Prairie Lights: Savoring the first faint blast of summer
Ed Kemmick/Last Best News
Let the baking begin.
Saturday put me in mind of my first couple of summers in Billings, in 1989 and 1990, before which all my Montana summers had been spent in Missoula and Butte.
Missoula was always cool at night, no matter how hot it was during the day, and Butte was so cool that during two summers we spent there, I think we might have taken our (then) only daughter to the city swimming pool maybe three or four times.
Billings was different. Billings was Eastern Montana, not quite on the plains itself but close enough to feel that dusty, piercing prairie heat for much of the summer. I was working from 3 to midnight then, which meant I was spending those hot late mornings and early afternoons either outside or in our un-air-conditioned house.
I still have exaggerated memories of that heat, which seemed to rob a body of its energy while scrambling the brain. I had two daughters by then and we sought out water wherever we could find it.
We swam in the Yellowstone River at Duck Creek, Riverfront Park and Norm’s Island, we swam in Athletic, South Park and Rose Park pools and we even swam in the BBWA Canal a few times. We went occasionally, too, up to what was the only “water park” in town—a single waterslide, four or five stories high, off Bench Boulevard in the Heights.
There were also a few of the primitive wading pools in town, the big round ones with the concrete turtles spraying water, and quite often we resorted to soaking ourselves under a hose in the backyard.
At night, when it got unbearable, we all slept with floor fans blazing away. Being swept by a barely cool breeze five or six times a minute was almost as annoying as simply being hot, but you took what comfort you could.
Saturday wasn’t that hot, obviously, but it was the first day this year that hinted at what a hot summer can be like around here. Oddly enough, it felt good.
No matter how hot it gets, summer in Montana is always too short. You can bitch about the heat every day for two or three months, but the first time you really feel fall in the air it’s like a small death.
It means you’re getting older for one thing, and that a winter of indeterminate length and severity is just around the corner, or just over the mountains. And no matter how old I get, the end of summer still brings on the dread I felt as a very young boy when the start of school, which had seemed impossibly distant, suddenly reared up like a monster or a bad dream.
But the start of summer? That was better than Christmas, better than your own birthday. In early June, summer was rolled out before me like a carpet whose end stretched out beyond the horizon. And heat was part and parcel of that feeling, that languid, enervated state of mind that made time slow down, that made summer longer than the other seasons … until it was almost over and then seemed to have passed in the wink of an eye.
When my girls were small I was able to experience it all again, nearly as vividly as I experienced it at their age. The same creeping exhilaration in mid-May, the feeling of blow-up-the-prison freedom in early June, the hot and buggy eternities of June, July and early August and the constant hunt for water and relief.
That glory was succeeded by the painful dread of mid- to late-August, when you could hear the warden’s key chain jangling down the hallway. But on second thought, let’s not go there. For now it’s enough to contemplate another summer on the High Plains.
I won’t get out on the rivers enough, my trips into the mountains will be painfully few, and there might be days when I hate the heat or curse the smoke from wildfires (fingers crossed).
But for now I’ll just think of how grand it was to feel this first, faint blast of another Billings summer.
Ed Kemmick has been a newspaper reporter, editor and columnist since 1980 and is the founder of Last Best News in Billings.