The longer I live in Colorado, the more clothing I wear in the summer. Frankly, it took me way too long to figure out.
I’m used to horrible humidity — the kind you want to get away from your body as soon as possible. In the South, when it’s getting hot in here, you take off all your clothes, according to Nelly. In Colorado, people wear hoodies at all times.
See, it’s a special kind of heat here.
In normal states, the heat surrounds you. The air itself sweats a warm mist. It’s awful, but you can deal with it by staying very still. Up on the high plains, the heat is different. It’s more elemental — it’s radiation from the sun. I can feel it destroying my body.
On cloudless summer days, I think of the hundreds of miles of relentless plains to our east, all the way to the 100th Meridian that divides the green East from the brown West — and I imagine myself stuck outside, slowly shriveling.
Thankfully, I have a point. A few points, actually. Bear with me.
You’ve probably noticed that giant hats are having a moment. You know, Pharrell with his giant brown head bucket, and a million sorority girls with their floppy hats, and so many hipsters with curly locks tumbling out from wide brims
Maybe, once, I would have seen a big hat and thought, “That person wants attention.” Now, I think, “The millennial generation really does have a chance.”
Because the truth, as all you semi-arid natives know, is that we live in a desert, in the rain-shadow of the Rocky Mountains. And desert dwellers know that more clothing is better. A hat is a nice start, but the ideal arid outfit covers large parts of the body in loose-fitting fabric — like the all-black robes worn by the Bedouin of the Sinai.
So, I’ve recently adopted a few items into my wardrobe, including this ridiculous ball-cap with an attachable nape covering for $36. For hiking, I’ve started adopting some long-sleeve synthetics, although maybe it’s time to get a lightweight long-sleeve button-up. I even started wearing sunglasses. (Any suggestions for clothing? Email me.)
The reason this works, of course, is that it deflects the intense solar radiation that beams down through our thin atmosphere. Loose-fitting fabrics can deflect that heat while still allowing sweat to evaporate — and it works much better without the insidious creep of humidity.
This is all so obvious, I know, to anyone who grew up here.
But it’s truly counter-intuitive stuff for transplants; I blew somebody’s mind on a recent hike when I put on more clothing on a hot day. And that matters for a couple reasons.
First, there are the health consequences. Unmitigated radiation can cause skin cancer. Sunny, high-altitude areas are more exposed to ultra-violet rays. Nationwide, skin cancer occurrence has “increased dramatically since the 1970s,” according to Sun Safe Colorado. (Interestingly, Colorado ranks relatively low for melanoma — maybe it’s a benefit of all those hoodies and hats.)
Second, I think this transition says something about what it means to live in Colorado and the West. So many people move here with visions of snowcapped peaks and rolling alpine meadows. Often enough, visitors are shocked to realize that Denver isn’t actually nestled in some mountain vale.
After some years, though, you have to realize that you live in a place that was called the “Great American Desert” — so named because white settlers thought it was a wasteland. This was a distressing realization for me.
Climate change doesn’t help. We may escape extreme weather and rising sea levels, but researchers say we could have a month of 100-degree days in Denver by 2080, and the state is racing to save water as a growing population faces drought threats.
It’s enough to put an unsettling fear in my gut. Sometimes I miss the North Carolina Piedmont, where towns are swallowed up by towering forests.
And yet, stupid as this sounds, I feel like I’m figuring out this alien-to-me landscape. Maybe it started with buying a big, ugly hat. Maybe next I’ll rip all the stupid grass out of my front lawn and install some solar panels.
Maybe this is part of why Coloradans are proud, to be able to survive up here in the wide open. Maybe it’s good to realize how exposed we are here on the high plains. And maybe that exposure is why I’m here in the first place: I was always dreaming about the West as a kid, longing to get above tree-line and see what I could see.
Honestly, though, I’m already ready for winter, or at least to escape to the mountains. But I do love one thing about summer on the plains: the fact that you can feel a thunderstorm coming from a hundred miles away.
What I’m trying to say is, at least it’s a dry heat.