Extra Utah: Surviving (And Thriving) In Utah’s Hottest Town
This summer, KUER producer Benjamin Bombard is traveling around Utah looking for places that are … extra. Extreme. He recently visited the hottest place in the state. If you’ve spent any time in Utah, you probably already know where that is.
The hottest place in Utah is nowhere near as remote as the other places I’ve visited for the stories in this series. It’s right off of I-15. It’s St. George.
I had already made plans to go there on July 5. The day before that, on Independence Day, I called up Christine Kruse, a lead meteorologist at the National Weather Service office here in Salt Lake City. As we spoke, Kruse sat at her desk, pulling up official records on her computer. She told me that the highest temperature ever recorded in Utah was set on July 5, 1985, in St. George, where the thermometer topped out at 117 degrees.
So that confirms it: St. George is the hottest place in the state.
But, as Kruse noted, it isn’t just hot every once in a while.
“The average number of days where [St. George] goes above 100 degrees is, it looks like, around 50,” Kruse said. “They do hit 110, and the record for that is 20. They hit 110 twenty times in 1994. It’s a hot place.”
On the day I visited town — coincidentally 36 years to the day since the official hottest temperature in the state was recorded — Kruse’s office had forecasted a high of 106 degrees. That’s a relatively normal summer day by St. George standards.
I’m a cold weather guy, though. I begin to wilt in anything over 90 degrees. So, I wanted to find out how people deal with such consistent heat.
Christmas In July
In an artsy shop in the center of town, I met Melissa Daams. She grew up in St. George, and as she told me, her father still talks about that record-hot day nearly 40 years ago.
“I think his pickup truck maybe didn’t have air conditioning,” Daams recalled. “And he was just driving with the windows down and being so hot and he couldn’t wait to get off work and get to the city pool.”
Daams was seated beside a table populated with crocheted creatures: mushrooms, bees, dinosaurs, even a mermaid.
Like a lot of people in St. George, she spends most of the summer indoors.
“I crochet a lot. See all these little guys,” Daams said, gesturing to the woolen menagerie assembled beside her. “Normally crochet is like such a winter hobby in other climates, right? But in St. George, it’s a summer hobby.”
Learning To Go With It
Another coping strategy I heard about again and again: Get out in the morning, while it’s still cool.
In the retirement community of Rio Virgin Estates, I met three old guys playing horseshoes just after sunrise. Warren Gordon, 82 years old, and Waldo Burnham, who’s 80, squared off against each other and 97-year-old Armond James.
I asked them if they’re ever bothered by the heat. Burnham said he loves it. James said, “You just have to put up with it.” Gordon said that some years he’ll play pickleball all summer. “You just go out early, play at 8 or 8:30, and you’re back in the air-conditioning by 10:30 or 11.”
Gordon’s originally from Seattle. He says that because it’s so dry in St. George — which is about twice as dry as Salt Lake City — the weather just feels different.
“It feels 12 degrees warmer when it’s cold and 12 degrees cooler when it’s warm. Go to Seattle, and it’s 80 and you’re just dripping and it’s terrible. Here 80 is perfect,” Gordon said.
“You don’t have any choice,” James chimed in. “You just go with it.”
How Hot Is It?
But how do you just go with it when it feels like you’re baking alive? That’s what one person told me the heat feels like. Another said it’s like standing in front of a blow dryer set on high.
But the best description I heard of the St. George heat came from Douglas Blackford, whom I happened to meet at a packed restaurant downtown. Blackford, who used to be an auto mechanic, said at its worst, it’s like working underneath the hood of a vehicle when the engine is running hot.
“You’ve got the hood up,” he said. “The radiator’s right here, and the fan’s blowing on you. It kind of reminds me of that a little bit, except you can’t step back and get away from it and get cooler.”
As the day warmed up and an afternoon breeze started to blow, I got a taste for myself of what Blackford was talking about. As I wandered around town, the temperature rose to 107.
With climate change and severe drought, though, it’s only going to get hotter in St. George. Armond James, one of the old guys playing horseshoes, said it’s already happening.
“I sure notice the heat more this year than I ever have, and I’ve been here 23 years,” he said. “Seems like it gets hotter every year now, down here. But you get used to it.”
Warren Gordon reminded me that he and his horseshoe buddies are retired. “We can choose to stay indoors when we want to,” he said.
What James had said about getting used to the heat struck me as representative of a very human trait: adaptability. I mentioned this to Gordon, and he said, “Yeah, you do adapt, but it’s pretty hard to adapt to 115.”
Which raises a question St. George is facing: How hot is too hot?
Because according to Christine Kruse, the meteorologist, the town is getting hotter, for a fact. The average summer temperature, she said, has climbed about ten degrees in the past hundred or so years, from roughly 76 to 86 degrees.
Even the record for the hottest official temperature in the state is no longer safe. Earlier this month, on July 10, St. George tied the state record at 117 degrees.
Summer’s not over, though. And as heat continues to bake every corner of the state, it might be a good idea to listen to the St. Georgians: Play your horseshoes in the morning; stay inside and crochet in the heat of the day; and, as Warren Gordon told me, find shade.