I adore air conditioning.
It’s the apex of human ingenuity, as far as I’m concerned.
Sure, we went to the moon.
But if you build a big enough rocket — and once the basic premise was perfected, scaling up was more a matter of clever engineering than of inventive genius — you can go almost anywhere.
Especially when the American taxpayers are supplying the checkbook.
Besides which, just a dozen men actually walked on the lunar surface.
That yielded a bunch of pretty pictures and videos, and spawned a few decent books and films. But the space program, which never got me so much as a foot off the ground, also doesn’t chill my sweaty brow when I come inside after mowing the lawn on a torrid July day, my hair feeling as though I had just dunked it in a wading pool.
A tepid wading pool.
By contrast, almost every American, regardless of their level of interest in extraplanetary matters, benefits from air conditioning.
Even people who can’t artificially cool their homes get a temporary reprieve from the heat when they go to a grocery store or visit the library or even duck into the post office for a roll of stamps.
(I presume people still purchase rolls of stamps even in an era when so much of our communication relies on bytes rather than on paper, although I might be confounded by nostalgia.)
Despite the deep well of affinity I have long had for air conditioning, I don’t know that I’ve ever appreciated the technology more than I have over the past few weeks.
We have hot spells around here every summer, of course. And even a run of a few 95-degree days will heighten my affection for our two window units — one of them a modern type with most of its visible pieces rendered in plastic to cut the weight, the other a nearly ancient box, almost entirely metal, which my vertebrae insist weighs as much as a V8 engine block.
(Every spring, come the first balmy afternoon that brings a stifling preview of August to our house, I will make some halfhearted comment that includes the phrase “central air.” But the project probably is beyond our means, and nothing ever comes from it except that I start wondering where I put the plexiglas sheets that go up in the windows above our more modest — modest except in heft, in one case — portable units.)
What we don’t get — or anyway didn’t, until 2021 — is a 20-day heat wave that starts in late June.
And that tally is surely obsolete by the time you read this.
I’m writing on the 15th of July, which was the 19th day in the previous 20 when the temperature went over 90 at the Baker City Airport.
And on the one day it didn’t, the thermometer registered a peak of 89. This is a difference only a thermometer, which knows nothing of the unpleasantness of peeling off a sweat-soaked wool sock that adheres to skin with the doggedness of a barnacle, can distinguish.
But what’s truly malevolent about our recent weather — and I feel it appropriate to use “our” in this case, since we’re all subject, to varying degrees, to its treachery — is not its duration, horrible though that is.
It’s the timing.
I don’t much care for a string of torrid days at any point. But when the temperature soars to levels more associated with baked goods, and we’re better than halfway to the equinox, I can at least bask in the solace that the atmosphere will soon enough move onto other sorts of mischief, such as the tomato-killing September freeze or the pre-Halloween blizzard.
But July is barely on the wane and already my mouth feels perpetually parched, and by early afternoon my contact lenses perch atop my corneas like grits of sand.
(Unless my eyes are leaking, what with the cloying wildfire smoke. I enjoy the tang of a campfire of seasoned lodgepole. But not in my kitchen.)
The prospects are troubling.
Even if the rest of the summer reverts to normal — well, a normal late summer hereabouts entails a fair number of hot days.
By Labor Day I expect I’ll be awfully tired of the air conditioners’ constant clatter, no matter the relief that comes along with the decibels.
I had a pleasant reminder last weekend, though, that even when a dome of high pressure has descended on the Intermountain West like some vengeful force, it is possible, however briefly, to find a respite without the use of chemical refrigerants.
We went camping along the Middle Fork of the John Day, a few miles downriver from Bates.
It was hot in the afternoons while we there, even in the shade of the ponderosa pines, even while wading in the cool Middle Fork.
But at night, thanks to the principles of fluid dynamics — something perhaps almost as magical as air conditioning — the cooling air, owing to its greater density, settled into the valley and pooled there, like a frosty beer pouring into the bottom of a mug.
I awoke once in the inimitable dark of the woods, realized I was a trifle chilly and pulled the down sleeping bag snugly around my torso.
When I came awake next, in the thin light of dawn, I shambled the few steps to the counter of our trailer — it’s a popup, so a few steps is the most you can take in one journey — and picked up the little portable thermometer that I consider a mandatory item.
Its LCD numbers read 43.6.
I pondered this not minor miracle for probably several seconds.
Then I went out and kindled a fire.
And basked in the simple pleasure of waiting for the orange flames to warm fingers slightly stiff and numb in the coldest minutes of the day.
Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.