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Know the West

Oh, those summer nights at the drive-in!


It's the kind of summer night when a warm breeze rubs up against you like your date in that strapless dress on prom night so long ago. Not only that, but our kids are restless and we need something to do. It's the perfect night, in other words, to see a movie at the drive-in.

It's a half-hour drive for us to the pink neon sign of the Tru-Vu down in Delta, in western Colorado. But we consider ourselves lucky. For most people, especially in places where land is more valuable as a place for condominiums than as an empty lot with a big screen sticking up from it, a drive-in is not within reach.

By the time we squeeze our foreign hatchback between two circa-1980s American cars, darkness is almost complete. But the bright sign of the auto parts store across the street casts enough light for me to see the guy in the little Chrysler next to us glare -- or it could be leer -- at my wife as she sets up a lawn chair. On the other side, a bunch of kids, at least six of them under the age of nine, swarm around a lone woman like bees. She kindly offers advice on how to keep our hatchback from blocking the view of the testosterone-addled teenagers in pickup trucks behind us. With her easy smile and long blonde hair, I can easily imagine her as a drive-in princess not so long ago, sauntering like royalty among the line of pickup trucks. But now, she mostly looks tired.

I have a confession: During my adolescence in Durango, Colo., I never once went to the drive-in. It's not that I didn't have the chance; the Rocket sat right on the edge of town, showing two movies a night all summer long. But my crowd did other things with our nights, things that seemed more high-minded at the time, like blowing things up. Besides, my car was a baby-blue Fiat, the horn honked every time I turned left, and smoke seeped from the dash after just 15 minutes of driving. Not exactly a chick magnet.

It wasn't until I was in college, during summer visits home, that I discovered the joys of the Rocket. I remember one night in particular when a couple of us squeezed into the cupboards in the back of Ed's camper van so as to skip out on the $2.50 admission. We set up our lawn chairs and figured out how to surreptitiously sip the Windex-tinted vodka concoction someone had mixed up. We felt out of place, but also detached in a way that allowed us to sit back and observe.

There was the dust, of course, dancing in the early evening light with the heavy smell of popcorn and grease from the best burgers in town frying back in the concession booth. Exhaust and hormones lingered in the breeze. A couple of guys with buzz cuts and baseball caps in a pickup truck jacked three feet off the ground eyed us suspiciously. Two girls walked up to the truck, one in tight jeans and a loose T-shirt with honey blonde hair gathered up on her head, the other in a short skirt. She stood on tiptoe for a moment to flirt with the buzz-cut boys, and revealed thighs tanned from a day down at Navajo Lake. The boy responded by gunning the engine so loud our chests shook.

It was a scene played out over and over, on the edges of rural towns all over the West, as much a part of summer as freshly cut grass, sno-cones and warm nights. But not so much anymore.

Not in Durango, at least. Condos will replace the screen and field of speakers. The developers promise to build responsibly and somehow evoke the Rocket's old neon sign. That's all fine and good, but what about the dust and the smell of grease? What about the boys in their big trucks and the girls on their tiptoes and the sense that if you could just hang onto this one night, summer would last forever?

Back here in Delta, we reluctantly decide to leave after the first feature. One of our daughters is crying, and the guy next to us is definitely ogling my wife, and all the kids on the other side seem on the verge of insulin shock from all the candy they ate during the second movie. But as we pull out into the night, I vow to return as many times as possible. Who knows how long this drive-in will hold out against the modern world?

Jonathan Thompson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is the paper's associate editor.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].