Death Valley Highs & Lows

Good morning, it’s Monday, January 8, 2018. To quote the Cowardly Lion, “Unusual weather we’re having, ain’t it?” Then again, we don’t need a sudden snowstorm in a mythical poppy field in “The Wizard of Oz” to remind us that weather can be unpredictable. The polar vortex and “bomb cyclone” serve that function.

On this date in 1913, the coldest day on record chilled the flora and fauna in California’s Mojave Desert. The mercury at a place called Furnace Creek, in what is now Death Valley National Park, registered 15 degrees above zero that day.

Temperatures fluctuate in the desert — places don’t casually come by names such as “Death Valley”– and in the coming summer Furnace Creek would record a high of 134 degrees. This is not only the highest temperature ever recorded there, but it’s the highest ever recorded in North America, and one of the highest ever documented on Earth. Furnace Creek, in other words, is aptly named.

Few people were thinking about global climate change in 1913 when the temperature reached 129 degrees five days in a row there — or, four years later, when Death Valley recorded 43 consecutive days above 120 degrees.

By 1996, however, when Death Valley experienced 105 days over 110 degrees, people started to wonder. And in 2001, the Mojave entered the global warming conversation when the mercury topped 100 degrees for 154 days.

As I noted in this space four years ago, Death Valley was named by a pilgrim in the party of “the lost ’49ers,” a hapless group who meandered without a reliable map through the Mojave in search of California’s gold fields. The families on the lost 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 unlikeliest circumstances. For out of this fiasco grew “Death Valley Days,” a popular western radio serial that ran for 15 years, beginning in the 1930s and 1940s. It celebrated both rugged individualism, which was the problem with the lost 49ers, as well as intrepidness and courage, the trait 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 had to give up in order to run for governor of California.

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