Name any given year in the last four-plus decades and I can probably tell you a story or a stat about the Texas heat.
How about 1980, the year I was born? A persistent heat wave engulfed South Texas that summer. Unfortunately for my parents, they’d recently moved from Corpus Christi into a hundred-year-old farmhouse—sans air conditioning—outside of Yorktown, near Victoria. My poor mom would mellow in the bathtub for hours on end, the only respite she could find. I was born that September, still one of the hottest on record for that area.
Fast forward to 1998, an El Niño year. I was in high school and working for my dad as he launched a new career as a roofer—during a historic heat wave. We’d migrated farther north by then, to Wimberley, and his first job was a tear-off in San Marcos, an old house on the Blanco River with a roof of tar and foam. He “voluntold” me to join him, or at least that’s the way I remember it, and I was either too naive or too broke to say no. We sweated and cursed in the merciless summer sun, the tar literally melting around us. We tried to stave off heat exhaustion with frequent water breaks. Not for the first or the last time in my life, I felt the woozy, drifting-away sensation that signals heat exhaustion is imminent. Adding to the fun, a rattlesnake, curled up in some dry rot, once nearly bit us. Sweaty and miserable and on the cusp of adulthood, I tried to quit after a few weeks. But Dad explained, in so many words, that right-to-work laws didn’t apply to my employment. Later that summer, I took my sweaty greenbacks to the cool, wet mountains of Switzerland on an exchange program—my first long-term exposure to a sane climate.
The year 2004. In Austin, where I had lived the previous five years, it rained and rained and rained. It would turn out to be the coolest summer of the last four decades, and maybe the coolest we will ever see again. And I missed it. For an internship, I had just moved to Santa Barbara, California, where the weather is so uncannily perfect that I eventually came to miss Texas’s violent and capricious climes.
I lasted less than a year in SoCal, so I was back in plenty of time for 2011, Texas’s driest year on record. The hottest summer, too. Statewide, as many as half a billion trees died and four million acres burned. From my newly purchased home in East Austin, I could see the smoke from the fires that ravaged Bastrop State Park. We saw ninety days of 100 degrees F or more. In August, I road-tripped through West Texas with a photographer to document the drought. Atop a dam outside San Angelo, we looked down at a vast reservoir that had shriveled to a glorified mud puddle. The misery never seemed to end. By late September, the seasons were confused: the slanting light of autumn was warped by that shimmering, palpable heat of August, the kind that seems solid enough to grasp. It was the summer I discovered that seasonal affective disorder isn’t just a northern affliction. The summer I wondered what life was like in Burlington, Vermont.
Skip ahead a decade, to 2021. After the catastrophe of that year’s winter storm and the deadly, statewide man-made electric grid failure, we were blessed with a freakishly normal summer. Too bad it came during the COVID-19 pandemic.
That brings us to 2023. The less we say about this summer from hell, the better . . .
I would like to brag about how Texas Tough I was when it came to enduring the long South Texas summer of my childhood, but the truth is that it was winter that I dreaded most. Our house was heated by a wood-burning stove in the kitchen. Overnight, the fire would die down, and by morning the house had leaked all its warmth. As a kid, my morning routine was a shiver fest: I would cast off my electric blanket, make my way to the back porch to gather firewood, sort the kindling and the tinder, and then light a fire in the stove. While I waited, I would lay my clothes on the cast iron until they were hot to the touch—sliding into them was like putting on a comforting skin. To this day, I abhor being cold. (Maybe Switzerland isn’t for me after all.)
Despite growing up in rural South Texas without air-conditioning, I don’t remember being uncomfortable in the summers, at least not in the house. The old thing was uninsulated and drafty, inviting in the sea breezes that bring thunderstorms from the Gulf to the coastal plains. After school and in the summer, I spent hours at the town library, devouring books in the delicious AC. Plus, summers just weren’t as hot in the eighties and early nineties—I know; I looked up the data. The seven hottest summers on record for DeWitt County, where I grew up, have all occurred since 1998.
It was working outdoors that made me appreciate what it means to eat by the sweat of your brow. My chores were many: ditchdigging, brush clearing, trash burning. Near the Gulf, one moves about in the soupy air like a bird drying its wings or an aging cowboy—arms apart from the body to let the pits breathe and to keep the sweat at bay. My parents were potters back then; they quite literally made a living from heat. Their studio on our little ranch had five or so electric kilns in a metal pole barn. Temperatures inside were diabolical. We burned our household trash in a fifty-gallon drum, and the rest went into a ravine, a makeshift dump where garbage was burned. We had cattle and horses and a big garden that needed tending to. Sweat was money.
When I was fourteen we moved to the Hill Country town of Wimberley. Spring-fed Blue Hole, an idyllic swimming hole on Cypress Creek, was within walking distance of our home; so was the cool Blanco River. Our tiny single-wide mobile home was cramped, but it had air-conditioning. Just like that, we had stepped into the modern era. It wasn’t the six-shooter that tamed the West; it was AC.
Recent years, though, have tested me. I had hoped—against available evidence—that the scorcher of 2011 was a black swan, a once-in-a-lifetime heat wave, but now it seems like almost every summer finds new ways to challenge my resilience and upend my expectations of the future. Like a lot of folks, I underestimated the urgency of climate change. In Elmer Kelton’s classic novel on the 1950s Texas drought, The Time It Never Rained, the main character—a stubborn rancher who has sworn he will outlast hard times—tells his son that they just need to wait long enough to see rain again. “It always did rain here, eventually. A country don’t change climate permanently, not all of a sudden.” Little did Charlie Flagg know.
This summer, Texas has been among the hottest places on Earth. El Paso has had 41 consecutive days (and counting) of temperatures above 100 degrees. Texas inmates are baking in the un-air-conditioned ovens of Texas prisons. And a congressman went on a thirst strike to advocate for federally mandated water breaks. July 2022 was the hottest on record for Austin, where I live. And now, just a year later, that record will almost certainly be busted: July 2023 has brought a record-setting stretch of eleven days over 105 degrees and no sign that this oppressive heat dome will lift any time soon. I get restless, depressed even, when I can’t be outside without feeling like my brain is being boiled. Extreme heat degrades many of the pleasures of nature. The sameness of the weather—high humidity, cloudless skies, a light southeast wind that feels like the devil’s breath—weirdly reminds me of Santa Barbara, except here it’s 105 every day, not 72. To help preserve Austin’s precious drinking water supply, I stopped watering my garden weeks ago, and I’m contemplating chainsawing my beloved fruit trees.
My two-year-old daughter can’t play outside much, except in the early mornings. Trees in my neighborhood are dropping leaves like it’s autumn. Still, I count myself lucky. Pre-pandemic we installed a stock tank pool behind our house that our two-year-old plays in almost every day. And soon we will fly off to New Mexico for a vacation where the highs will be in the low 80s. Not everyone can.
“Well, it’s summer in Texas,” many would respond to my grousing. I wonder how many of these folks spend their days shuttling between air-conditioned homes, air-conditioned cars, and air-conditioned offices. For those who work outside, heat indices like those we are seeing this summer are beyond uncomfortable, they’re dangerous. For those who depend on the land—farmers and ranchers—heat-enhanced drought is more than just a drag. Of Charlie Flagg, the stubborn rancher, Elmer Kelton wrote, “The drouth was the beginning, the middle, and the end of his conscious thoughts.” Most of us no longer depend directly on the land for a living. But we overestimate our ability to escape climate change, which will continue to get worse the longer we keep pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. As Jeff Goodell, the Texas-based author of a timely new book, The Heat Will Kill You First, has written, “Extreme heat situations” are becoming “more democratic.”
This spring was lovely. My family spent as much time outdoors as possible, doing the things we love: hiking, rock-climbing, kayaking, and gardening—basking in what Doug Sahm called “the beautiful Texas sunshine.” In my memory, the weather was unusually cool. In fact, I was surprised to learn recently that the opposite was true—that temperatures were well above average. As the planet heats up, our perception of normal, of average, shifts. What used to be too hot—98 degrees, say—feels like a cold spell when every day is 100-plus. A 78-degree overnight low feels refreshing after a string of days when early morning never gets cooler than 85.
And yet there are limits to how much living things, not to mention ecosystems, can withstand. As much as I want to avoid the heat—to fly off to someplace cooler or avoid the grim weather forecasts delivered by uncannily cheerful meteorologists—the heat is here to stay. And so am I, with my AC cranking and dreams of autumn.