Working in the Hottest Place on Earth Is Almost as Bad as It Sounds

Matt MacIsaac has been a motor vehicle operator on the maintenance staff at Death Valley National Park for 15 years. In summer, he works in temperatures exceeding 120 degrees. For the unprepared, the heat can be deadly. We asked MacIsaac how he survives—and stays hydrated—working outside in the hottest place in America.

Death Valley got its name for a reason: this alien and deliriously hot landscape is one of the most deadly in the world. (Marc Adamus / Aurora Photos)
Absence

July is usually the hottest month. You go to work early and try to get your outside work done in the morning. After that, the heat builds until 4 p.m.

We can have water leaks, or you might have to come back to headquarters to fix something. You might get a flat on a heavy truck and be out there, at 3:00 in the afternoon, changing a tire in 125-degree heat.

We’ve paved roads in 120-plus. The asphalt is more than 200 degrees, and you’re working around the machines and standing on it. You feel it through your boots. By the end of the day, my shirt has sweat rings and white marks from the salt.

I have a 52-ounce Bubba mug. I’ll put down two or three of those in a day. They say you should drink half your body weight in ounces. It’s not like you even drink it—you inhale it. Twenty ounces straight is nothing. After work, I go home, strip down, and take a shower. I play some PlayStation, drink some ice water, and eat some cold fruit. I can’t tell you how good a cold plum tastes at the end of the day.

I used to drive a trash truck around the park. It was infested with mice. I didn’t want their urine and feces blowing in my face, so I didn’t use the air conditioning. I had a meat thermometer in the cab and saw it get up to 160 degrees.

We used to have dumpsters with metal lids. People would burn their fingertips on them. You can’t fry an egg, though—I’ve seen plenty of people try. It will turn white, but it won’t get solid.

There was a day that was 129 degrees. I remember walking across a parking lot and putting on leather gloves to protect my hands from the heat coming off the pavement. You know it’s hot when your hands feel cooler inside gloves than out.

Chuck Caha was a co-worker. He was in a grader, about mid-September, and it got a flat. His radio didn’t work, so he tried to walk to his pickup. It was about 113 that day. When he hadn’t come back by 4:30, my boss and I went to look for him. We found his body about four miles from the grader.

Visitors have died, too. They go out when it’s hot, after 10 a.m., and don’t take enough water. They get disoriented and can’t think clearly. I was in a party that carried out a German woman who died while hiking with her husband. We carried her body more than a mile in 110-degree heat.

We call them heat seekers: people who come here to see how hot it is. I like being part of something that helps people find what they need from the desert. We get hikers, people with four-wheel-drive Jeeps, and families who just want to watch their kids ride bikes.

At night, the Milky Way is like a belt across the sky. The mornings are beautiful, when the sun hasn’t come up and the light’s just perfect. And sometimes, in the middle of the day—when you can see the white valley floor and it’s hotter than what the body is meant for—at that point it’s harsh, but it’s also beautiful. You look out at the space and the size of it, and it just kinda overwhelms you.

Interviewed by Jacob Baynham.

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