Happy Death Day To You


Tom Comitta is an artist and writer based in New York. Their book “The Nature Book” was published this year.

Oh, hey there. Tom Comitta here. You might remember me as the person singing into a snipped landline phone to a squadron of San Francisco riot police in 2011. Perhaps you saw my novel, “The Nature Book,” in a bookshop this year. Or maybe you caught me in the news in July blowing a birthday noisemaker at Death Valley heat tourists who were celebrating what was supposed to be the hottest day in history.

If so, you likely caught me holding a dollar-store happy birthday banner rearranged into the phrase “HAPPY DEATH DAY.” Or you might’ve seen my second poster, “THIS IS THE CLIMATE EMERGENCY.” But what you didn’t see was the third poster, “MINING STOLEN LAND FOR INSTAGRAM PHOTOS.” And you definitely didn’t hear the song I sang to the crowd that day:

Happy Death Day to you!
Happy Death Day to you!
Happy Death Day to all the children who’ll die from climate-related disasters.
Happy Death Day to you!

You didn’t see that other poster or hear that song because every news crew that filmed me out there cut that part of my protest. In a short video segment, Reuters journalists captured the gist of what I was doing — trying to convey that any celebration of our overheating world is grossly offensive in the face of the climate disasters already devastating the planet. But they and the other reporters chose not to air footage of what happened the second day, when I spent an hour singing “Happy Death Day” to 50 or so tourists and park rangers, was nearly arrested by two armed National Park Service officers, and argued (while singing) with a gang of climate deniers, one of whom tried to fight me. 

So, I’m here today to fill in some of the gaps, to talk about what would inspire a performance artist turned writer to squash any semblance of journalistic impartiality and revolt.

I have a deep love for Death Valley — its vastness, its sublime juxtapositions of ice-cream-colored hills hugging vast stretches of white, hot alkali, its sand-dune sunrises and volcanic-crater sunsets. I first fell for this place watching Antonioni’s “Zabriskie Point” and the feeling grew once I finally saw it for myself. 

Every winter while living in L.A., I would strap my mountain bike to the back of my car and head to Death Valley. Given how vast the park is, it’s easy to find yourself completely alone and enwrapped in near silence — so silent that, if you listen closely, you can hear the blood pulsing through your ear drums. 

Dante’s View, Death Valley. (Tom Comitta)

When my partner and I moved across the country to New York, I was so distraught that the first thing I did was try to buy land near the park. I knew I didn’t have the money, but I was desperate for a way to return. 

I instead chose to write about it, finding inspiration in the pioneering film director George Kuchar’s “Weather Diary 1.” In the video, Kuchar goes to Oklahoma at the height of tornado season. Armed with just a camcorder, he documents the experience of himself and everyone around him living their lives while awaiting total destruction. I became obsessed by Kuchar’s unrefined blend of diary and documentary and cooked up a plan: go to the hottest place in the world (Death Valley) at the hottest time of the year (July).

The idea was not to create a story in the park but to search for narratives and events that could only exist in such an extreme place. The story would revolve around heat — what it feels, looks, smells and tastes like, how the body responds to it, how the mind contorts under it. I wanted to know what drives people to visit a place experiencing temperatures as high as 130 degrees Fahrenheit, let alone live there. 

My process would be open to much improvisation and many unknowns. It would be an attempt at textual documentation, of rendering a present, a reality, into language. I knew my material would be a mess, like life itself: fickle, subjective, transformational, a patchwork. What I didn’t know was that it would turn into a protest.

“I knew my material would be a mess, like life itself: fickle, subjective, transformational, a patchwork. What I didn’t know was that it would turn into a protest.”

From previous trips, I knew the basics: that Death Valley National Park is “the size of Connecticut” or “two Rhode Islands” (for some reason everyone compares it to New England); that it includes the vast basin of Death Valley as well as the Amargosa and Panamint Mountains; that the incredible landscape diversity inside the park, from sand dunes to salt flats to DayGlo mountains, was the result of volcanic explosions, an ancient inland sea and millennia of tectonic jolts; that the natives of the land, the Timbisha Shoshone, had lived in the valley for, in their words, “time immoral”; that the first white settlers, now known as “the Death Valley 49ers,” were nearly decimated by the valley’s harsh climate when they attempted a shortcut on their way to find gold. 

But I’d only been to Death Valley in the winter, when temperatures max out around 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Spending seven days under some of the strongest solar radiation in the world could easily barbeque a human body. 

So I started doing research and gathering gear. I pieced together a sunsuit that would cover me completely. Desert dwellers and serious heat tourists (of which there are few) don’t wear shorts and T-shirts. They cover themselves head to toe. I procured pants, hoodies, hats and blankets — all high on the ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) scale, which measures the sun-blocking properties of clothing. I even bought UPF gloves. Dressed in full, I looked like a cross between Julianne Moore in “Safe” and a Star Wars cosplayer.

The sun suit in action. (Tom Comitta)

Then I turned to my devices. Apple lists the iPhone’s heat maximum at 95 degrees. Even the best consumer voice recorders apparently quit at around 105. Same with video cameras. It seemed extreme heat created a documentary dead zone — at least for the finest and most modern consumer devices — where nothing that could record could operate. Perhaps only the ancient forms of writing, drawing or verbal storytelling reliably functioned here. 

Having few options, I leaned into these constraints. I would still bring my devices, but if they conked out, so be it. I procured a small arsenal of audio recorders, including a cassette recorder, which my research suggested could endure the dead zone. A classic Walkman doesn’t contain a minicomputer that can overheat — they’re completely mechanical. According to multiple studies, the tapes themselves are capable of handling far worse than Death Valley temperatures; only at 140 degrees does their magnetism disappear. This brought me inordinate delight: A solution to a global warming problem might come in the form of a vintage, nearly forgotten technology.

I did other, perhaps more important, homework on how to not die: drink two gallons of water per day, monitor myself for signs of heat exhaustion like heavy sweating and dizziness, take electrolyte tablets every 15 minutes when outside. I read several books, including Richard Lingenfelter’s 600-page, highly annotated history, “Death Valley and the Amargosa: A Land of Illusion,” which became my guide. 

Lingenfelter’s book helped me develop a hypothesis — perhaps one that’s not really in doubt — that the history of white settlement in Death Valley is a history of greed and absolute idiocy. Just about all the early prospectors were punished by the valley’s harsh climate in their quest for gold. It wasn’t until borax, a form of salt still used in pesticides and laundry detergent, was discovered that any white settlers managed to strike a profit. Even then, death and disaster abounded. And yet, the miners’ efforts brought hotels, train tracks and roads, literally paving the way for the establishment of the National Park, an environmentalist “success” that would ensure the displacement of the Timbisha Shoshone.

When I finally arrived at the Ranch at Death Valley — a hotel in Furnace Creek, where the park headquarters and museum are located — it was 3 a.m. on Saturday, July 8, and the temperature was a mild 100 degrees. I stepped out of my car and was immediately hit by a form of wind I’d never felt before: a wind that did not cool but blew like a hair dryer. 

The Ranch at Death Valley (Tom Comitta)

For the first two days, I made regular temperature notes as the heat increased. I walked around the hotel grounds, asking tourists and employees about the heat, why they’d come to such a hot place, how they were coping with it. 

Then I got bored. Yes, it was fucking hot. And yes, I had never felt anything like it before. But people’s answers to my questions were predictable. What does heat feel like? “An oven.” “A furnace.” “A sauna.” When I asked tourists why they were here and why now, the responses were even duller: Almost everyone was either checking off national parks in their great American road trip or en route to Las Vegas. 

Some visitors had come specifically for the extreme heat, but when I asked them why, no one gave an answer beyond “I just like it” or “I can’t explain it” no matter how much I pestered. It got more depressing when I asked people how to survive this kind of heat: stay in air conditioning. That’s it. If you don’t want to die from heat exhaustion or heat stroke, you stay inside. 

“The history of white settlement in Death Valley is a history of greed and absolute idiocy.”

And so, my gonzo project to document life in a warming world had come to the grand revelation that the antidote to extreme heat was human refrigeration. Here we all were in one of the most beautiful places on the planet and all anyone could do was experience it in hasty jaunts between the safety of their cars or hotel rooms. Either that or risk death: A few days before I arrived, in 123-degree heat, a tourist’s car A/C cut out; suffering heat stroke, he passed out, drove his car off the road and died. This happens several times every year.

The effects of extreme heat seemed particularly troubling for those living there year-round. The only member of the Timbisha Shoshone tribe that I was able to meet said that while some members of the tribe have air conditioning, she made do with a swamp cooler. At the height of summer, to cool off, she would lay in bed and blow as many fans her way as possible. 

Worker conditions at the Ranch turned out to be similarly unbearable. Owned by the ominously named Xanterra, the Ranch does not equip its employees with head-to-toe UPF gear to shield them from the sun, and many employees have to work outside in 110+ temperatures for hours. Many of them are international students on summer break; they do not have access to company vehicles, which made it difficult to see the beauty of the park that hotel guests witness. While I was there, one of the workers was fired for gifting a coworker a scoop of ice cream while on the job. She was abruptly kicked out of staff lodging and denied any assistance to return to Las Vegas to fly home. It’s hard to quantify how cruel this is: to be made homeless in the hottest place in the world at the hottest time of the year, to fend for yourself while tourists wallow in a strange heat fetish.

For millennia before the 49ers and their descendants, the National Park Service and Xanterra, rolled in, the Timbisha Shoshone and other tribes living in the valley would head to the mountains for the summer. For the Timbisha Shoshone, that meant Wildrose Canyon, up in the Panamint Range. I decided I would follow in their footsteps.

On day three, at the hottest point in the afternoon, I drove down to the lowest place in the U.S., Badwater Basin — 280 feet below sea level — and checked the thermometer: 120 degrees. Then I started up Badwater Road toward the top of Wildrose (8,200 feet), checking the temperature along the way. It took nearly an hour before my car thermometer registered any significant temperature drop — somewhere around 1,500 feet above sea level.

Winding up Emigrant Canyon Road, I started to see why the Timbisha Shoshone had come this way: Unlike the famed barrenness of the valley below, up here the land was full of particolored bushes of pastel pink and neon green. The land was still dry, but there were flowers and even a few Joshua Trees. The views were just as sublime: vast basins and rolling hills. And there were wild burros. Lots of them.

Emigrant Canyon (Tom Comitta)

On my drive up into the hills, I became convinced that the park was designed completely wrong. The Park Service and the hotels had created a place that encouraged people to risk their lives in the summer, funneling them into the smoldering valley of death while a peaceful, bucolic, temperate land lay just a few miles away. Up here in Wildrose Canyon lay the simple solution that the Timbisha Shoshone had known for millennia: When it gets hot, you go to where it’s cooler. That’s it. No climate-crushing A/C required.

And yet, the Timbisha Shoshone have no land in Wildrose Canyon today. The tribe’s wise way of life was cut short by the establishment of the national monument (which preceded the national park) in 1933. At that time, the federal government conveniently declared the area uninhabited, rendering the tribe landless; to make it worse, the U.S. then took children from the tribe and “re-educated” them in white-run boarding schools. Then in the late 50s, while members of the tribe were summering up in Wildrose Canyon, the Park Service created yet another convenient rule: Any unoccupied buildings could be demolished. When the tribe returned to the valley after the weather had cooled, they found their homes destroyed.

This is of course just a fragment of a long and fraught history. Eventually, in 2000, the Timbisha Shoshone received several parcels of land — none of it up in the mountains. I tried multiple times to speak with official representatives of the tribe to learn more about current living conditions and potential further land cession, but I either reached disconnected phone numbers or wrote emails that went unreturned. I learned from “The Women in the Sand” (2017), a documentary about the tribe’s history, that younger members of the tribe have moved out of the area, many to the nearby city of Bishop, where the tribal offices are located. According to the film, the tribe had tried to build its own hotel in the valley but lacked sufficient investment. 

Wildrose Canyon (Tom Comitta)

By the time I arrived at the Mahogany Flats campground, the head of Wildrose Canyon, it was nearly sunset and my car’s thermometer measured 80 degrees. (At that very moment, it was 115 in Death Valley proper.) I got out of my car and saw it right away: The landscape’s greens and blues were just starting to dip into purples. Birds swung in the setting sun. Evergreens and grasses swayed in the breeze. And just beyond the hills was the Amargosa Range and the dim, red wasteland of the valley. Here was calm and coolness, down below was a smoldering inferno begging tourists to test their luck.

In the following days, I returned to Wildrose Canyon three more times, finding myself increasingly allergic to my hotel and everything that the Park Service-designed park was suggesting I do: sit in air-conditioned rooms or drive around in my air-conditioned car. My conversations with tourists, hotel employees and park rangers began to veer toward the canyon. Instead of talking about the weather, I asked people if they’d ever heard of it or the story of what happened to the Timbisha Shoshone when they were away for the summer. Only a few had.

At the same time, news began to spread that the following Sunday, July 16, might be the hottest day in world history, breaking the previous (and contested) record of 134 degrees Fahrenheit. The internet was abuzz with heat tourists boasting about flying out to witness this purportedly monumental occasion. I started to wonder if I’d have to extend my stay.

On what was supposed to be the last day of my weeklong trip, I requested a formal interview with the National Park Service. It seemed they were waiting for the news media to arrive; in minutes, I had an appointment with the park’s acting PR representative. Waiting for my meeting, I overheard two rangers speaking excitedly about not only the upcoming possible heat record, but also about a 5k race they’d planned for the same day. When the PR representative appeared, she too seemed giddy. She guided me to a small conference room, set her ranger hat on the table and laid out a series of talking points.

It’s hard to say which part of the interview set me off. Was it that she had no problem with the 5k? That the Park Service had made no plans to use Sunday’s bleak milestone to educate visitors about the dangers of climate change and what we can all do to try to combat them? That instead they were encouraging people to risk their lives in what might be record-breaking heat? Or was it the fact that she’d never heard of what the Park Service had done to the Timbisha Shoshone while they were away for the summer? She had only been on the job for six months; maybe her bosses were to blame for not ensuring the staff knew the history of the park. Still, she seemed more interested in talking about preserving historic ranger housing and mining sites than the park’s historical and contemporary problems.

“At the head of Wildrose Canyon, it was nearly sunset and my car’s thermometer measured 80 degrees. At that very moment, it was 115 in Death Valley proper.”

By the end of the conversation, I was convinced that the Park Service had turned Death Valley into a kind of junk food for heat tourists. Their mission to be stewards of the land seemed like a joke in the face of the slow violence of all the CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere from the park’s air-conditioned cars and hotel rooms each summer. (Note: Only 30% of the power for Xanterra’s properties in Death Valley, possibly the sunniest place in the world, comes from solar energy.) It also didn’t help that when I left the interview, an ambulance wailed by, presumably racing to save yet another unnecessary victim of heat stroke. 

This is when I started to plan my protest. I was certain that the news media would show up for the heat record, so I decided to attempt to infiltrate their narrative, to take a stand for reason in the face of mounting absurdities. 

But I hesitated — what was I doing here? Was I a reporter? A novelist? An artist? Would protesting mean the essay I was working on would be rejected? Was my editor going to be pissed? (It also wasn’t lost on me that I too had participated in burning fossil fuels by coming here, and that buying carbon offsets was a weak attempt to redeem myself.) 

In the end, I thought of my one-year-old child. I tried to imagine what she would be proud of me for doing years from now if I told her about this. Fuck reporting about global warming. I decided to make some signs. 

At the Family Dollar in Pahrump, Nevada, I strolled past the usual display of posters, colored makers, plastic trinkets, greeting cards and birthday supplies until something clicked. In an instant, a plan came together: I’d make it a party. Happy Death Day. 

I bought party hats and noisemakers, Sharpies and five different versions of the “Happy Birthday” banner. I drove back to my hotel and spent the rest of the night cutting, pasting and writing in all caps.

“I became convinced that the Park Service had turned Death Valley into a kind of junk food for heat tourists.”

The next day — the day before what was forecast to be the hottest day on record — I drove back to Badwater Basin and parked my car. I covered my face in sunscreen, made sure I had enough water and electrolyte tablets, grabbed my posters and noise makers, and froze. I choked. Looking out the window, I watched tourists getting out of their cars, strolling around, taking selfies before the smoking alkali. I understood their type at this point. They were mostly from abroad, here for a taste of the extreme and the bizarre. There were kids. Who was I to get in their faces? To make a scene and disrupt their vacations? 

I almost gave it up right there. But then a two-person news crew walked by. One held a clipboard, the other a TV camera. I knew I had to go. 

I opened the door, stepped out into the 125-degree heat and made my way to the alkali. I pulled a noisemaker out of my pocket, held up my signs — “HAPPY DEATH DAY” and “THIS IS THE CLIMATE EMERGENCY” — and began blowing. The noisemaker was sharp, it was annoying. It sounded like a dying animal. The party had begun.

Happy Death Day begins. (Tom Comitta)

Eventually, the TV crew came my way. They introduced themselves as journalists from Reuters, and I happily gave them an interview. I voiced my severe disappointment with the Park Service and tourists’ excitement over this grim world record. I talked about Wildrose Canyon and the Park’s treatment of the Timbisha Shoshone. I even offered a climate-change reading list.

After the reporters got their bit, I blew on my noisemaker for another half hour, then made my way across the park to the Furnace Creek Visitors Center where I continued my noisemaking beside the Park’s famed thermometer — a tourist attraction designed for snapping pics and the focal point of all activity in Death Valley in the summer. I raised my third sign, “MINING STOLEN LAND FOR INSTAGRAM PHOTOS,” and continued to blow my dying horn.

Not long after, the visitor’s center closed. I had already checked out of my hotel and packed my car, intending to return to L.A. and fly home. My partner had been caring for our one-year-old for a week straight, and I needed to get back. But on the way to the airport, I stopped the car three times. I was convinced I wasn’t finished with my protest. It was the day before what was supposed to be the hottest day on record. How could I get this close but miss it? 

I called my partner. She wasn’t happy, but agreed. I turned the car around. Happy Death Day 2, here we go.

To mix things up, I decided day two would be something of a guerilla opera: I’d sing for a full hour at the hottest time of the day, offering educational information about climate change — the same information I felt the Park Service should be providing to visitors — set to the tune of “Happy Birthday.”

When I arrived back at the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center the next day, it was 2:45 p.m. and my car marked 126 degrees. The place was swarming with people watching the thermometer tick up and up, hoping for that record to break. 

At 3 p.m., I downed a bottle of water, grabbed my signs and noise makers, and made my way to the thermometer. I propped my iPhone on a rock and hit record. 

It did admirably well in the heat, but it didn’t survive long enough to capture my confrontation with the climate deniers. Soon after that video cut out, the guy who had been challenging my climate science got a little bolder and louder. Other climate deniers banded together with him. For about 10 minutes, things stayed reasonable, with them mockingly quizzing me about climate solutions, and me firing back (with vibrato) everything I’d learned from books like “The Uninhabitable Earth” and “How to Prepare for Climate Change.” 

At some point, things escalated. The Park Service representative who I’d interviewed two days before asked me to move to a “free speech area” far away from the thermometer. In my best tenor, I told her I could not, that my protest only made sense next to this thermometer. Five minutes later, two armed Park Service officers approached me, telling me to leave or I would be arrested. 

I kept singing, chanting about how the Park Service was encouraging daredevil behavior and failing to educate people on how to live safely and more sustainably in the cooler parts of the park during the summer months — or, better yet, shutting down completely for the summer. I sang about how Wildrose Canyon and much more land should be ceded back to the Timbisha Shoshone and Indigenous peoples all over the U.S., and about how worker conditions at the Ranch are abysmal. 

Eventually the climate denier bros had had enough. To protect the unalienable right to take selfies in peace, they crowded in front of me to block me from the tourists. I hopped around, still singing. At some point, I must have said something offensive — was it that I called them fascists? — and one of the bros raised his fist. Two of his pals grabbed him to hold him back. Deciding, perhaps, that I wasn’t worth the sweat, he backed off, and one of his buddies loudly declared they were off to eat a big, juicy steak — a retort to my suggestion that eating less meat is good for the environment.

When 4 p.m. hit, I thanked the crowd and did a bow. No one clapped. Nonplussed, I gathered up my posters and got back in my car. It seemed that that would just about do it for me here in Death Valley, but then half a mile down the road, I spotted someone dressed all in black jogging through the desert. The 5k!

I drove ahead and parked my car, watching as the figure lumbered through the sunbaked landscape. Peering closer, I wondered: Is that person in a Darth Vader costume? Yes, I answered, yes — that person is most definitely wearing a Darth Vader costume. I checked the thermometer: 128 degrees. Eventually, he approached me, the Sith lord panting and wheezing in white running shoes and ill-fitting gear. He gave a friendly wave and hobbled on.