Fifteen years ago I wrote a science fiction novel that was never published. The idea was good -- what life would be like after global warming had begun to cause the collapse of society -- but the execution was poor. It was one of those projects that I figured I’d take another look at one day, when my dialog and plotting skills had improved. Alas, CLL came to pass and Phaeton’s Run shall forever remain on the back burner.
Speaking of burners, which exude heat, it will be 108 degrees here in Sedona on July 4. This is pretty near a record for us, being 4500 feet above sea level in the high desert of northern Arizona. Those are Phoenix temperatures, and I cannot bring myself to imagine how hot America’s fifth largest city will be on that day. The National Weather Service predicts it will be 116, but it will probably feel hotter. There is a lot of concrete and asphalt there, which traps the heat, so what doesn’t kill you from above can kill you from below, or at least melt cheap pairs of sandals into the pavement.
In my novel, the hero and his girlfriend head south from Lake Tahoe into Arizona to rescue her family, which had stayed behind in the remnants of Phoenix. In my not-too-distant future, summer temperatures are regularly in the 130s, electricity is spotty, municipal services like water have begun to fail, and most sane people have headed well to the north.
Not everyone can hack it even today, of course. Last year, as were driving on I-40 toward New Mexico, we were passed by an SUV with Arizona plates and the windows painted with festive messages: “Going home to Minnesota!” “Go Vikings!” “Goodbye sun! Hello snow!”
In fact, out of every ten people that move here, four eventually leave. It's the summer that gets to them, and how close my novel is to being science fact, and not fiction, is rather scary.
In 1940, before air conditioning became widely available, the entire population of the state was half a million. Most of these hardy folks survived thanks to evaporative cooling, which ceases to work effectively well before the 100-degree mark. The arrival of air conditioning contributed to Arizona’s population boom, and today there are 6 million souls here, most of whom live in places where it gets too hot to go outside for more than 15 minutes between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. from June through September. (And more and more homes are being built in places where there is no guaranteed water supply, but that’s another story.)
“It’s a dry heat,” we tell ourselves, even as the temperatures give one a burning-at-the-stake feel. Local TV news shows do the obligatory story about someone frying an egg on the sidewalk. Then there is the occasional report of tourists from places like Norway succumbing to conditions such as “muscle melt,” or of foolish people who go hiking without water and are found three weeks later, having provided a tasty repast for coyotes.
When I was growing up here, in the 1960s, many Arizonans kept a gallon container or two of water in the trunk of their cars. This was before cell phones and emergency road service, when either you or your radiator might need a little shot of water to survive. Today, people wander around the cities with plastic bottles of spring water, and those who venture onto the sidewalks are sometimes protected by misting devices that line the storefronts. These spray teensy droplets of water on passersby, as if basting them for some purpose. Those are modern conveniences we didn’t have when I was six years old, sitting in our evaporatively-cooled apartment near the Colorado River, riding out 122-degree temperatures by keeping still, turning the lights off, drinking Coca-Cola, sticking ice on our heads, and fanning ourselves. How the cat managed without keeling over under all that fur, I don’t know. (For the record, cats can hold up to six ice cubes when laying on their sides.)
Today, we have central air conditioning courtesy of a monstrous Lennox unit that sits outside the house, but it is merely an improvement, not a panacea. We live in a condo that was foolishly built out of wood, and which sits on a hill with a lovely view and a bullseye on the roof that says “bake me.” We can run the AC 24/7 on hot days and we’re lucky if it gets below 90 degrees upstairs during the middle of the day. Downstairs, protected by that vast insulation known as the upper story, and with walls made of concrete block -- basically a raised 8-foot foundation that we renovated into living space -- the temperature is 10 to 15 degrees cooler. This is where we moved our bedroom to.
My daily attire is shorts, and nothing else. I keep a fan on myself when working upstairs on the laptop, and I also keep the fan on the laptop, which is already elevated on a metal grid (aka cooling sheet for cookies) to keep it from overheating. Sometimes I enjoy chocolates from the pantry, stuck together in a big glob.
Ah, but the view is worth it, especially during wildfire season when you can see the orange glow that threatens to march into town and dispossess us. Open the window at night for a cool breeze -- when we’re not threatening to break temperature records it gets down to 70 degrees in the middle of the night -- and you can smell the smoke from huge fires a hundred miles away.
“Another day in paradise” is a common local expression. We’ll just keep telling ourselves that.
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