Phoenicians aren’t surprised to see temperatures above 100 (38C) degrees in the beginning of May; we know that for the next 6 months, we’re in for a long, hot summer. People who aren’t from this climate, however, may experience a kind of shock – and just like culture shock, getting through it requires not only a change of mind but a change in behavior.
Respect the heat. Really.
Yes, it is (mostly) a dry heat. But that means your body can’t rely on its built-in cooling system, and you can quickly overheat without even realizing it. It may seem obvious that you’d be most at risk of heat stroke if you did something stupid like go for a midday hike when it’s 115 (46 C) outside, but you may even feel the effects of heat exhaustion by doing something as seemingly benign as running errands (given that the inside temperature of vehicles can reach 150 (65.5 C) in 15 minutes). Consider this: The first time I ever got sick at school was after an outdoor assembly in May. I had several symptoms of heat exhaustion (like feeling clammy, faint, and nauseated) – and all I had done was sit there.
The takeaway? If you don’t want to be miserable or dead, you’re going to have to adapt.
Alter your routine
The most basic step you can take is to alter your routine. For many, that means getting up earlier. Many office parking lots are full by 7 am – and by then, many workers have already gone for their daily walks or jogs. Likewise, you will notice a resurgence in life after dark, when the temperature drops somewhat and the sun is mercifully gone. Many community pools have evening swim hours, certain parks and gardens offer flashlight tours, and restaurants are often crowded with people too hot to cook (see below). It’s a pity we don’t have a full siesta culture, because in summer, morning and night is where it’s at!
Relax whatever ideas you have about appropriate dress codes from back home and find ways to be put together with less fuss. Look for light colors and fabrics – and try to avoid nylons, neckties, scarves, or metal jewelry (believe me, it burns). Men will typically wear polo shirts to work, and women will wear sundresses or knit tops with skirts or capris. Many offices even allow jeans – or shorts – as a way to reduce cooling costs.
Somewhat counterintuitively, it doesn’t always help to take more off. For one thing, if you’re in shorts you’re liable to burn the backs of your legs on benches and car seats, even those covered in fabric. I’ve had my arms and upper torso burned by the seat belt strap, and you’d be surprised how tan (or burned) your arms can get during a commute. Whenever possible, focus on keeping the sun off of you to begin with, such as by wearing a hat, tinting your windows as permitted, or reflecting it with lightweight sleeves or pants.
It may be tempting to reach for ice cream, but you’ll cool down more quickly with water-rich produce like cucumbers, lettuce, grapes, and melons. It’s important to stay hydrated however you can, and although both iced coffee and craft beers have a strong following, water infused with cucumber, mint, or even rosehips is refreshing without side effects. Nothing feels worse than standing over a hot stove (or heating up your whole house by using the oven), so many locals subsist on fresh salads. When that gets old, try using a crock pot, rice cooker, or (if you can stand it), an outdoor grill. Unsurprisingly, summer is the time of year that many families suddenly need to order pizza!
Learn to love the great indoors
Summer in Phoenix is like winter in Minneapolis: with a few exceptions, it’s just not the time to enjoy being outside. Fortunately, there are plenty of options indoors. We have go-karts, batting ranges, laser tag, wave pools, bounce playgrounds, game centers, and golf – all inside. Many theaters offer summer matinees with discount prices, and local libraries have free and discount culture passes to the Valley’s many museums. If you just want to cool off or go for an air-conditioned walk for free, the best option may be a local mall. For those who want shopping and people watching without the Freon, there are also places like The Biltmore and Tempe Desert Marketplace that offer shady walkways and misters. (Misters are like sprinklers attached to the roof that spray a cooling mist on people below).
Seek out shade
When I was growing up, my dad had a famous saying: The sun is our enemy. And with good reason: it heats the house, making it harder and more expensive to cool. It also damages interior decorations like art and upholstery. If you can, plant shade trees near your home and install shade awnings or sun-reflecting screens on your windows. Indoors, look for options like shutters (which allow in partial light), weather-proof curtains (which block some of the heat), or try my family’s favorite, black-out curtains. And whenever possible, avoid a east-west facing house (which will heat up in the morning AND the afternoon).
Shade is just as important when it comes to your car. You’ll notice that people suddenly favor shade trees – no matter how feeble – over proximity to stores. In addition to using a sun shade in the windshield, everyone has their own tricks, like covering the car steering wheel with a towel, rolling down the windows just a bit, or even leaving ice packs on the seats. It’s all about prevention: The less the car heats up, the less it has to cool down.
Embrace the monsoon
Just when you think you can’t bear another 117 degree day, something magical happens. The dew point rises, the afternoon clouds roll in, and the monsoon season has begun. Mostly, it’s a lot of dust, lightning, thunder, and spectacular sunsets, but when we’re really lucky and the energy is just right, we get a downpour. Often this is just long enough to cause a flash flood (mind the signs warning you not to drive into washes), but it’s a beautiful, almost ecstatic moment that you have to experience to believe.
Give it time
Transplants to Phoenix often brag that their first summer is no big deal, only to find that they crash and burn on years 2-4. In my experience, based on returning twice after living in colder climates, it takes a few years for your body to re-acclimate and for your mind to reorient itself and revise its expectations. Take things slow, stay hydrated, let go of what you think a summer should be, and try to find ways to make it the best summer that is. And rest assured, by the time Thanksgiving rolls around, life will feel like paradise again.
Need advice about moving to Phoenix or getting used to life in the desert? Let me know how I can help!