Rooftops the place to beat heat

Posted Aug. 06, 2009, at 6:58 p.m.

At some point last winter, during my most recent five-month stint living and working at the South Pole, the cold finally got to me, and I cracked. It hadn’t been above minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit in weeks, and one afternoon, standing out along the flight line and waiting for the next batch of cargo, I had a complete Scarlet O’Hara moment. “As God is my witness,” I said — or something to that effect —“I will never be cold again.” Crumbling a handful of snow in my fist for extra drama, clutching my parka tight around me, I vowed to find warmth. And then I moved to Baltimore in the summertime.

Scarlet was never known for her fine judgment, either. I think I may wilt in this heat and humidity.

According to my Wilderness First Aid manual, man is a tropical animal. We were not designed for the cold; we were designed to sweat, with sensitive and efficient heat regulatory mechanisms for systematically and effectively cooling our bodies. I find the need to remind myself of this often. “Is it possible to evolve after a child-hood of Maine winters and a couple of seasons at the South Pole?” I ask.

As I open my freezer door to refill the ice cube tray, I resist the urge to try to climb into it. The humidity outside makes it feel as though I am breathing warm water. I even wish, fleetingly, for the bone-aching, all-consuming cold of Antarctica. “There must be some place in this city where I can cool off,” I think.

I find my answer on the rooftops. There, at last, is some small relief from the oppressive summer heat — the breeze. Baltimore may have an unholy humidity percentage, but if you just get high enough, above the buildings, you can catch the wonderful, cooling Chesapeake wind that blows in from the harbor.

I have a bit of a history with rooftops. I used to sit on the garage roof when I was a kid, by taking the screen out of my parents’ bedroom window, getting a stepstool (I was too short to reach the window then) and climbing out onto the ridgeline. I felt like the coolest kid on the block up there.

Years later, I overcame my fear of cities while sitting on an urban rooftop. When I moved to my first city — Madrid, Spain, — I was scared and disoriented by the tall buildings and the busy traffic, but I took comfort in finding my way onto the city’s roofs. From the rooftop, I felt above the city, and the bustling metropolis, no longer towering above me, seemed more manageable. I spent a full hour one evening sitting on the roof of a friend’s apartment building and watching the traffic below. Somehow, the steady rhythm of the headlights below me, moving in time with the periodic changing of the traffic signals, reminded me of watching the wood stove flicker back home. After that, the city seemed less daunting.

I like rooftops. Always have.

Now I am drawn to the rooftops once more, but this time for a different reason: to find some small way to cool off. Baltimore is characterized by countless row houses, each two or three stories high, and many of them sport simple rooftop decks. Even just two stories up, I can feel the cooling winds. The roofs, in my opinion, are the best seats in Baltimore.

My own porch is a small one, lower than that of my neighbors; even so, the small amount of wind I get is better than being inside or on the street. Still, I wanted more. One afternoon, I stuffed my papers into my backpack and set off in search of the highest, breeziest place in the city to do my work.

Unfortunately, “it’s too hot out” is not sufficient explanation to gain access to Baltimore’s downtown 30- and 40-story skyscrapers. But it is a completely acceptable reason to climb the stairs of the Patterson Park Pagoda, formerly called the Observation Tower. “Go right on up, sweetheart,” one of the volunteer docents of this historic, 60-foot-high tower told me. “Take all the time you want.”

I climb several stories above the cars, buildings and trees, stand at the top of the tower, and breathe in the blessing that is the cooling harbor breeze. In lieu of building a rope ladder to try to reach my neighbors’ rooftops, this will do in a pinch. Perhaps, I think, I might just be a tropical animal after all.

Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. She may be reached at madams@bangordailynews.net.

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