By Alan C.
"Sziasztok" is one of the few words
I know in Magyar. When my wife's twentysomething children visited
us from Budapest last summer, they often used this group greeting,
roughly equivalent to "Howdy, y'all!"
Anita and Jenõ desperately wanted to see
Las Vegas, even though August at our home in L.A. was pretty
darn hot. The Nevada deserts, of course, were even warmer: Hoover
Dam's outdoor thermometer registered 136 in the shade. My stepkids
loved the inhuman heat and their mom, Anikó, ate it up
with a spoon. I was usually dazed by the scorching weather,
but I'm pretty sure I referred to all of them as "crazy
Hungarians" more than once.
This summer, after my lovely bride suggested a
trip to Death Valley, I began to detect a pattern. Much like
swallows returning to Capistrano, Hungarians seem to have an
inbred need to experience blistering heat at certain times of
the year. When I hinted this might be the early warning sign
of a severe genetic flaw, Anikó simply packed more beers
into the cooler.
Lone Pine was our staging area. In the shadow
of 14,491-foot Mt. Whitney (highest spot in the continental
U.S.), we sipped our brewskis at sunset and watched four separate
storms, each hurling thunderbolts and torrential rain onto the
trackless waste just south of us. I shuddered while recalling
some of the place names on our map: Desolation Canyon, Funeral
Mountain, Devil's Cornfield, Stovepipe Wells, Furnace Creek.
I was convinced we were heading into the maw of hell.
Much to my surprise, we survived the first day.
In fact, we enjoyed a late-afternoon beer at the Forty Niner
Cafe, a funky bistro in the middle of nowhere. They served up
ice-cold Mojave Red, a tasty brew created by the same folks
who make Sidewinder Missile Ale and Lobotomy Bock.
But during our sundown trek in the superheated
air to nearby Zabriskie Point, it seemed strange that the other
tourists used only foreign languages while gasping for breath.
We heard no words in English, not even discouraging ones. I
seriously considered revising my Hungarian Heat-Gene Theory
to include several other nationalities.
The ground temperature never cooled down that
night, so our shoes still stuck to the pavement the next morning,
when we emerged from the car after a couple hours of driving.
"Badwater," I read aloud from our guidebook. "At
282 feet below sea level, this salt flat is the lowest point
in the western hemisphere." Despite the sheer cliff next
to the road, there was no echo. The shimmering heat had sucked
the words right out of my mouth.
We walked down the ramp in front of our car, onto
a small wharf with ropes and posts, which steered visitors over
to a solid part of the salty white ground. Anikó and
I squinted at each other, feeling like explorers on the first
expedition to a distant planet. We hadn't seen another soul
on the road for nearly an hour, and the nearest stop was Dante's
View, one mile straight up. But then, just as we started back
to the ramp, another car pulled into the tiny parking lot. A
young couple got out, and the guy glanced at our rear bumper,
with its two oval country stickers: "USA" and "H."
When we passed him, he greeted us with a casual "Sziasztok."
Of COURSE he was Hungarian. It made perfect sense
to me. And I still believe this bizarre heat-seeking behavior
involves some sort of genetic imperative.
Alan C. Baird recently coauthored 9TimeZones.com - a
print\web\wap project featured at the Whitney Biennial. Some
his online work appears in Locus Novus, minima, LitPot, Opium,
In Posse Review, The Morning News, flashquake, 3am, Inkburns,
the-phone-book.com and Quick Fiction. He lives just a stone's
throw from Hollywood... which is fine and dandy, until the
stones are thrown back.