Hot Times in Death Valley

Good morning, it’s July 10, 2019. Fourteen separate wildfires blazed across California in 2017, including one in Santa Barbara County that wiped out the animals in a Boy Scout nature center, and another in Northridge that caused 140,000 people to lose their air conditioning on a day the temperature reached 98 degrees.

I’m reminded that on this date in 1913, the mercury hit 134 degrees in California’s Mojave Desert. It was the hottest temperature ever recorded in North America — and one of the hottest ever documented on Earth — and it happened at the aptly named Furnace Creek in what is now Death Valley National Park.

This week’s heat wave in Southern California is nothing to scoff at, but its residents have had worse July’s than this one, especially in the Mojave. In 1913, the temperature there reached 129 degrees five days in a row. (That same year also saw the coldest day ever recorded in Death Valley: On January 8, the low temperature at Furnace Creek was only 15 degrees above zero.)

Global climate change wasn’t a topic of concern 100 years ago, but Death Valley’s heat made news in the summer of 1917 when the mercury reached 120 degrees for 43 consecutive days. By 1996, when Death Valley experienced 105 days over 110 degrees, people started to wonder if this was more than extreme weather. The Mojave first entered the global warming conversation in 2001 when the temperature topped 100 degrees for 154 days during the calendar year.

Truth to tell, however, it’s always been a formidable place. Death Valley was named by a pilgrim in the party of “lost ’49ers,” a hapless group who meandered without a reliable map in search of the California gold fields. The families on the wagon train were searching for a shortcut; instead, they spent four months on a trip that should have taken two.

But legends, like desert cacti, can bloom in the most unlikely circumstances. Out of this fiasco grew “Death Valley Days,” a popular western radio serial that ran for 15 years, beginning in the 1930s. It celebrated rugged individualism, which was part of the problem with the lost ’49ers, and also intrepidness and courage, the traits that led to their rescue.

In 1952, “Death Valley Days” migrated to television. Ronald Reagan was a frequent actor in the episodes, usually playing a heroic good guy. Reagan also hosted the program for two seasons in the mid-1960s, where he did everything from introduce the episodes to sell soap. It was one of the gigs he gave up to run for governor of California.

So I suppose Donald Trump wasn’t the first to parlay success on TV into national office. Something tells me he won’t be the last.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics

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