I grew up in a valley of Central California – Fresno to be specific. Fresno is the Spanish word for ‘ash tree,’ so named because of the prevalence of such trees once found along the banks of the San Joaquin River. It rests in the middle of a desert disguised as a city by the addition of shops, offices, schools, and homes. Go north and there are foothills and mountains with oak trees, fools gold for the finding, and lakes like Millerton and Shaver. Hop on Highway 99 and drive through cow country until you come out on the other side greeted by the Central Coast rich with forests full of eucalyptus trees, wineries tucked into quiet rolling hills, deep blue oceans bring their tides up onto expansive, sandy beaches strewn with bulbous seaweed; a cool sixty-five degree haven.
When a valley summer begins to take hold, it bears down with an unmistakable dryness. It steals the moisture from your skin, turns the grass to fire on your bare feet, and draws the ants out in hordes to feast on the green juice of your spilt lime-flavored popsicle.
There’s rarely a question of whether it will be a sunny day or a worry that cloud cover will creep in or that the skies will open up and ruin that barbecue you had planned. If you look up you will be greeted by blue skies. Ignore the fact that it would be a little bluer if it weren’t for the layer of smog that hovers above.
I often think back to my high school days when I drove with the windows rolled down allowing the heat of the day to mingle with the cool of the air conditioning, imagining I was driving through the vacation town of Santa Cruz. On warm Friday nights my friends and I would cruise up and down Blackstone Avenue with the radio blasting music 103.7 KRZR or B95, find a parking lot that looked promising and sit out on the hoods of our cars. While trying to project a California Cool image in our tank tops, cut off jean shorts, and flip-flops, we’d check out the other teenagers and look for cute boys while trying to decide what to do with the night.
Summer in the valley is the juice of watermelons and peaches running down your chin. It’s getting bitten between the toes by little red ants. It’s drinking beer out of chilled glasses and dragging the chaise lounge into the path of the sprinklers while tanning. It’s holding your breath when you’re lucky enough to find yourself embraced by the soft warmth of dusk that brings with it the slow bleed of oranges, pinks, and reds that immerse the sky into their folds.
I often find myself craving those lazy days and longing for when I will see another one of those sunsets. I miss what they stood for; what they were: limitless possibilities and carefree moments unencumbered by the heavy weight of experience and bad choices, wrapped up in a youthful perception of immortality that is filled with hot summer days and endless sunsets.