What I’m Teaching My Daughter About Living in Extreme Heat

I learned how to tolerate the heat in Arizona. I just never thought I’d have to put those lessons to use in Portland.

A photograph of a man holding a bottle of water to a toddler's mouth as they sit on a bench with another toddler who is drinking juice.
A father in Portland tries to keep his children cool. (Jordan Gale)

About the author: Aaron Gilbreath has written for Harper’s, The New York Times, and The Dublin Review and is the author of three books, most recently The Heart of California: Exploring the San Joaquin Valley. His free newsletter about growing up as a rock-and-roll listener in the 1990s is called Alive in the Nineties.

Updated at 10:30 a.m. ET on July 5, 2021.

I moved from Phoenix, Arizona, to Portland, Oregon, in 2000, partly to get away from the heat. Last week, it found me.

Heat radiated through the upstairs ceiling and walls of our home, turning our bedrooms into ovens. Even briefly fetching clothes from closets upstairs felt painful. Our house has had only a few updates since 1955, so along with an original pink toilet, it has no air conditioning and an uninsulated attic. I slept fitfully in the downstairs living room, in front of a freestanding air conditioner, while my wife tried to sleep upstairs. We put a second portable air-conditioning unit in our 3-year-old’s upstairs room, aiming the air flow toward her bed.

Few people and few places in Portland were ready for the heat. When a high-pressure system created what scientists call a “heat dome” over Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, temperatures soared and systems broke. Last Saturday evening, Portland reached 108 degrees Fahrenheit, breaking the 1965 record of 107. On Sunday, the temperature was 112, making it the hottest recorded day in Portland history—until Monday reached 116. Portland General Electric trucks prowled residential streets, checking on electrical wires.* Portland Parks & Recreation deemed the days too hot to allow people in the public pools. The city’s light rail suspended operation after its power cables melted. My local convenience store ran out of ice.

When I moved to Portland, people used to joke that it got really hot for only one week out of the year. Whereas seemingly every place in Phoenix was air-conditioned, few Portlanders I knew had central air. You could endure hot nights by sleeping in your underwear in front of a box fan. Besides, those nights were infrequent and never extreme. Because I grew up in Arizona, I learned to tolerate extreme heat, and my father even taught me some desert survival strategies. I just never thought I’d have to use them here.

But, because of climate change, now I need to pass them on to my daughter. She must learn to proceed with her life—to play and enjoy the outdoors—despite reasonable discomfort, to improvise when the heat is overbearing, and to never underestimate the threat of the hot season, which I’m concerned will only get worse.

When I was a kid, 100-degree days and 90-degree nights were common. During Phoenix’s hottest day on record, which was 122 degrees, my friends and I rode bikes through a park and went skateboarding while, unbeknownst to us, the heat grounded commercial flights and caused public buses to break down. That high felt as hellish as every other summer day. So we played outside until we couldn’t stand it any longer and then cooled off inside the mall, at a pizza joint, and at friends’ houses.

In Phoenix, my father taught me how to live in the desert. To avoid venomous snakes, he insisted that I never reach into holes. To avoid scorpions, he trained me not to leave my shoes outside overnight and to always shake them out before putting them on. To avoid heatstroke and dehydration, he told me to operate with an escape plan: Always carry a gallon of water, an extra car battery, jumper cables, and sunscreen in my car. If I ever got stuck in the heat, he’d say, I could survive, but I had to be smart about the threat, not just tough. He taught me that I needed to drink fluid all day long, even if I didn’t feel thirsty. If I got a headache, I needed to rehydrate. And also, he instilled in me that I couldn’t stop going about my life when the day became too hot. Although I no longer look for scorpions in my shoes, everything else I learned during my first 25 years in the Arizona desert is transferable to climate-changed Portland: endurance, preparedness, regular hydration, a high threshold for discomfort, and an attitude adjustment.

I skate in the heat. I garden in the heat. I walk the dog and go to the park in it. I don’t want to be stuck inside for part of the summer; we already spend too much of our lives inside during the Northwest winter. I crave the outdoors—the sun, the smell, the sight of leafy trees—and I need to use my body. So I do it wisely: always drinking lots of fluid, wearing sunscreen and a sunhat, and carrying extra drinks and snacks. The first thing I do upon waking is guzzle a glass of water.

Last weekend, I tested how much of my heat tolerance I’d retained. On Sunday afternoon, in 108 degrees, I skated a neighbor’s mini-ramp just to see what I could stand. The neighbor keeps it in the shade next to his driveway and lets me drag it onto the sidewalk. I skated for 40 minutes before I became too sluggish. Early Monday morning, when the temperature was already 91, my daughter and I walked our dog to a coffee shop. We’ve been learning about insects, so when we returned, we sat in the shade in our front yard, putting centipedes in her homemade terrarium. Nature is “red in tooth and claw,” as the poet Alfred Tennyson wrote, but that harsh reality doesn’t negate nature’s beauty. My goal is to instill an appreciation of both of these extremes in my daughter. Sweat drizzled down her flushed cheeks until she finally said, “Dad, I’m hot. Let’s play inside.” I made sure that she had her water bottle with her as we went in.

Every day during Portland’s heat wave, my family did what I did as a kid in Phoenix: We found relief in public, air-conditioned spaces. We spent an hour in Target. We spent two hours inside the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry on Saturday, then returned on Monday for two back-to-back movies.

New Seasons Market, the self-described “friendliest store in town,” also had some of Portland’s strongest AC. Walking in felt like leaning your head into the refrigerated milk case. Even though we had groceries at home, the house was too hot to eat in, so we had lunch and then, later, dinner in the store. We weren’t the only ones to find refuge there. Many local restaurants had closed because their kitchens were too hot to cook in, the deli clerk told us, so people came here. Half of the deli shelves were empty. Crumbs remained where chicken patties had been in the afternoon. As the clerk handed me the last corn fritter in the cold case, he said, “First they came for prepared food. Then they came for us.”

I told him, “We came for the air conditioning.” Seated in the dining area, my daughter laughed and made silly voices while eating microwaved mac and cheese.

On Monday night, the temperature dipped into the 60s for the first time in days. An ocean current had blown cool air across the city. The next morning, we stood in the comfortable, almost coastal-feeling, front yard. We watered plants and searched for more insects to put in our terrarium. I was relieved, but I also felt sad that our daughter would grow up in this new Portland. My adopted home had been scorching hot only a day before; sometimes forest fires filled the air with smoke; we had ice storms and power outages. Her future will be a world of empty store shelves, droughts, and water rationing. Her summers may always end with us wearing respirators to collect the last tomatoes in our garden, as we did in 2020. But that is the world we have created, so we have to learn to live in it.

New beginnings have historically lain west. But where else could we move, if Portland becomes too hot: Edmonton, Canada? Fairbanks, Alaska? We can’t keep moving to escape problems. We have to find solutions where we are. We can learn to live with extreme discomfort. Because of climate change, I don’t know that we have any other choice.


* This article misstated that the Pacific Gas and Electric company was checking on electrical wires in Portland during a recent heatwave. In fact, it was Portland General Electric.