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Notes from a Western Life
Ranging Far and Wide on the High Plains and Beyond
Linda M. Hasselstrom's Blog

Heat Wave on the Highway

. . .
Here is a follow-up to my blog about Fan Conditioning-- an excerpt from my book Land Circle.

This is the essay as it appears on my computer; copyediting may have changed it in small ways when it appeared in Land Circle, pages 261-263 in the original edition published 1991, pages 291-294 in the Anniversary edition of 2008.

Heat Wave on the Highway

Not long ago, I was speeding down highways in a seventy-mile-an-hour crosswind, my hair tangling in my glasses, spitting bugs from my teeth, and pulling bee stingers from my bare knees, while radio voices agreed the temperature was 105 degrees. I suddenly realized why people stared as I staggered into the ladies' room at rest stops to scrape bug juice off my glasses. I realized why people looked startled when I stuck my entire head under any faucet I met. I realized why I was seated next to the kitchen door even in truck stops. The door beat a rhythmic tattoo on my shoulder as waitresses dashed in and out. My ears quivered with shouts: "Roast one for three, Mac; hold the mustard on the doggie."

I'm the last one. I'm the zoo specimen, the relic, the survivor who may be captured, dissected, and interviewed. Driving to Devils Lake, North Dakota, I've passed 2,342 cars, trucks, campers, and busses, and several dozen monster tractors growling in roadside fields. I also met eighteen motorcycles with riders peering grimly through windshields decorated with dragonfly wings. Only eighteen of those vehicles didn't have air conditioners.

In fact, I'm not sure some of the motorcycles weren't air-conditioned. The modern machine has radio headphones, tape players, wraparound windshields, and so much other gear that the riders may have weather control, too. Or else those black leather outfits are fiendishly clever refrigerators; how else could they stand the heat?

The air smothered my nostrils with the odor of hot rubber, touched my taste buds with rotting silage and overheated fish; swathed me in fine dust, ashes from a prairie fire, stinging herbicides. I smelled ammoniac cow manure, choking diesel exhaust, the sharp tang of oil wells and aging roadkills, delicious roasted-on-the-stem sunflowers, nourishing vegetable gardens, peppery marigolds, resinous pine trees, bracing sagebrush, newly cut lumber, piny smoke from timber fires in a distant national park, acrid gum weed and goldenrod, sour sweat, cigarette smoke, tarred roofs, brake and radiator fluid. My unprotected skin felt blasts of hot air from the underside of passing trucks, the chill of a river bottom in arid butte country, and the slimy humidity of a swamp. My face was stung by biting gnats, my arms and knees by bees. My left arm has the distinctive red chevron of folks who drive with an elbow out the window, a once-common badge of honor now rare. Come to think of it, my elbow is probably rare as well, or possibly medium-well.

My nose quivered and sneezed and twitched all day long. My brain was busy sorting, identifying, and cataloging scents--when I wasn't counting cars. I was never bored; I was too busy being alive. But I was alone in sensing that rich tapestry of pasts, presence, and futures. I was the only person to realize a pocket of cold air swept across the highway near Bismarck, making the grass shiver for an instant, causing a horse to turn its nose north and think of winter. I experienced life today more nearly the way animals experience it all the time: as a total sensory experience, washing over my entire body, brushing every nerve, stimulating every inch of skin and each hair follicle, awakening old instincts long before my brain could make sense. All the other drivers sat in gleaming metal boxes that distinctly resemble ornate coffins, and breathed dead air sanitized for their delicate nasal passages.

I'm the last of a noble race of hardy men, women, and children who struggled to reach these plains as pioneers, walked behind a team dragging a plow through the tough soil. They are our ancestors, part of us, but we have consigned their experiences and triumphs to history, and grimace to think of their hardship. Great Plains dwellers once proudly scorned air conditioning in our houses and cars. We sneered at people rolling down highways with windows closed and frost on the dashboard. We pitied them; they were only tourists; they hadn't the strength for our heat. We thrived on it, climbed on clattering tractors that literally boil to gather hay on 110-degree days. We commented that folks with air conditioning can't smell blooming alfalfa, the green tonic of fresh-cut hay, hear meadowlarks and redwing blackbirds trilling from fenceposts. An old plains joke said a real farmer could taste the difference between Texas and South Dakota dust; we proudly compared flavors blowing through open windows wherever we drove. Now only I am left to tell the tale.

I'm no hero; I surrender. Since one can't quickly air-condition one's aging foreign car in the middle of North Dakota, and I couldn't give up my open window, I improvised. I created an air conditioner by filling a plant mister with water. Now I air-condition myself: squirt my hair, blouse, skirt, ankles, and sandaled feet. The hot wind does the rest, changing my personal climate in seconds from tropical to temperate.

My air conditioner has unique advantages; almost anyone can afford it. It's portable-- I take it with me when I walk the dog-- and cheap to repair or replace. It even has luxuries: I can wash windows, water my dog, and shoot flies buzzing against the windshield. I can soothe an itching foot without taking my attention from the highway, or cool bee stings. Try that with yours. Owners of air conditioning often whimper about cold heads and hot feet; I can independently cool selected portions of my anatomy. I've considered taking revenge on any passersby who burst into hysterical laughter by firing a stream of water to blotch their dusty windows.

Every new invention has disadvantages; I plan stops to avoid strolling into a cafe dripping water, and one truck driver laughed so hard he nearly drove into the ditch. Like all inventors, I'm sure I can overcome these minor obstacles.

# # #

For more information:
Read all about my book Land Circle on this website page.

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Fan Conditioning

. . .
I believe people should adapt to their environment, adjusting themselves to the climate in which they live, rather than trying to force nature to suit their whims. Air conditioning is one example of how we twist nature, using huge amounts of energy to create an artificial environment.

A friend recently sent me a news item about a Salina, Kansas, author, Stan Cox, who has made news by refusing to use air conditioning even when temperatures rise to 105 degrees and cattle are dying. (The cattle are dying because they are confined in feedlots; cattle left to roam on our ranch have no trouble with those temperatures, because they spend the day by alternately standing knee-deep in a stock dam or lying on top of a breezy hill chewing their cud. And see Pasture Perfect: The Far-Reaching Benefits of Choosing Meat, Eggs, and Dairy Products from Grass-Fed Animals by Jo Robinson for information on the unhealthy stuff those cattle in feedlots are eating before they appear in your local supermarket in plastic wrap.)

Stan Cox hasn’t turned his air conditioner on since 1977 He and his wife, Priti Gulati Cox, an artist, use fans to cool their rooms. They move around the house and yard in the opposite direction of the sun’s rays, staying in the basement or in shade.

Cox is the author of Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer). He says, "In a country that's among the world's highest greenhouse-gas emitters, air conditioning is one of the worst power-guzzlers. The energy required to air-condition American homes and retail spaces has doubled since the early 1990s. Turning buildings into refrigerators burns fossil fuels, which emits greenhouse gases, which raises global temperatures, which creates a need for -- you guessed it -- more air-conditioning."

He adds that air conditioning has helped turn suburban neighborhoods into dead zones; people’s interaction with their neighbors and with nature is almost nonexistent because no one goes outside. Meanwhile, in the American Sunbelt, for example, a husband and wife may get up in a 3,000 square foot air-conditioned house, get into two air-conditioned cars and commute to an office block that has cooled all night in preparation for the workday while their 24,000 cubic feet of living space is being cooled with nobody in the house.

One of the results, says Cox, is that between 1993 and 2005 our use of electricity [in the U.S.] for cooling residences and retail space doubled over that period and that, over that same period, more or less, we doubled our use of petroleum energy used in cooling automobiles.

Furthermore, he suggests that spending most of our time in a zone where the body doesn’t have to work hard to stay warm or cool could contribute to obesity. And there’s some evidence people eat more when they are cool. Instead of staying outside in summer, many people now stay inside, where activity is more sedentary.

After Cox was interviewed, many commentators wrote angry emails against his viewpoint, including predictions that the economy of the U.S. would collapse and thousands of people would die without air conditioning. When his ideas were mentioned in The Washington Post, he received 67-pages of angry emails, including death threats.

Cox notes that builders of new homes often ignore opportunities for passive cooling; a lot can be done with landscaping, with insulation, extending the eaves of houses, and other instances of planning ahead. Older homes sometimes are more easily cooled without air conditioning because it wasn’t available when they were built, so these homes often have more insulation. Some modern homes and office buildings have windows that don't even open whereas in older homes windows were properly placed for cross-ventilation. A modern home may not have a basement to supply cool air to the upstairs in the evening, and some older homes have attic fans or swamp coolers. Consider your own situation, research the possibilities, and see what you might do to eliminate or reduce your use of air conditioning.

Because of all this uproar, I’ve decided that by “fan conditioning” my homes, I’m not only reducing costs but being incredibly brave. Both my own home and Homestead House (where I conduct writing retreats) are fan conditioned.

Homestead House is well-shaded by trees, which helps keep inside temperatures down. My home, Windbreak House, is not. Because we are concerned about prairie fire, our nearest trees are too far away to cool the house. Yet this method works to keep both houses at comfortable temperatures during the hottest summer days. To be honest, I must admit that the thermometer has not registered triple digits since sometime in August, 2007, more than 1080 days without temperatures over 100 degrees. And while I have experienced many days of 100 degrees and above here, they are usually in July and August, and the humidity is usually low.

Fan conditioning a home begins with shutting windows and pulling shades early in the day, especially on the sunny side of the house. Trap cool air inside, and keep warm air out. Do this early! If you are an early riser, try shutting windows before the sun rises. By eight a.m. on warm summer days, the temperature in the house has already climbed 10 to 20 degrees from its overnight low. To test the truth of this statement, open a window in the sunshine and feel the hot air flowing in.

During the day, if the house gets warmer than is comfortable, use fans to move the air around inside the house. Fans cannot cool the air, only move it. Pointing a fan directly at you cools because it evaporates moisture from your skin. Drink plenty of water on hot days; dehydration also makes you feel warmer. You might drape a wet towel over a fan, or place a bowl of water in front of it, to put more cool moisture into the air.

Remember, though, that fans use electricity, and increase energy use and costs. Moreover, the heat given off by the fan motor increases the heat of the room. In a small room, with windows and doors closed, the heat is easily felt.

Try dampening a scarf and tying it around your neck and head; evaporation will cool you even without a fan nearby. Or soak your shirt in lukewarm (not cold) water, wring it thoroughly, and put it back on. Spray your head and clothing with water from a spray bottle. (This cooling method is portable, too; see my “Heat Wave on the Highway” in Land Circle.)

Since the body radiates heat from hands, feet, and face, cooling any of these will help cool your body; soak your bare feet in a tub of cool water. Natural fabrics (cotton, silk) wick water away from your skin better than nylon, polyester or other synthetics. If you’re going outside, wear lighter colors since dark colors absorb heat. And covering up with loose clothing, long sleeves and long skirts or pants, as citizens do in Middle Eastern countries, may keep you cooler because your skin is shaded; covering your skin also helps prevent skin cancer. And the spicy foods popular in warmer countries is part of a natural “air conditioning” system: eating them increases perspiration which cools the body by evaporation.

In late afternoon, when windows are in shadow, compare the inside and outside temperatures. Only when the air outside is cooler than that inside should you open the shades and windows.

Place a fan in a west-facing window in late afternoon, blowing out; this will help draw cool air inside from the east side of the house and from the basement. Close the window firmly on the fan to keep it from rattling itself out of the window, or buy fans made to fit windows. Later, you may wish reverse the flow, blowing cool air in.

One source says you can speed the house’s cooling by opening cupboard doors at night, too; cupboards store the heat. Turn off unnecessary lights and other electrical equipment; TVs, computers-- they all give off heat.

Windbreak House doesn’t have a clothesline (yet), but I frequently air blankets and pillows and dry laundry by hanging it on the deck railings. We often use the Homestead House clothesline-- refurbished since my mother used it-- to air out blankets and throws between retreats. Some neighborhoods ban these devices as “unsightly,” thus making it actually illegal to save energy and get fresh air while doing laundry.

But that’s another rant.

# # #

For more information:
Search the term "clothesline ban" or see the following websites
Earth911 website
Care2 website

For information about grassfed animals see the website for the American Grassfed Association
and the website for Eat Wild

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