Up here along the western edge of Montana, summer is a different beast than in other parts of the country. It’s got its own rhythm, its own schedule, its own crazy intensity. As the season lurches toward the inevitable Labor Day deluge followed by a garden-busting cold snap, I have to marvel at the consistency with which the summertime arrives, administers its brief torture, and disappears in the same maddening fashion each year.
Winter hangs on through the spring months here like an unemployed old college buddy who’s crashing on your couch, never showing signs of moving on while he drinks all your beer and keeps asking your thirteen-year-old daughter if she plays the trombone. But eventually the snow melts away, dissolved by the rampant rains that fall through May and June, letting up just after drenching another Fourth of July weekend.
Then, then, at long last, summer arrives. And so does your brother-in-law with his wretched wife and three Ritalin-juiced brats, popping in for a surprise two-week visit from dreary old Manhattan. Summer in Montana means visitors, and the closer you live to a body of water, the more of your time your fair-weather friends and family will hog up. No one wants to visit Montana in the winter. If they did, they’d live here. Winter is the price we pay for summer.
So you put up with it. After realizing that we don’t even have a Red Lobster in this godforsaken jerkwater, they agree to a camping trip. Of course, by this time the lush growth brought on by the torrential spring rains has dried to a crispy brown, and by the end of July (sometimes sooner) we’re into Fire Season. The great outdoors has become a tinderbox. No open campfires allowed. Your bro-in-law will have to toast his kids’ marshmallows over the sizzling manifold of your idling F-150.
But even without campfires, even when we keep the bong inside the RV, the forest fires come. Even when we refrain from burning backyard slash piles full of dead rose bushes, dry-rotted garage doors and puke-encrusted picnic tables, the fires come. Wildfires rage through the rugged mountains of Montana and the tree-infested panhandle of nearby Idaho, blackening millions of acres and a few foolishly-placed houses that “looked so cute nestled in the woods.” Then, like a giant death eater from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Commerce, the smoke from these fires flows into our valley, burning eyeballs and trashing windpipes. Sometimes the smoke gets so thick that visitors begin asking if there’s a Widespread Panic concert going on somewhere.
The roar of the big, retardant-loaded Neptune airplanes overhead, coupled with the Vietnam-flashback-inducing throp-throp of Huey choppers dipping water out of nearby rivers means that it must be late August. Summer’s winding down. But first, one last word from Old Man Mother Nature: ten straight days of hundred-degree heat. Yeah, it’s a dry heat, but so is sticking your head in a pizza oven. When you live in a place where the temperature can swing 120 degrees through the course of the year, you learn to be prepared. Lycra spandex biker shorts lined with Kool-Pops is my secret. And the bonus is, my farts smell like cotton candy!
That’s summer in Montana. We don’t have hurricanes or tornadoes or much earthquake action here. We also don’t have to deal with the Dirty South humidity that can give a guy such crotch-searing heat rash that he has to walk like a duck in a minefield. No, we have other summertime hazards. Like bears. And mountain lions. And wolves. And tater pigs.
So when that first school bell rings in a couple of days, what you’ll be hearing is really the death knell for summer. We usually get lucky enough to have a nice couple of weeks of Indian summer in early October, but it’s absolutely freaky how the Labor Day cold snap arrives on that last three-day weekend almost every year. It’s like someone throws a switch. Ding! Summer’s over—hang up the canoe and break out the snow shovel. If you’re brave enough to squeeze in one last camping trip, you’ll be rewarded by waking up to an inch of snow on your tent and a pit toilet seat cold enough to clamp your whale eye shut for two days.
But at least the fires will be out.