Heat: Adventures in the World's Fiery Places is a book about all things hot, a narrative that wanders from fever to firewalking, from deserts to dynamite, from burning forests to the big bang, and from flowing lava to flowing oil. Author Bill Streever shared a few thoughts on hot places worth visiting.
Congratulations, America, for another achievement: 2012 was the hottest year on record for the 48 contiguous states. But that does not mean you can go anywhere at any time to find the best (and worst) that heat has to offer. Even though it was the hottest year, the average temperature was a mere 55.3 degrees Fahrenheit. And even though it was hot, not all of the nation’s hottest places are hot because of the weather alone.
In these days of climate change, it makes sense to become heat literate. Reading about heat is a great start, and for many that may be enough. On the other hand, nothing beats a good field trip. But where to go? Here are five places high on my heat literacy travel itinerary. One note: All of the temperatures are in degrees Fahrenheit. If you think in degrees Celsius, just subtract 32 and multiply by 5/9ths, or use an on-line conversion calculator.
1. Death Valley, in July or August
While all 48 states were busy claiming the hottest year on record, California solidified its claim to the hottest place on earth, at least in terms of the hottest temperature in the shade ever measured. In the past, debate has raged as to whether this title should go to Al Aziziyah, Libya, for its 1922 claim of 136.4 degrees, or Death Valley, California, for its 1913 claim of 134 degrees. The World Meteorological Organization pulled together a committee of experts, including an expert from Libya. In 2012, the committee announced that the Al Aziziyah claim was not justified. Death Valley won. And in July or August of any year, Death Valley will deliver the heat. Furnace Creek is the place to go, as it lies close to the bottom of the heat trapping lowlands that make up Death Valley. Expect temperatures that put long walks out of the question. Expect lots of sunshine. If you are lucky enough to catch an afternoon rain storm, expect to see most of it evaporate before it hits the ground.
2. Titusville, Pennsylvania
Never heard of Titusville, Pennsylvania? You may not be alone, but it is the birthplace of the oil industry and therefore an important stop on the heat itinerary. After all, the burning of oil contributes a fair few tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere while also providing the heat and subsequent expansion of gas that makes cars move. In Titusville, you can visit the Drake Well Museum and the well that started the boom leading to today’s dependency on oil. You can follow the flow of the now clear and picturesque Oil Creek downstream to see other wells drilled in the 1800s, some restored and others overgrown with weeds. You can even buy vials of crude drawn from the same reservoir tapped by Colonel Edwin Drake himself. Here, the heat is less visceral than it is at the other stops on this itinerary, but it is just as important.
3. Firewalking, Available Almost Anywhere
Firewalking is a great way to get close to heat. While firewalkers are occasionally burned, a good instructor makes it safer than it sounds. Firewalks are available throughout the United States. They are often done as corporate team builders, but they are also done for spiritual growth and mental health.
4. The Big Island, Hawaii
Hawaii is very pleasantly warm, but not really hot. Unless, that is, you explore the Big Island’s active volcanoes. Volcanoes National Park, 30 miles from Hilo and 90 miles from Kona, lets casual visitors drive around the perimeter of an actively smoking, burping caldera. At places, visitors can step out of the car to walk on ground that was, in living memory, liquid rock. Steam comes up from cracks in the ground. The more adventurous and foolhardy can get closer to living lava, depending on the risk tolerance of the traveler and the volcanic activity at the time of the visit, which varies as the mountain’s innards expand and contract. Check http://www.nps.gov/havo/index.htm for current conditions, and do not let your quest for heat overcome your common sense. Lava fields are not theme parks, and severe burns ruin the best of trips. By the way, while there, you can drive a bit further to see the atmospheric laboratory near the top of Mauna Loa, where Charles David Keeling measured levels of carbon dioxide beginning in 1958 and ultimately showed that levels have been climbing dramatically, which is of course an important driver of climate change.
5. The Brookhaven, New York, Super Collider, or, now, the CERN Collider near Geneva
Scientists have found a way to create and measure temperatures present within moments of the Big Bang. How? By accelerating ions of gold and lead to close to the speed of light and then guiding those ions into a head-on collision. In 2012, the Brookhaven National Laboratory, an hour or so by train from New York City, achieved temperatures of 7 trillion degrees. This is far from the hottest temperatures of the Big Bang, which exceeded 1032 degrees (that would be a 1 followed by 32 zeros), but it is hot enough to end the lives of protons and neutrons, reducing matter to a quark-gluon soup with characteristics that surprised the best and brightest theoretical physicists. And now the collider near Geneva, Switzerland, often known as the CERN Collider (after the initials of the particle physics research organization behind the collider), may have exceeded that record. Visitors are not normally allowed into the collider tunnels, but both facilities offer tours and explanations of what they are doing. For thermophiles with a streak of geek, a collider visit should not be missed.