The way you?re lollygaggin? around here with them picks and them shovels, you?d think it was 120 degrees. Can?t be more than 114!
The opening line from Mel Brooks? 1974 classic, Blazing Saddles, is ringing in my ears as I ponder life exactly 100 years ago in the hottest, lowest and driest place on Earth. Because from July 5-14 in 1913, any activity in Death Valley more strenuous than lollygagging meant dancing with death. During that merciless 10-day stretch, the mercury in the Great Basin?a mere two-hour drive from Las Vegas?reached at least 125 degrees daily, peaking at 134 on July 10. At the time, it was the hottest temperature recorded. Ever. Anywhere. Like, on the entire planet. And although Death Valley?s mark was eclipsed in September 1922 when El Azizia, in what is now Libya, clocked in at 136 degrees, that record was eradicated last year when the World Meteorological Organization?the official source of climate-extreme information?deemed it unverifiable.
Thus, Death Valley?s claim to global fame remains intact. So with the 100-year anniversary of the milestone approaching, I decided in late June to make my first-ever pilgrimage below sea level. Now, keep in mind that I came to the desert by way of San Diego. And even though that was in 1994, I?m no more tolerant of our oppressive summers today than I was when I landed here 19 years ago. Which is why I am thankful?oh-so-thankful?for air-conditioning, a gift for which those poor Death Valley souls undoubtedly would?ve sacrificed a limb or two back in July 1913.
Bobby Alford is thankful for air-conditioning, too. Alford is my first human contact after the long, lonely 120-mile trek from Las Vegas to Furnace Creek Ranch, once known as Greenland Ranch, the spot where that 134-degree reading was recorded. With the late-morning temps already in triple digits?on the way to a brisk 114?Alford is chilling in the tiny air-conditioned golf shop, which looks like any other golf shop, save for, you know, actual golfers (and the sign in the window that says ?World?s Lowest Golf Course?214 Feet Below Sea Level?).
I ask Alford if he?s booked any tee times for today.
?Nope. We did have one guy play yesterday, though. And we had about 65 out here last weekend for the annual Heatstroke Open.?
Well, I brought my clubs and my nerve. So Alford gives me the key to a cart, and I set about another first: playing golf on a completely deserted course. After two holes, I?m dripping sweat, but feeling OK. After four holes, I?m cooked. I check the weather on my phone: only 106 degrees. How? How did they survive 134 back in 1913, to say nothing of the primitive conditions in the 19th century when the 20 Mule Team used to ?lollygag? around here, hauling on wagon trains as much as 36 tons of borax (and drinking water) from Death Valley to Mojave?
Back at the golf shop, I ask Alford?who lives on property, has worked here for 12 years and frequently takes to the course?the hottest conditions he?s ever played in. ?Last year?s Heatstroke Open. It was 120.?
I return to my truck?the one with nearly 115,000 miles on it?and pray that it starts. Then I pray some more that it makes the climb back up to sea level and beyond. Then I pray for Alford and his neighbors, because some 24 hours later, the mercury in Death Valley topped out at 122. From there, the four-day forecast read 127, 128, 129, 129.
Not since that 10-day inferno in 1913 has an official thermometer hit 130.
On July 10, Furnace Creek Ranch hosts a celebration and conference in honor of the 100th anniversary of the world?s hottest day, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. For more information, visit WRH.NOAA.Gov/VEF/DeathValley.