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The high temperature today at Death Valley National Park in California is expected to be something shy of 120 degrees. That is nothing compared to the 134 degrees recorded there 100 years ago today. That is still the highest temperature ever recorded anywhere on the planet.

Some meteorologists and weather geeks are gathering in Death Valley today to mark the occasion, but they're not alone - far from it. Summer, with its scorching temperatures, is one of busiest seasons in Death Valley. As NPR's Kirk Siegler found out, the park is crawling with tourists from overseas.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: It's 122 degrees at Zabriskie's Point overlooking Death Valley's badlands, and the place is packed.

It sounds like Terminal 5 at Heathrow up here, accents from everywhere.

What do you think of the view?


YAN KLASSENS: It's nice, colorful.

SIEGLER: What do you think of the heat?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Oh, it's very hot. Too hot.


KLASSENS: We like it.


SIEGLER: We like it, Yan Klassens says. He and his friends, Yulka Derlay and Frieda Van Campenhotte, are visiting from Belgium, visiting voluntarily.


KLASSENS: Always a wall of heat when you get out of a room or a building or a bus with air co, and you get out, the wall of heat. Boof.

SIEGLER: Boof. It turns out these Belgians are among tens of thousands of international tourists who come here in the dead of summer to experience this heat, heat they can't get back home.

In fact, July is now one of this park's busiest months. You can't turn around without seeing a busload of Germans, Chinese, Kiwis. There's even a term for this around here: heat tourism.

CHARLIE CALLAGAN: It's one of the few places in the world where you can easily come out and experience temperatures into the 120s. And that's why we get visitors from all over the world.

SIEGLER: Park ranger Charlie Callagan is clutching two big water bottles. A wide brimmed hat shelters his face from the sun. Still, he's drenched in sweat. He finds the idea behind heat tourism a little puzzling, but he's going with it.

CALLAGAN: It's something that they can't easily find elsewhere, and so they will make a point of coming here and experiencing the heat. They're just not going to stay for an extended period.

SIEGLER: Callagan has to live here.

Later in the afternoon, the mercury is nearing 129. A crowd gathers around a digital sign displaying the temperature outside the Furnace Creek Visitor Center.

People are snapping their pictures next to it; among them, Richard Johansen and his pal, Anders Jutbak.

RICHARD JOHANSEN: And we were going to Las Vegas, so we thought we can take the road through Death Valley.

SIEGLER: Before this trip, they never felt anything hotter than 95 degrees.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: It feels like a sauna.

SIEGLER: And kind of smells like one. There are a couple of mesquite trees behind the thermometer baking in the sun. It's all kind of a spectacle: those sorry-looking trees, the sea of white socks and sandals, pale skin shining in the desert sun, a guy in a Darth Vader costume. And a guy in a Darth Vader costume.

JOHN RICE: Well, I am attempting to set a world record for the hottest verified mile ever run by a human being. And I decided that wasn't tough enough, so I would do it in a Darth Vader costume to just, you know, add to the spice.

SIEGLER: John Rice is upholding Death Valley's reputation as a magnet for the eccentric.

RICE: I saw the forecast, and I just had to be here.

SIEGLER: He calls this mile the Darth Valley challenge. Several scenes from "Star Wars" were filmed just down the road. Our Vader returns from his run down the Tatooine Desert in less than seven minutes, actually.

RICE: Yeah, that was a little tough. I probably went out a little bit too fast. And then when my mask kept falling off, it slowed me down quite a bit.

SIEGLER: Whether it's world record material, that's not clear yet. The dedication is what's impressive. Rice says he trained extensively for this for over a year in a sauna. Kirk Siegler, NPR News.




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