Several million people migrate to Las Vegas each year for a long weekend in search of it. We certainly have more than our share, and there’s no question our local economy has endured through the decades in large part because of it. We brag about it, we sell it, and we’re famous for it.
Get your mind out of the gutter: I’m not referring to sex. I’m talking about the heat that has encased us since the middle of May and will not ease up until late September.
Sometime in the next few weeks, maybe as late as Labor Day, I promise a neighbor will peer at you from under a floppy hat and sweaty brow and say something akin to, “Ya know, I think this is the hottest summer we’ve ever had.”
And that neighbor is convinced he’s right. This pronouncement will come shortly after his sprinkler system has gone on the fritz, and what’s left of his environmentally incorrect front lawn has turned the color of French fries. Or maybe the utterance will occur after he left a six-pack of Mountain Dew in the back of his Hummer, and the reflection off the rear window exploded the plastic bottles and left his faux-leather upholstery smelling like an incontinent cat.
Certainly, we were reminded of the heat hourly this month as our beloved Mount Charleston burned out of control.
Of course, this won’t be our hottest summer ever, or even mark the hottest day. And that’s because before we laid down all this turf and bulldozed all the caliche to make room for the thriving megalopolis we inhabit today, it used to get seriously hot in Las Vegas. Like 10 or 15 degrees hotter than now, with no air-conditioning or even SPF 30 to slather on for protection. I can only imagine that early settlers in our town walked around six shades darker than George Hamilton and with skin the texture of Naugahyde. A kiss on the cheek in downtown Las Vegas circa 1920 must have felt like putting a lip-lock on a coconut.
But sure enough, come middle October, when the days become as warm and comfortable as your favorite old sweater, and the evenings cry out for a salty margarita as you sit on the front stoop or by the pool, that same neighbor will peek across the hedge and say, “This is why we live in Las Vegas … what heavenly weather!”
We all need to learn the hard way how to have proper respect for the summer sun in Las Vegas. I was no different upon my long-ago arrival. Coming from the distinctly unbalmy Pacific Northwest, I didn’t have near enough schooling in the ferocity of the desert when I fell into town in the mid-1970s. I just knew that having a suntan was important if a guy was trying to compete for debutantes against the lounge lizards that hung out in the nightclubs of the day, places such as Dirty Sally’s (located where the Wynn Resort now stands) and Diana’s Bananas (near the site of Morton’s Steakhouse on Flamingo and Paradise). So I logged my share of pool time and quickly learned that Hawaiian Tropic Red Label was the surest way to look like Julio Iglesias (note to younger readers: he’s Enrique’s old man, only better looking and without the pretentious stocking cap).
So that first summer, I went for the Greek-god look, albeit with a body that looked more like Funky Winkerbean’s. I would lie by the pool at my apartment building and grab an hour of midday rays before reporting to my swing-shift blackjack-dealing job at the Four Queens. It was a relatively hip gig for a twenty-something guy who’d spent the last six years in higher education and needed a respite from the halls of academe. A fairly successful pickup line to a college girl playing “21” went something like this: “Stick around until I get off work at 3 a.m., and I’ll show you the real Las Vegas.”
The question I didn’t want to confront back then was what a guy with a master’s degree in American Literature was doing pitching cards at midnight in Sin City, but that’s a story for another day.
Anyway, one afternoon after a night I wanted to forget I was basking at my pool wearing a swimming suit that was tailored more like baggy boxing trunks. Significantly, the suit was without that important stitched-in netting that is so essential to decency in male swimwear. (Remember, I was from up north — granola country. You wouldn’t have caught me dead in one of those banana hammocks that posers wear at Venice Beach or the French Riviera.)
After coating myself with tanning goo, I fell into a deep slumber. I was awakened about an hour later by a lounger who suggested I was getting perhaps too much sun. As I gathered myself up, I noticed that my trunks hadn’t covered everything they were meant to, and I had a searing pain in an inconvenient area. If you think of the classic holiday song about “chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” you’ll have more information than is required to understand my predicament.
Now when a man has second-degree burns down there, he’s about as incapacitated as a fellow can get. Your gait is dramatically altered, your ability to stand upright at a blackjack table and issue playing cards over an eight-hour shift is nil, and any thought that your bronze Adonis-like tan can result in an amorous embrace is completely eradicated. The only thing you want to snuggle is a vinegar-soaked cloth. I missed the next three days of work for an ailment I described to my shift boss as “sunstroke.”
For those requiring actual, rather than anecdotal, proof that we have blistering summers in Las Vegas, chew for a while on these stats from the Weather Channel. Our average high temperature hits the century mark or above every single day from June 17 to August 28. Our hottest week historically is this week (from July 17 to July 24), and the lowest temperature ever recorded from June 20 through Sept. 4 is 56 degrees. Shoot, when it gets up to 56 degrees in Minnesota, the lake-lovers don their Foster Grants and crank up the jet skis.
The Weather Channel will tell you that the highest official temperature ever achieved in Las Vegas was 117 degrees, but I have to believe that number was fudged downward by bagmen from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and the Chamber of Commerce, in the interest of not scaring away tourist dollars. Just get in your car in August at 3:30 p.m., after it’s been sitting in an open parking space for two hours, and without thinking, insert your car key in the metal ignition. You will instantly recite the alphabet in Swahili and utter words you hadn’t heard since you read your Uncle Charlie’s pilfered copy of Tropic of Cancer as a juvenile.
So when the actual temperature continues to soar past 115 in the next few weeks, just calmly sip a mint julep and keep uttering the mantra that keeps us all sane: “It’s a dry heat … it’s a dry heat.”
Longtime Las Vegas resident and author Jack Sheehan’s column appears monthly. He says he loves the city, with all its wonder and weirdness, and thinks it offers the richest menu of writing material on the planet. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org