As record-busting heat chars the West, most residents are seeking chilly relief in restaurants, theaters, and well-curtained living rooms. But two scruffy denizens of a downtown Tucson park prefer to wax philosophic, from their makeshift mattress of clothes, beneath a towering tree.
"Actually, I think people who go in and out of air conditioning all day get hotter than we do," says one, a 30-something, shirtless man who declines to give his name.
The other man slowly props his head on a bedroll, and mops his bearded neck with a bandanna. "Most times, we just look for some shade, and sweat it out," he says. "It's supposed to build character, isn't it?"
Theirs is a bravado born of necessity: by 9 a.m., the temperature has already reached 91 degrees F. The sky wears a white-hot cast, and even the pigeons here in Santa Rita Park seem punch-drunk. They peck apathetically at a discarded sandwich, only to take lazy flight as a skinny dog lopes across the listless grass towards them.
According to legend, Arizona gets hot enough to fry eggs on the sidewalk. Today's temperature isn't yet in that range, but other parts of the state have already entered omelet territory. The town of Parker reached a crispy 121 degrees on Monday. On Tuesday, sprawling Phoenix was edging towards the hottest evening on record, with an expected overnight low of 96 degrees. Even the neon lights of Las Vegas were outdone by the broiling sun, which raised the city's temperature to a fiery 115 degrees last week - just short of the record 116 degrees set in 1959.
Also on Tuesday, Death Valley, Calif., wilted under 125 degrees. And a day earlier, Wichita, Kan., broke a 17-year-old record by topping 109 degrees.
In the face of this solar blowtorch, most Westerners are turning to time-honored measures for relief.
Today, in Tucson, locals are lining the counter in Austin's #1 Ice Cream. The restaurant has been open for only five minutes, and waitress Pi Gerretsen is already whipping up a chocolate-mint shake. Her gray ponytail whips back and forth as she hustles among dazed-looking patrons. "People wander in here to escape," Ms. Gerretsen says. "This time of year, we also serve lots of sherbets. I guess that cools people down."
A few miles away, cars bake outside the 17th Street Farmers Market. But inside, the market's vast, enclosed produce section is kept at a nippy 50 degrees. It's 2,500 square-feet of arctic nirvana - a summertime hideaway where shoppers often take unusual amounts of time to choose a perfect orange.
Indeed, Dan Stolar and his wife, Lauren Cathcart, seem a bit too fastidious in finding the right cucumber. "Okay, we do like to stay in here awhile," admits Ms. Cathcart, who is very pregnant. "I was due two days ago," she says. "It makes life even hotter."
But store manager Howard Milwich, who stands strategically beneath a huge fan, says the congregation of customers can reach overload. "At that point, all that body heat raises the temperature pretty substantially."
Back at the park, the two pals are still taking the rising mercury in stride, but even so the bearded one admits, "I would not be against a little air-conditioning now and then."