PORTLAND – The lights are off in my hotel room, a precaution that is probably useless, but I somehow feel as though the darkness makes the room cooler and might take some strain off an already taxed electrical grid as the air conditioner sputters out cold air. The sky outside the double-pane window is cloudless, blazing blue and piercingly bright. If I hadn’t been outside seconds before, I’d think it was just an uncharacteristically beautiful day in Portland and not literally the hottest day in the town’s recorded history.
My husband and I planned this trip weeks ago with the intent of visiting friends we hadn’t seen in a year and a half, despite the relatively short three-hour drive. Seattle was the first ground zero for the coronavirus in the United States, so we went on shutdowns before most major cities. Now, fully vaccinated and after 18 months, we were heading down to Portland for a reunion with friends.
“It’s going to be hot this weekend,” my husband told me.
“In the 90s and 100s,” he said. I winced, wondering whether we should stay home, but Seattle was going to be almost as scorching. We decided to make the trip anyway. Over the next day or two, we watched as the forecast shifted, as the temperatures during the day moved well into the triple digits and the nights hovered in the 90s, the result of a high pressure system of hot, still air known as a heat dome. The heat dome was of an intensity so severe that it only occurs once every several thousand years – but it was also a potential sign of a new normal thanks to human-made climate change. Seattle and Portland saw record-breaking temperatures, stores ran out of ice and water, and restaurants and businesses closed because of the intense heat.
Our hotel is air-conditioned – a privilege I regard with equal parts gratitude and guilt – but there is a fragility to this comfort. The building is 100 years old, and the elevators have already wheezed a sigh of defeat, refusing to budge. I don’t mind taking the stairs. The idea of being trapped in a hot elevator is too terrifying to contemplate. I’ve read too many apocalyptic fiction stories where ancillary characters die that way (and I need those stories to stay, well, fictional). But so much of what we’re experiencing feels like a doomsday novel come alive. I stand in the lobby, looking at the blazing street, the heat radiating through the giant glass doors. Outside, the air feels like it is on fire, the sensation you get when you open up an oven and it blasts heat on you. It is inescapable, even in the shade or after the sun goes down (which, in the Northwest at this time of year, is close to 10 p.m.). I keep expecting a breeze, but the air is still, hanging motionless over the empty streets. Standing in the shade, my face feels painful, the singe of a sunburn. But I’m wearing a hat, sunglasses and a mask, and I’ve slathered on a level of sunscreen so high it sounds like the name of an android. It’s just the air itself that hurts.
We walk a few blocks to breakfast, and my husband dumps water on my sandals in an attempt to cool my burning feet. By the time we arrive at our destination, minutes later, it has already evaporated. We’ve spent a year and a half waiting for this summer: the excitement of being vaccinated, of finally being outside again in the lush cool green of the Northwest, of embracing people we literally couldn’t touch for the past 18 months. It feels like the Earth itself is driving us back indoors. I’m starting to develop a complex on behalf of humanity.
I can endure heat. I grew up in Florida, spent my childhood in a tiny home that didn’t have air conditioning, under the care of an overprotective mother who insisted I sleep with a closed window lest I be kidnapped. I played sports under the searing heat of a midday sun, ran laps around the school track until I had the first signs of sunstroke. It was the halcyon days of the 1990s – we were dehydrated and didn’t wear enough sunscreen, and no one cared. As an adult, I’ve spent more than a decade as a travel writer and experienced extreme temperatures across the globe. I’ve felt the heat of the sun in Southeast Asia and Australia and sub-Saharan Africa and South America, planning my trips during scorching months that left my friends and family commenting, “You’re going when?” So when I tell you that what is happening in the Northwest is a singularly terrifying thing, I am not being hyperbolic.
Summers here have always been comically mild. June is historically so overcast and drizzly we call it “Junuary,” with temperatures in the 70s, about 40 degrees lower than they are today (a swing in the other direction would literally be freezing). My hometown is the least air-conditioned metro area in the country because it’s always been considered superfluous. Instead, houses in this rainy part of the world are built to retain heat in the damp winter months. There have been years where I didn’t need to unpack my tiny cache of warm weather clothing, and a July so chilly I had to turn on the heat. In recent years, when we’d watch the rest of the country enduring record high temperatures and facing once-in-a-lifetime meteorological events every few months or so, we felt positively, insufferably smug. The cool, drizzly Northwest was a haven – sure, we were all vitamin D deficient and looked a little undead from being indoors for too long. But we didn’t have hurricanes, ice storms or intense heat waves. It was constantly damp, but we could wear jeans year round. “Come visit,” we told our friends. “Bring a sweater. Do you like microbrews and seafood? We have you covered. Don’t come in October through March, it’s a puddle.”
Faced with this heat, it hits me how unprepared we all are. Most of us have earthquake and tsunami contingency plans, but few of us know how to handle a heat wave. Metro areas are struggling to set up cooling centers for unhoused people. Only 20% of King County’s water fountains are working, after being shut off during the pandemic. According to the Seattle Weather Blog, in the past three days we’ve hit 100 degrees on three separate occasions. It had previously taken us 125 years to reach that temperature three separate times.
In elementary school, children of my generation were taught the same cautionary tale over and over again: that unless we did something, the Earth would eventually turn into a cauldron. But so many of us did exactly as we were told – we turned off lights, recycled and cut apart the little plastic rings that held together six-packs – and this is still the outcome. It feels like we got a bad deal, and yet I’m not sure exactly who to complain to. At the very least, I thought we’d have more time.
I told myself the Northwest was a safe haven from heat, as though such a thing were even possible. As though somehow we were immune. Underneath the weight of this heat dome, that bubble burst. There are no guarantees that the Earth – the planet that we belong to and that we certainly seem to think belongs to us – will be comfortable or livable anywhere in the near future. It’s a staggering, terrifying thought, but, alas, the proof is in the forecast.
Monday afternoon, the temperature was 117 degrees as we drove to a friend’s house, rushing indoors to escape the sun, relentless even at 6 p.m. We tried to talk about things besides the weather. We failed. As the sky started to darken, we tentatively stepped outside. The heat dome had lifted. In a few hours, the temperature had dropped 40 degrees. I stood in the cool air, marveling at it, wondering how long it would last. I just hoped we had enough time to get our corner of the world ready for the next once-in-a-lifetime heat wave, however soon that may be.
Geraldine DeRuiter is the voice behind Everywhereist.com and the author of the memoir “All Over the Place: Adventures in Travel, True Love, and Petty Theft.”