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Hot? Compared to Death Valley, It's Mild

Weather: At 123 degrees in the shade, visitors don't dawdle.


FURNACE CREEK, Calif. — The yahoo who bought the thermometer for the swimming pool deck here must have been a recent transplant from some halfway human clime.

Otherwise, he would never have picked a thermometer that maxes out at 120 degrees.

Days like Tuesday, 120 degrees sounds sort of quaint. Refreshing almost. Because days like Tuesday, you step out of your car into a dragon's belch of suffocating heat. Your elbows prickle. Your eyeballs shrivel. Even the ravens pant.

You buy a cold Coke just to rub the can on your forehead. You notice, dully, that your leather watchband has started to ooze brown goo. With about as much energy as a cocoon-snuggled caterpillar, you amble out of the way so the tourists can snap photos of the more appropriate thermometer, the one by the gas station, the one that reads 123 degrees in the shade and has room to record even more blistering highs.

Yes, a Death Valley veteran would have been prepared for days like Tuesday, would have known not to buy a thermometer topping out at 120 degrees. For this blasted desert park routinely registers the hottest temperatures in the country, as it did again Tuesday.

"What are we doing here?" moaned Francese Riverola, a 30-year-old tourist from Barcelona who had the bright idea of stopping for a picnic in Death Valley National Park at 2 p.m.

His wife and her friend were gamely trying to choke down ham sandwiches. But days like Tuesday are ideal for dieters: Nothing tastes good except cold, cold water.

Riverola gave up on his sandwich. "This is crazy," he said. Then, perspiration slicking his face so wet that he looked like a desert heat mirage, he bolted for the air-conditioned rental car. "I don't want to be rude," he said on the way. "But look at my face. This is terrible."

Most everyone agreed with that assessment. Yet still they came determined to see the fabled Death Valley on the way to Las Vegas, and never mind that it was the hottest day of the year. Some had heard the National Weather Service forecast predicting highs of 129 degrees. Others had felt the sun's wrath firsthand with conked-out air conditioners or melted car batteries on the long, winding road to the Furnace Creek Resort.

But still they had to get out and look around. They always do.

"Last year, two ladies in the group fainted," said Benoit LaFortune, who leads European tour groups through the park. "But still they wanted to come. They always want to go to Death Valley. Even if it's crazy like this."

Sensing that even craziness has a market, Amfac Parks and Resorts, which operates the mini- village of Furnace Creek inside Death Valley National Park, is opening its posh 66-room hilltop inn year-round for the first time this season. (They've cut their peak rates from $325 a night in the winter to $195 in the summer, even though August air-conditioning bills for the complex, which also includes a more affordable bungalow-style hotel, can hit $150,000 a month.)

So far, the experiment has been a hit. The inn is packed. It's proved so successful that Furnace Creek golf pro Rick Heitzig is plotting to take craziness to another level next year by opening up the links in the summer.

He's got a scheme in mind to dump buckets of ice atop golf carts and then hook up a fan to send chilled air wafting over sweaty duffers. He plans to tote water on the course, a gallon per golfer for every nine holes. And he's quite sure he'll find dozens of takers.

"I mean, what seems crazier to you, being out here in the summer, or being in Minnesota or Michigan in the winter and having to build a door on the second story of your house so when the snow piles up you can get out?" Heitzig asked.

A good point, perhaps. But the golf pro made it while lounging in the pool. Others, not as lucky, had a bit more trouble adjusting to heat so enervating that even the road runners stopped strutting.

Seeking relief, people poured water on their heads. They made strange headdresses out of paper towels wrapped in ice and they took to reminding themselves that they were on the way to Las Vegas, land of dark, cool rooms aplenty.

Also, they took time to look about. Even on days like Tuesday, when it's abundantly clear why Furnace Creek and Death Valley got their names, the park has a wild beauty to it.

The European tourists who make up the bulk of the park's summer guests remarked with pleasure on the shifting colors of the mountains, the daunting vastness of the valley.

"We thought it would be just brown or yellow," French tourist Genevieve Alhinc said, dumping water over her two young sons.

"It's beautiful, all the colors," said her husband Oliver.

In addition to 3.3 million acres of beauty, Death Valley offers one more incentive to tourists: boasting rights.

As long as there's an air-conditioned car to slip back into or a cold beer waiting at the bar, who wouldn't want to say they conquered nature at its fiercest?

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