December 18, 2012
“Faces From Afar” is a new series in which Off the Road profiles adventurous travelers exploring unique places or pursuing exotic passions. Know a globetrotter we should hear about? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On September 6, 2011, excited North Korean soccer fans took part in a “wave”—that tradition of American baseball games in which spectators stand in unison row at a time, creating the effect of a moving swell of people that surges around the stadium. It may have been among the first waves to occur in Pyongyang international soccer stadium. To Michael and Larissa Milne, the two American tourists who helped initiate that particular wave, the incident bore underlying elements of conformity, fear and repressed freedom of expression. The wave took easily within the seating section of the Milnes’ 50-person tour group. The North Korean spectators, however, were wary, trained from birth in the arts of restraint, caution and passivity. They resisted through several false starts—but finally, the wave overpowered their inhibitions. Maybe it just seemed safer at this point to join. Anyway, the wave surged along with the seemingly unstoppable force of rapture and critical mass—before stopping dead as perhaps only the wave can in a dictatorship.
As Michael Milne described it on his blog Changes in Longitude, “When it finally reached the central seating area set aside for party VIPs, not a fanny left its seat. The wave didn’t just ebb there but was stopped cold, like it broke against an unyielding stone jetty.”
The party, of course, rules North Korea, where a line of dictators has run the nation with almost superhuman power since the years following the Korean War. While citizens are sternly guarded from outside influences—including Internet access and global film culture—traveling here is surprisingly easy for tourists. Thus, when the Milnes sold their Philadelphia home and most of their possessions in the summer of 2011 and commenced on a long and ambitious world tour, they quickly struck upon the wild idea of visiting one of the world’s most mysterious and forbidding places. They made mandatory arrangements with one of several government-permitted tour companies, paid a slight visa fee at the border crossing from China, temporarily forfeited their cellphones, computers, other handheld tech gadgets and even their books, and took a five-day plunge into full darkness.
“In North Korea, you’re totally cut off from the outside world,” Michael told me from New York City during a recent phone interview. “You have no idea what’s going on outside. We didn’t even know how the Phillies were doing.” (They made it as far as the National League Division Series.)
Military omnipresence and jeering loudspeakers bring the classic Orwellian distopia to life. Party members in North Korea are well-fed and prosperous, while citizens walk in straight lines and speak softly—and Big Brother is always watching. For natives, there is no exit. But tourists enjoy surprising liberty. They must remain either in the company of the group tour or within the confines of their hotel, and photography is restricted in places, like during bus rides between tourist attractions. Otherwise, outsiders may mingle with the people—whom the Milnes describe as being just as friendly and gregarious as can be—and take photos of the country’s grandest features. Popular tourist attractions include monuments honoring former national leader Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994 and is now known both as Great Leader and Eternal President, various museums and the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on the border between the two Koreas. Here, no physical barrier separates the nations, and soldiers from each side stare coldly at one another. The DMZ offers tourists a rare opportunity for a telling side by side comparison of North and South Koreans.
“The soldiers on the South Korean side are muscular, vigorous,” Michael said. “But the North Koreans are swimming in their uniforms, and these are the soldiers they’ve chosen to put on display.”
The difference in stature can be attributed, the Milnes told me, to hunger. Food is of poor quality in North Korea, they said, and many people can’t afford it. Restaurants for tourists are a different story, providing lavish feasts that may leave visitors impressed by North Korea’s evident opulence—or just embarrassed, as the Milnes were, by the needless waste.
The Arch of Triumph is another showpiece proudly presented to all tourists. The monument was built in 1982 to honor Kim Il Sung and commemorate North Korea’s military resistance to Japan. It was also built a few inches taller than the Parisian Arc de Triomphe—which tour leaders, who speak a transparent curriculum of government-mandated material, are quick to point out.
Propaganda sounds from all directions in North Korea, and for outsiders it’s easy to identify. For example, state-run media perpetuates an altered history of World War II in which the military forces under Kim Il Sung supposedly defeated Japan singlehandedly. The Milnes also visited the ship-turned-museum USS Pueblo, which North Korean authorities captured, detained and kept as a military trophy in 1968. Here they saw a piece of U.S. Naval history wiped clean of fact and refurnished with exaggerations. The ship is now presented as a symbol of North Korea’s dominion over the United States—considered a great enemy of the state. Larissa, also on conference call, said to me, “For America, the Pueblo incident was a minor blip in a series of many, many world events, but for them, it’s a bright and shining event. It really shows how North Korea clings to the past.”
During an outing to a North Korean amusement park called the Pyongyang Fun Fair, the Milnes and the other tourists quickly noticed that something strange was at play here: There were no laughter, shrieks or cries of joy. The people were silent. “An amusement park without noise is a strange thing,” Michael said. Surely, the physiology of North Koreans is not immune to that electric thrill that most of us know from roller coaster free falls—but nobody dared raised their voice. At least, they didn’t dare until the British and American tourists did so first. Then, the effect turned contagious; whoops and cheers spread through the crowds, and vocal chords chronically underused began to explore uncharted territory of decibel levels.
The trained passivity of the people showed itself, too, at the aforementioned soccer match between Tajikistan and North Korea. Though the home team would ultimately beat the visitors 1-0, the Milnes watched North Korea play with a troubling absence of spirit. Michael wrote on his blog at the time that the players, after maneuvering the ball past the legs of the defending Tajikistanis all the way down the field, would turn sluggish, unambitious and reluctant each time it appeared there was a chance to score. Repeatedly, just shy of the goal, the North Koreans appeared to intentionally divert the ball away from the net. Michael and Larissa attributed this pattern to the North Koreans’ reluctance to be noticed and their fear of failure.
“This is a society where no one wants to be the standing nail,” Michael said.
Throughout their world tour, the Milnes had used a creative and surprisingly effective tool for breaking ice and building bridges across cultures: a six-inch-tall statue of perhaps the world’s most famous boxer, Rocky Balboa. Many times during interactions with strangers, when words between the people could not be produced, the Milnes took their little plastic prize fighter from a day pack, and what followed was nearly always laughter, cheers and shouts of “Rocky!” But when the Milnes took out “Little Rocky” for a photo op at the North Korean Arch of Triumph—part of an ongoing series featuring Little Rocky around the world—nobody in a group of bystanders recognized or knew the name of the muscled likeness of Sylvester Stallone, his arms raised, boxing gloves on his hands. It was only one of two times that Rocky was not recognized (the other was in the Kalahari, when the Milnes produced Little Rocky for a photo op with a group of San people). North Koreans, of course, are deprived of Internet access, of literature, magazines and newspapers from the wider world, of popular television and of most films. That a movie glorifying an American fighting champion has never publicly screened in North Korea is hardly a surprise.
The Milnes are currently resting in New York and plotting their next moves—which may include writing a travel memoir as well as beginning a tour of North America. Whatever they do, they don’t want to settle just yet. They are enjoying a rare level of freedom, a nomadic lifestyle void of belongings as well as that thing most of us believe is only a blessing—a home.
November 8, 2012
Ever since Sean Connery first strode onto the screen in 1962 as a dapper secret agent with the code name 007, the world has been riveted by the character called James Bond. He has grace, confidence, delivery and deadly power—and he also travels. Dr. No, the inaugural film in the series, featured the gleaming waters and blazing beaches of Jamaica. The next year, From Russia with Love took audiences farther afield to Turkey, the Balkans and Venice. Through the ’60s, Bond’s creators drilled audiences with film after film, almost every year, as James Bond appeared in such places as Egypt, the Bahamas, Amsterdam, Japan, the Alps and Portugal. All the while he wooed sizzling exotic women and outsmarted absurdly wicked villains. Though Bond’s was a dangerous world of spies, gold, weapons, ninjas and nuclear war, he swaggered fearlessly through it, from one fantastic landscape to another.
In 1960, fewer than 2 percent of Americans had traveled abroad by air—and many who watched Bond do business in one thrilling place after another were enthralled.
Perhaps, millions pondered, America was not enough.
Through the 1970s air travel become mainstream, replacing trans-Atlantic ocean liners. Europe was suddenly just hours away, and Americans began turning up in numbers throughout the world. By the 1980s, the airline age was in full swing, and with the rise in global travel, James Bond tourism attractions would begin to appear. Consider Khao Phing Kan: After it was featured in 1974′s The Man with the Golden Gun, this beautiful Thai island became a hot tourist attraction and even gained the popular nickname “James Bond Island.” And in the 1980s the very abode in Jamaica where author Ian Fleming dreamed up the Bond world opened as the luxurious GoldenEye Hotel.
Bond’s association with travel and place would solidify through the years. Most recently, with the British release last month of the 23rd Bond film Skyfall, travel agencies and publications have pushed a flurry of James Bond tourism campaigns. Forbes Magazine recently listed the best luxury hotels at which James Bond ever spent a night; on November 2, DesMoinesRegister.com named the best places for following in Bond’s footsteps; a Caribbean “adventure tours” company called Island Routes features a “007 Thunderball Luxury Tour“; a Japanese tour agency is promoting a 13-night Bond-based itinerary inspired by 1967′s You Only Live Twice”; and VisitBritain, the tourism agency of James Bond’s home country, is hinging a fresh tourism push on the hype surrounding Skyfall.
With the American release of the new film this weekend, starring Daniel Craig in his third venture as 007, the James Bond film franchise turns 50 years old. The immortal spy has now traveled in 50 countries and logged 180,000 miles of air travel, by the Huffington Post‘s estimate. Surely, Bond has out-traveled virtually all of us in a world often depicted as absurd and cartoonishly implausible. Yet Bond’s world is the real world, and where he has gone, his fans are sure to follow.
These are just five of the most beautiful sites where the world’s favorite spy has done business.
James Bond Island, Thailand. Classic James Bond met classic Thailand in the 1974 film The Man with the Golden Gun. Actor Roger Moore, who had by then replaced Connery as the dashing spy, pursued Bond’s nemesis Francisco Scaramanga to Khao Phing Kan, a pair of craggy islands draped in greenery that jut like monoliths from a placid turquoise sea. It is the Thailand of a million tourists’ dreams—of a coastline so stunning it looks at times more like a computer-generated dreamscape than a real product of time, water, jungle and geology. Bond was there in its virgin days, before the crowds, and before it became known as James Bond Island.
Contra Dam, Ticino, Switzerland. The opening scene of GoldenEye featured Bond, played by Pierce Brosnan, taking a dizzying leap from an enormous dam in what would later be voted the greatest film stunt of all time. The Contra Dam, also called the Verzasca Dam or Locarno Dam, is located in the Swiss Alps on the Verzasca River. Tourists may visit the dam—and those with a heart for first-class spy-style adventure may even bungee jump off the face. The top of the dam is 720 feet above the stream below, making it one of the world’s highest bungee jumps.
Gibraltar. In 1987, the famed rock set the stage for the opening scene of The Living Daylights, in which Timothy Dalton as Bond leaps off a cliff and onto the roof of a runaway Land Rover in one of the finer Bond action sequences. The scene, actually filmed through repeated runs on the same short stretch of road, ends with a turn off a cliff, a parachute leap, a fiery explosion and a suave Bond-style landing on a yacht.
Meteora Agia Triada monasteries, northern Greece. In the 11th century, Byzantine hermits perched upon the spectacular pinnacles; in the 1300s and 1400s, the monasteries were built; and, in 1981, popular fame finally arrived for the monasteries of Meteora with the Bond film For Your Eyes Only. James Bond was still in his Moore days when he scaled the limestone cliffs to reach the lair of villain Kristalos. Today, rock climbing is one of the attractions of Meteora.
Green Grotto Caves, Jamaica. The 1973 Bond installment Live and Let Die leads our spy into the voodoo world of New Orleans and the thug lairs of New York. Finally, Bond enters the Green Grotto Caves of Discovery Bay, Jamaica, where he deals appropriately with the villainous drug lord Kananga. The caves, which lead for a mile underground and are inhabited by several of Jamaica’s 21 bat species, have been used as a hideout for escaping slaves, as a stash for weapons smugglers and as a storage depot for rum handlers. Stalagmites, stalactites, sun holes in the ceiling, a subterranean tidal pond and green algae coating the walls create the incredible beauty of the caves. Also featured in Live and Let Die was Jamaica’s Falmouth Crocodile Farm, where Bond ran across the backs of a line of lounging crocodiles to reach safety. The farm, also known as the Falmouth Swamp Safari, is now a tourist attraction that, like so many others on earth, flaunts the fact that, once long ago, James Bond was here.
November 5, 2012
The presidential candidates look as suave and dapper as ever each time they step to a new podium on the long and winding campaign trail—but each man’s well-groomed countenance belies the rigors of the arduous road each has traveled during the 2012 presidential race. Following is a discussion, with some facts and figures from behind the scenes, about the two men fighting to have America’s most demanding job and each candidate’s long, long journey that ends tomorrow at the polls.
Where the candidates have been:
Between June 1 and November 2, the Obama camp—including the president, the vice president and each man’s spouse—made 483 campaign-related appearances. Barack Obama was present for 214 of them. The same four-tiered Romney party, meanwhile, made 439 appearances, with 277 by Romney. In late September, the Obama campaign’s efforts seemed to max out: on September 22, the Obamas and the Bidens made 11 appearances, and 10 the day prior. The Romney camp has more recently made its most active efforts, with 10 appearances on October 31, and 11 the next day. Barack Obama has not visited Montana, Idaho, or Wyoming, among other states, and neither candidate has bothered appearing in Maine, Kansas, Nebraska, Tennessee, Kentucky and Oklahoma.
On October 24, Obama had what may have been the busiest day of his campaign. He flew 5,300 miles and made appearances in Iowa, Colorado, California (to appear on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno) and Nevada, before, at last, catching some sleep on an overnight trip to the major swing state of Florida (which has seen 112 campaign visits by both presidential husband-wife quartets since June), where the campaigning commenced the following morning. Later that day, the president continued to Virginia, Ohio and Illinois, where he cast an early vote. A week later, Obama made another campaign sprint beginning on October 31; forty-eight hours later he had bounded 6,500 miles around the country. November 1 was a particularly exhausting day. After leaving the White House at 9:20 a.m., he hit Green Bay, Las Vegas, Denver and, finally, Columbus, Ohio. And on November 4, he left the White House at 8 a.m. and made visits to New Hampshire, Florida, Ohio, Colorado and Illinois.
How they get there:
The president gets around in his own private jet, called Air Force One. While “Air Force One” is, in fact, the call sign of any Air Force plane on which a U.S. president is traveling, the term more commonly refers to a particular pair of customized Boeing 747s used exclusively by the White House. Operating the planes is not cheap. ABC News has reported that an hour of flight on Air Force One costs about $180,000–usually of taxpayers’ money, unless a flight is considered strictly part of the campaign. But Obama does occasionally journey overland by bus—specifically in a black, slick and shiny armored coach that, just like its duplicate vehicle, cost $1.1 million when the Secret Service purchased the pair last year. By some guesses, Ground Force One, as it’s been dubbed and which has been active during this campaign, travels just six to nine miles on a gallon of gasoline.
Mitt Romney has also covered some impressive distance during his campaign. According to the Huffington Post, Romney will make a last-minute, four-day, 15,000-mile dash that ends tonight after visits to seven states, and he has traveled tens of thousands of miles throughout the campaign. As of late August, he has been traveling mostly on a private jet—a McDonnell-Douglas 83. Running mate Paul Ryan has his own plane—a similar model called the DC-90.
Where they sleep:
Luxury travel goes hand in hand with luxury lodging, and the president has stayed at the Beverly Hills Beverly Hilton Hotel in a room that costs $4,000 per night, the Ballantyne Hotel in Charlotte, North Caroline, the Hotel Bellevue in Washington, and many other fine establishments. And Romney has stayed at the Charleston Place Hotel in Charleston, the New York Palace Hotel, which can cost $9,000 per night, and the Millennium Bostonian Hotel.
How they stay fit:
In spite of their busy schedules, Obama and Romney both take the time to care for themselves and maintain physical fitness. Romney, it’s been reported, jogs three miles daily, whether on treadmills, around the hotel premises or on trails. Obama, too, keeps an exercise routine and aims for 45 minutes of boosted heart rate per day, achieved through running, basketball and even boxing. Although one of the Air Force One jets contains a treadmill, as Obama recently told Jay Leno, the stationary running machine was installed during a previous presidency and Obama does not jog on it during flights.
In the end, for all the sleepless nights and airport marathons and shaking of hands, we wonder: Did their campaign efforts steer the election? Whether Romney wins or Obama, America will know soon which man will get to spend the next four years flying in Air Force One.
September 26, 2012
Wheels good, wings bad.
Environmental activists seem to bleat this mantra frequently in discussions about climate change, whether it’s a sustainable thing to travel and—if we must go anywhere at all—whether it’s better to fly or drive. It’s true that going anywhere via a combustion engine, or even an electric one, produces greenhouse gases. But how much worse, if at all, are the impacts of flying than those of driving? I’ve spent my week sifting through online information, processing data and crunching numbers, and the answer seems to be that flying can be significantly more efficient per traveler, per mile, than driving a car.
Dubious? Then put on your seatbelts, and let’s take a trip through statistic country. Let’s start with a look at the most famous of jets, the Boeing 747. The Boeing website states that this model, with a gas tank capacity of 63,500 gallons, may burn five gallons of jet fuel per mile of flight. A 4,000-mile flight, then, requires 20,000 gallons of fuel. Divided among roughly 400 passengers, that’s 50 gallons of fuel to move each person aboard from, say, Chicago to London. A Honda Civic that gets 30 miles per gallon would need 133 gallons of fuel to make a trip of the same distance. Shared between two passengers (which may be a generous split; the average car carries 1.6 people in America), that would be 66.5 gallons per traveler. And an RV might move just seven miles on a gallon of gasoline. Split between the two people on board, that would be about 285 gallons of fuel each on a 4,000-mile tour. So far, air travel is looking to be more efficient.
If we keep studying this, the case for flying seems to build: According to FlightStats, an online air travel stat source, an average of 90,000 flights take off every day. The average flight distance is tough to determine, but this site calculated that the average distance of a medium-haul flight is 1,651 miles, so we’ll go with that (though many, many flights are probably 300-mile short hauls). At the 747 rate of five gallons per mile, that’ s 8,255 gallons burned per flight. And times 90,000 daily flights, that’s about 740 million gallons of fuel burned every day by airplanes—a very rough attempt at an estimate, but we get the idea.
Now for land travel: Americans alone reportedly drive 11 billion miles per day, according to these numbers from the Bureau of Transportation. A 2006 report (PDF) from the Environmental Defense Fund stated that Americans are responsible for 45 percent of the world’s vehicle emissions. That means we can roughly double—plus some—those 11 billion gallons per day to get the global total, which we’ll pin at 25 billion miles. If the average efficiency of a vehicle was as good as 25 miles per gallon (wiki.answers says it’s more like 20 in America), then we can easily calculate that automobiles worldwide consume about one billion gallons of fuel per day.
The score: Automobiles, 1 billion gallons of fuel burned per day, airplanes 740 million. (But according to Carbonica, a carbon offset consultant for businesses, the discrepancy is much greater—and in favor of airplanes. Carbonica’s website states that whereas land transport accounts for 10 percent of carbon emissions, with personal vehicles the major component, commercial airplanes account for just 1.6 percent of emissions.)
Let’s do more math: Jet fuel produces 21 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per gallon burned. (How is that possible, you ask, if a gallon of fuel weighs less than seven pounds? When hydrocarbon molecules separate through combustion, the carbon atoms recombine with two clunky oxygen atoms each, accounting for substantial weight gain.) And gasoline produces almost 20 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per gallon burned. About the same for each, meaning that we get more emissions globally from cars than we do from airplanes.
Now, let’s look at this from another angle and see if the results look similar: Airplanes measure fuel efficiency by how far one seat can travel per gallon, and, according to Department of Transportation data reported in the Wall Street Journal, major U.S. airlines average 64 seat miles per gallon. Let’s say again that the average American car moves 25 miles per gallon, with each car carrying, on average, 1.6 people. Translated into airline units, that’s 40 seat miles per gallon for a car. Airplanes, it still appears, are more efficient than cars.
Some sources report very different conclusions than mine. For example, this article from the U.K.-based Environmental Transport Association reports flying to be about three times more carbon costly than driving. But they came to this conclusion because their calculations are based on an extremely short-haul flight of 185 miles (Manchester to London, one-way) and a very efficient car. Because so much fuel is incinerated during an airplane’s takeoff, the longer the flight, the more efficient it is (though only to a point, due to the fact that it takes fuel to carry fuel, and fuel is heavy; the “sweet spot” for airplane efficiency seems to be about 4,500 miles).
Obviously, the more people that can be crammed onto an airplane, the less ownership each individual has in the fumes that it leaves behind. Thus, one obvious fault of the aviation industry is the fact that an airplane, even if just a handful of seats are sold, must still make the scheduled flight: When I flew from Auckland, New Zealand, to San Francisco in February, every passenger on board had room to lie down. In a perfect world, that flight would have been canceled.
Before you walk away thinking flying is greener than driving, consider some key points. First, airplanes emit their fumes directly into the upper atmosphere, where they may linger longer and cause more damage than the same gases at lower altitudes. Second, air travel is not a service that very often takes us places that we really need to be. That is, the Boston businessman that flies once a week to Miami for meetings would not be using a car to make the same journey if airplanes didn’t exist. He might simply not go at all. (Though in a better world, Americans might enjoy a high-speed rail system. Consider, Europe, home of the TGV; and Japan, where the magnetic levitation train seems almost a trick of magic, moving nearly as fast as an airplane on virtually no fuel. One of the most reliable “high-speed” train corridors in America, according to this article, is the one between Boston and D.C., served by an iron horse that clunks along at 70 miles per hour.) And the cyclist that flies from Seattle to Lisbon for a two-month bicycle tour of Europe might simply never go at all if it required taking a multiweek boat trip just to get to the starting point. She might, instead, explore the Cascades and the Rockies—not a bad alternative. (But this group of musicians—the Ginger Ninjas, which I featured several months ago—has toured in Europe by bicycle after traveling there by boat.) In this sense, flying is bad since it is not replacing another means of transport; it is simply offering the world’s wealthy another travel option. It is a luxury.
What’s more, the airline industry is growing. According to this post in the Guardian‘s “Travel Blog,” air travel may not be a big contributor to carbon emissions, but it’s been among the fastest-growing causes of global warming for years, with the industry expanding at 5 percent annually. And with the world’s most populous country now becoming among the wealthiest, hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens may soon enter the ranks of the frequent flier, as predicted by Boeing, which expects its passenger traffic to triple by 2030—with most of that growth occurring in China.
Drawing a single conclusion from this discussion isn’t easy, given the many variables, like a plane’s seating capacity, its fuel load, the flight distance and the number of passengers on board. But there is one statement you’d have trouble arguing with: If you hope to visit Hawaii this fall, you should probably fly.
Wings good, wheels good—propeller simply awful: If you think a Boeing 747 is inefficient at five gallons to the mile, then try to swallow this: The Queen Elizabeth II moves 29 feet per gallon. That’s 200 gallons of fuel burned per nautical mile. But the cruise ship, retired as of 2008, could carry as many as 1,777 passengers, plus another 1,040 crew members. Now that’s a boat in the carpool lane.
August 16, 2012
Headlines this summer have announced 2012 as America’s hottest year on record, with particularly brutal heat waves striking the Northeast, and stunning temperature highs all but cooking Death Valley and other Southwest desert hotspots.
What many papers have not pointed out, however, is that 2012 is shaping up to be among the warmest on record worldwide. In June, across the planet, the average land temperature was the highest since such record-keeping began in 1880. And factoring in ocean temperatures, the month of June was the fourth hottest June since 1880. The same data source, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, shows that May 2012 was comparably scorching in the Northern Hemisphere. The global report for July is not yet available, but the national analysis is in—and the month burned like never a July has before. The lower 48 states’ 31-day temperature average of 77.6 degrees Fahrenheit made July 2012 the warmest single month ever recorded in America since national records began in 1895. Also during July, fires across America burned more than two million acres. Now, it’s August, and while we’re eagerly awaiting the next monthly summary, we don’t need a government climatologist to tell us that it’s broiling out there. Fires are sweeping the country, and farmers are grumbling about a drought. Global warming? It feels that way.
Following are a few of the hottest of hotspots where recent weather extremes are making 2012 a summer to write home about.
Spain. I was there, pedaling a bicycle through the Spanish interior in late June, and I almost cooked. The land was erupting in flames. Distant plumes of smoke marked brush and forest fires while helicopters in response came and went. Nights were balmy and comfortable, and mornings weren’t intolerable—but by noon each day the mercury edged past 100, and from 3 p.m. until about 7, the heat made riding a bike impossible. For four days I baked, spending one miserable afternoon on La Ruta de Don Quixote, a pathetic gravel trail through the scrub and desert, and itself the subject of a feeble tourism marketing campaign. Signage was poor and of water there was none. Windmills towered above me on a low ridge—but there was not a shade tree to be found. Relief came two days later, on the 26th, when, at last, I rolled into the air-conditioned terminal of Madrid-Barajas International Airport. June 2012 in Spain would clock out as the fourth-hottest Spanish June since 1960. The day I got out of that oven, temperatures peaked, reaching 111 degrees Fahrenheit in Cordoba.
Death Valley. On July 11, the temperature hit 128 degrees Fahrenheit in Death Valley. Through the night, the mercury crashed more than 20 degrees to 107, which tied the world’s record for the warmest daily low, and the 24-hour average for the same day was a world record 117.5 degrees. Just four days later, scores of ultramarathoners embarked on the annual 135-mile Badwater foot race, which leads from 282 feet below sea level, where asphalt can get hot enough to melt rubber, to 8,360 feet above, at Whitney Portal. And while the race is considered one of the most brutal competitions in the world, climbing almost two miles straight up from the aptly named Furnace Creek, starting point of the race, may be about the surest way to beat—or simply escape—the heat of Death Valley.
Austria. Since the country began keeping records in 1767, Austria recorded its sixth-hottest June this year. On June 30, temperatures maxed out at 99.9 degrees Fahrenheit in both the capital city of Vienna and in German-Altenburg, Nope.
Canary Islands. Recent soaring temperatures, preceded by one of the driest Spanish winters in seven decades, have sparked raging fires on the islands of Tenerife and La Gomera, of the Canary Islands. Four thousand residents have been evacuated and British tourists have been asked to report to the Foreign Office as firefighters struggle to control the flames. Eight fires were recently burning on Tenerife and ten on La Gomera, where the inferno has threatened Garajonay National Park, a Unesco World Heritage site containing prehistoric woodland dating back 11 million years. Authorities report that the La Gomera blazes may be the result of arson.
The Arctic. If it looks freezing, and it feels freezing, it still might be warmer than ever—and in the high Arctic this summer, the sea ice has shrunk to historic lows. Though July’s ice cap cover was up slightly from last year, it was the second lowest recorded by NASA’s satellite monitoring program for polar ice extent. But the ice has been melting in the past 30 days, and now the square mileage of sea ice—2.52 million—is the lowest ever recorded for the month of August.
Lassen Volcanic National Park. A fire that broke out on July 29 in the California park has since scorched 24,000 acres of forest. A recent article predicted that the fire might be contained by the final days of August. The main highway through the park and over the mountain—a living volcano and no stranger to heat and fire—has been closed, and numerous homes around the park are threatened. Elsewhere throughout California, Idaho, Oregon and Washington, fires have burned half a million acres of countryside, all of it parched by summer heat. In Redding, California, for instance, at the north end of the Sacramento Valley, summer started early, with the temperature reaching 102 on the last day of May. Twelve days in July were hotter than 100 degrees, and only four days in August so far have been less than triple digits. On August 12, the temperature reached 112.
In Related News:
Bearing the Heat. Across the United States, hungry black bears, facing a heat-induced food shortage, have resorted to breaking and entering to meet their daily caloric demands. With berries and other food forage shriveled by high temperatures, the animals have been raiding trash bins, cars and cabins with unprecedented frequency. In New York State, one black bear reportedly broke into a minivan stashed with goodies. When the door closed behind it, the bear became trapped and, in its efforts to escape, shredded the interior of the vehicle. And in June in Aspen, where searing heat has dried up the chokecherry and serviceberry crops, a female black bear with three cubs broke into at least a dozen cars in a guerrilla quest for calories.
Climate Change a Boon to English Tourism. While the subtropics burn, the higher latitudes are starting to feel just right for summer travelers. English officials expect the heat of continental Europe to be a great boon to tourism at U.K. beach towns. A document (PDF) produced by the University of Wales Swansea reports that erratic heat waves are expected to occur with frequency in the future in Europe—and whereas summers under the Greek, Spanish, Majorcan, Corsican and Tuscan suns have historically been regaled as idyllic icons of high-season tourism, replete with vineyards and wine tasting and so many pleasures Mediterranean, experts believe that, increasingly, Britons will stay home during the high season as southern Europe bakes under hotter and increasingly unpleasant summers.
Global Warming at Work? Maybe. Because federal government data like this is darn hard to argue with: “June 2012 also marks the 36th consecutive June and 328th consecutive month with a global temperature above the 20th century average.”
British Winemakers Say “Cheers” to Climate Change. The unfurling story of Southern England’s new and growing wine industry also seems to leave little doubt that global warming is real. More than 400 wineries are now producing good whites and reds in what scientists assure is a steadily warming region—one which they say warmed by 3 degrees Fahrenheit from 1961 to 2006. Don’t believe them? Then just look at the vines, which are thriving where 30 years ago winemakers say they couldn’t produce decent fruit. Sure: Data can get goofed—but grapes don’t lie.