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Death Valley, California
I went simply because I'd never experienced such heat. Leaving Chatsworth it was 72 degrees; forecast was a high of 126 in the other valley. And on the way I thought: a culture's vocabulary contains the ancient seed of the human condition. Specifically I think of hot and cold. A hot stock is good, as is a hot ticket, a hot shit, and of course a hot-looking man or woman. If someone's ready, they're hot to trot. If someone is confident, he thinks he's hot stuff. Conversely, someone can leave you cold. A romance cools. A cold stare, a cold shoulder, a cold heart. If startled or uneasy, a cold chill runs down your spine. A hot time beats a cool reception, a gaze can melt a woman's heart, but god forbid an association with a frigid woman. We have warm memories; we catch a cold.
Up the 5 and then east through the burgeoning Palmdale area, up 14 through Mohave and hillsides alive with white, gyrating wind generators, further to Cantil and its cutoff toward Ridgecrest. Brown dirt California backwash, railroad tracks and truck stops. The California not seen in ads. Through Ridgecrest and Trona it's 98 degrees, past Ballarat ghost town it hits 105.
And on the way I thought: the sun is responsible for all, the safety of light and heat, as well as the danger of darkness and cold. So in history we have the Enlightenment, as well as the Dark Ages. We have sunny personalities, as well as a dark side. If we're close to finding something, we're getting warmer. We have a ray of hope, then the trail runs cold. It becomes a cold case. To be lukewarm indicates ambivalence, somewhere between hot and cold. Some people leave you warm and fuzzy, others need to chill out. We engage in the heat of passion, and endure icy stares. When a hockey team charges out of the locker room, it is fired-up. To be ambitious is to be fired with ambition, to hesitate indicates cold feet. We warm to a task. We follow with interest a hot topic. On a winning streak, we're hot as a pistol. And when we freeze like a deer in the headlights, either at the plate in baseball, or during public speaking, it is unpleasant. Things that impede, or deflect light are bad. You have a coverup, shady characters, blinders on, your memory gets clouded, or hazy, or vague. You view life through rose-colored glasses.
Baked clay brown earth thrown as far as eyes see, jagged, low mountains ahead cradling Death Valley. A sign commemorates Seldom Seen Slim, the last resident of the area who died in 1968. Sign, Death Valley National Park at 11:23 a.m., holding fast at 105 degrees. Once into the park, the glistening tar ribbon climbs through the mountains, and the temperature adjusts accordingly. At 4000 feet it dips to 95, at the top of the 4956-foot-high pass it bottoms at 91. Descending into the glimmering, heat waved, white-clayed bowl it rises, at 4000 again 95, at Towne Pass's 3000 foot elevation 98, at 2000 feet 104, at 1000 feet now 109.
You get black-balled, experience Black Friday, or get the black plague. You have liquid assets until they're frozen. You may have ice in your veins. You can shed light on a problem, and then give it hell. The danger of too much sun, or too much heat, however, is also illustrated in our allusions, similes, and metaphors. To be cheated is to be 'burnt.' To have ones mental faculties diminished is to be 'burned out.' To be in a losing situation is to be 'toast.' A vicious verbal attack is a 'scalding' attack. You can be blinded by the light; beware the historical scorn of a scorched-earth policy. You sweat out a deadline, and if you lose your job, you're fired.
I cruise into the valley, sipping from my water bottle. The place is desolate, forbidding. It strikes me that on roads so little traveled, even today to get stuck is dangerous. At a pullover the fear is verified. A warning sign relates the sad tales of hikers who have perished. At Stovepipe Wells, elevation 5 feet, the temperature reaches 114. At noon it is 116. As I descend further into the bowl, at 200 feet below sea level it is 116. Further I drive, at 12:13 it is 118, at 12:58 120. The landscape is other-worldly; salt flats shimmering in the intense downpour of light, crowded in and secreted by the surrounding high heaps of earth. At 1:30 I experience the highest temperature of the day, 122 degrees fahrenheit. I stop at a pullover, and emerge from my air conditioned car. The sensation is that of opening an oven, and being rushed by the heat. My glasses instantly fog. It engulfs you, rays you, violates your skin. Relentless, blinding, baking heat.
And on the way I thought: heat and light are almost exclusively associated with positive experiences, while cold and dark are almost exclusively associated with negative experiences. Thus we have sports teams named the Calgary Flames and not the Ice, the Miami Heat and not the Cold, the Tampa Bay Lightning and not the Hail Stones, the Phoenix Suns and not the Moons, the Dallas Stars and not the Black Holes. And as I ponder our ancient impulses and the way in which they have pervaded the human consciousness, I think of the implications for race relations.
I enjoy my thoughts. In my varied reading, I have never come across such ponderings. Perhaps they are original; perhaps The Geniuses would roll their eyes at the elementary triteness. But if the investigation of our vocabulary, as related to the primordial human condition, is indeed new, I will name it: Audiology.
And on the way I thought: even the physical position of the sun has worked its way into our lexicon, in that when it is high we look up to it, and when it is low, and finally disappears, we look down. Thus we live the high life and know low lifes. You look up to those you admire, and you look down on those "below" you. We have your Royal Highness, and her subjects. Thumbs up, thumbs down. We have lofty ambitions, and low expectations. We rise to the occasion, and stoop to their level. Laws are upheld, though some are beneath our dignity. We have uplifted spirits, unless we are downcast. Is there any question why the ancients determined that Heaven was above, and Hell below?
It's time to leave Death Valley and its allusions, similes, and metaphors. I drive east through the desert toward Pahrump, and its road to Las Vegas. There I will see my daughter Sarah. And on the way I thought: