Opinion » John Rember

Back-to-School

Birthdays, hallucinations and hope

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It was a hot day in early July, and the Redfish Bar was dark and crowded. I was in line, waiting to order margaritas. Julie was out on the lawn, finding a shady spot for our lawn chairs. The music would start in a few minutes.

When I was able to order, I told the bartender, "Don't get your hopes up, but I found a back-to-school flyer at the post office this morning."

The bartender grinned and shook his head. But the damage had been done. Summer was over. Not for the bartender, who still had 10,000 margaritas to make—and not for the musicians, for whom Redfish was just a layover between festivals scheduled through September. But with one careless remark, I'd started Julie's and my countdown to the first day of classes.

Never mind that neither of us has classes to prepare for. Never mind that we're looking forward to October and November, when RVs and motorcycles and giant diesel pickups stop crowding the highways and fly fishermen in new waders stop crowding the riffles behind the house. Never mind that the autumn skies will be a window into dark blue infinity and the windless autumn silence will make it seem like time has stopped.

Time doesn't stop, of course, and infinity isn't for us mortals, even here in Sawtooth Valley. I should have just tossed the back-to-school flyer in the post office wastebasket and said nothing about it. Maybe summer wouldn't have hit the downslope for a few more weeks.

It doesn't help that Julie and I start skiing into the Redfish Lake Lodge every December, and we know too well how the empty Redfish lawn looks under drifted snow. After last winter, we know what an ice breakup in February can do to the docks, and we know five minutes is long enough to linger on the frost-feathered beach—after that it's time to move or risk hypothermia. Winter visions can overlay summer ones, even when you're looking at new docks, listening to good music and small children are spinning in front of the band while bikinied high-school girls practice volleyball moves in the corners of the lawn.

You can have a moment when everything flashes sepia. Jack Nicholson's face peers out of the photograph at you, young and full of hope, but you know he's lost in a snowbank, crazed and frozen.

You'll forgive me, I hope, if I put back-to-school flyers in a class with LSD and mescaline and other hallucinogens.

A week later, we attended Julie's grandmother's 100th birthday party in Oroville, Calif., which required a flight to Sacramento and a rental car that took us through 70 miles of drought-stricken landscape. Lawns were bleached pale yellow where they weren't gray dust. Groves of trees were leafless and dying. The sky was a dirty blue-white, cloudless and opaque.

We visited the Oroville Dam, at 770 feet the highest dam in North America. It does not have 770 feet of water in it—in fact when you see pictures of the California drought, it's usually the Oroville Dam that you're looking at. There are still boats on the reservoir, but they look tiny from the top of the dam. Boat ramps hang high on the reservoir sides, and the tracks of pickups and trailers lead down and down from them to the water. Bridges balance on impossibly tall pilings.

The birthday party was a good time, even though I realized that Julie's grandmother was born before this country entered the Great War. Her century had seen enough changes that time itself could be considered a hallucinogen.

Julie saw some cousins she hadn't seen for 15 years and I was introduced to lots of people in their 80s who had been mentored by Julie's grandparents. I was once again reminded that students graduate. When they come back to see you, they're old, which seems to violate common sense if not common decency.

Julie's uncle, who grows almonds, told me he was drilling a 400-foot well at $150 a foot to keep his grove alive. His neighbors were drilling wells, too, all of them chasing the aquifer down.

I ended up playing foosball with the great-grandkids, and Julie took a picture of me with a look of intense competition on my face, playing against a 6-year-old girl with the same look. She beat me.

We were glad to fly back to Boise, where the lawns are still green, but I started worrying about millions of thirst-racked Californians coming over the Owyhees with their handcarts, and worrying, too, that the drought will expand north. So far computer models of climate change say Idaho will get wetter rather than dryer, but computer models change with every new climate variable, and humanity has lately been supplying lots of those. In the meantime, we welcome every thunderstorm that drops serious rain on the roof.

We were back at Redfish, listening to good music, the next weekend. Fewer school-age children and their parents were in the crowd, and there were more Spending our Children's Inheritance bumper stickers in the parking lot. Yellow leaves were beginning to show in the lakeside willows. The summer had flown, and even if it wasn't time to write lesson plans, it was time to maybe get the skis down from the rafters and file the rust off their edges.