"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 Jenő 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°F 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.
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