has "refrigerated air," so a little drive can be a cooling relief.

Until, that is, you arrive at your destination and have to park. Then you begin the contemplation of the horror that will await you upon your return to the vehicle, especially from a lengthy errand such as an Albertson's excursion. Sitting in the blazing June sun for upwards of an hour, the surrounding temperature at least 90, your car will become an oven on wheels.

So begins the summer ritual of placing shiny, windshield-shaped folding reflectors in the front window. You park and out comes the sunscreen. Back in the car, which is an oven despite your best efforts, and you must fumble with and fold up the dang thing. Start the car first, for gosh sakes, what are you thinking? Not that the air conditioning pumps out anything remotely "refrigerated" in temperature at first, but at least the air in the car is moving while you refold and wrestle that stupid sunscreen into the back seat or just give up and hurl it out of your way…

Have you ever noticed that they don't make rear-window sunscreens? What if you park so that the sun is blazing in from the back? True, at least you won't fry your butt when you return and sit down, but the whole oven effect will still happen.

And can we just all agree at this point that people who leave their pets or kids in closed cars during the summer should all be locked in black cars with big, untinted windows in a hot parking lot for a couple hours, to get a taste of their own medicine? Really, shouldn't evolution have taken care of this problem by now?

 

Anyway, the alternative to window sunscreens and auto interiors by Hotpoint is, of course, the search for shade. Trees are at a premium in the desert Southwest to begin with ("desert" should have been your first clue), but in hot summer months we point our cars toward them like magnetized needles seeking north in a kids' science project.

If you're so lucky as to see someone pulling out of a shady parking place near the store, just as you drive into the lot, it's like winning Powerball. You will wait even for the ancient-ist, creakiest, slowest old-lady driver to haul her powder-blue Chrysler 300 out of that parking spot — snails could go faster, grandma! — and let the honking traffic back up behind you. Honk all you want, buddy! I'm parking in the shade!

When a store isn't busy, you can see the cars scattered across the parking lot under every available scrap of shade. There might be 40 feet between one shaded car and the rest of the sun-drenched automotive multitudes. Don't care. It's shade. Enjoy baking in your BMWs and Buicks, suckers!

Come search-for-shade season, in fact, complex calculating is required to balance the benefits of more remote shaded parking spots against the sun-exposed walk across the lot to the store. Will I suffer more roasting until reaching the air-conditioned bliss of the store entrance than I would coming back to a 130-degree car? If the asphalt is black, that's one factor. Duration of shopping trip is another. And are we talking deep, cottonwood-type shade, or the filtered partial sun under a mesquite? Might the sun move enough during the shopping trip to rob the car of shade? How cruel that would be — a blazing odyssey across the parking lot plus a surprisingly sunny, sweltering car!

When all the factors in this equation work, however, there's nothing quite like the schadenfreude of sliding into a deliciously cool, shaded car while your fellow shoppers return to automotive kilns. Is it wrong to take pleasure in others' suffering when you have so adroitly snagged some shade? Maybe I won't even turn on the AC until I get out into traffic, because it's so cool in my shaded car! Heck, maybe I'll just sit here in the shade and watch that woman's ice cream turn into a puddle in her zillion-degree car. Hey, balding guy who cut me off pulling into Albertson's, how does that brand-new Mercedes with its fancy-dancy black-leather seats feel when the interior is hotter than the surface of the sun?

(Seriously, explain to me the popularity of black automobiles and trucks and black interiors in a climate where the sun can melt the sunglasses right onto your head. What are these people thinking? Did they not take physics in high school?)

 

The joy of shade in our sizzling corner of the country can be attributed to the fundamental truth of that oft-satirized saying: It's not the heat, it's the humidity. And don't forget: But it's a dry heat. In benighted places like the American South (I'm talking about the climate here, but draw your own conclusions about the rest), the humidity acts as a conveyor for the heat. The mercury may not reach the triple-digit excesses of places like Tucson or Phoenix, but the heat is inescapable. Even in the shade in Alabama (I speak from experience), it feels hot. Here, yes, laugh if you will, it's hot — but it's a dry heat!

Sans humidity, shade offers a remarkable escape from even the sternest, most spirit-crushing heat. As brutal as the sun gets, the shade seems all the more kind.

Growing up in the Midwest, where summers got plenty humid if not the crackers-don't-stay-crisp humidity of the Deep South, I never imagined how wonderful shade could feel on a hot day. That heat-humidity one-two punch could even drive us inside on sunny summer days, to the sweet relief of air conditioning. (No one called it "refrigerated air," and I'd never seen a "swamp cooler.")

So this June, even as the mercury climbs and the longing for monsoon relief becomes palpable, take a moment to appreciate the special, simple pleasure of shade in the desert Southwest.

Just stay out of that shaded parking spot — I saw it first!

 

 

David A. Fryxell works up a sweat editing Desert Exposure.

 

 



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