Places & Neighborhoods: Surviving suburbia

The freedom andfrustrations of summer in the Sacramento foothills were never so familiar

Sometimes you want to believe summer is boundless, full of good times and Justin Timberlake sweet talk. But then reality sets in: You live in suburbia, have three part-time jobs and usually are in bed by 10 p.m. Still, there’s magic out there somewhere.

Sometimes you want to believe summer is boundless, full of good times and Justin Timberlake sweet talk. But then reality sets in: You live in suburbia, have three part-time jobs and usually are in bed by 10 p.m. Still, there’s magic out there somewhere.

Photo illustration by Don Button

Apparently, you can go home again.

I’m here right now, in my childhood bedroom in the bedroom community of Cameron Park in the foothills. I’m working at the desk where I used to do algebra homework, and my mom just brought me a snack. I’m listening to Nina Simone on iTunes instead of Simon Le Bon on cassette, but otherwise it’s like the last 20 years never happened.

Spending a summer in one’s childhood home at age 34 affords a unique opportunity. I don’t mean the opportunity to wonder how I missed the cruise ship to adulthood—with port stops at marriage, children, home ownership, Ensenada—or the opportunity to clean the filters on my parents’ swimming pool. (Although I’ve done plenty of both since moving in last month to save money for a trip overseas.) I’m talking about the opportunity to relive summer in the Sacramento suburbs, the setting of every “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” essay I’ve ever written.

Is there any period in American middle-class existence more glorified than the teenage summer? For many of us, high-school summer breaks are the last time in our lives without debt, dependents or real responsibility. To this day, when I hear Alice Cooper announce that “school’s been blown to pieces” or John Travolta sigh over those summer nights, I feel a shiver of the anticipation I felt on the last day of school. When Justin Timberlake insists what we share “just can’t be summer love,” I want to believe him. I want to believe life can seem boundless again, even though I’m an adult with three part-time jobs and the annoying habit of falling asleep before 10 p.m.

Pop-culture nostalgia aside, my teenage summer vacations in Cameron Park were better imagined than realized. The last day of school released a flood of inspiration. “This summer I’ll swim every day!” I’d tell myself. “I’ll have the perfect tan! The perfect boyfriend! The perfect parties! The perfect life!” And when I return to school in the fall, followed my unspoken logic, I will be more beautiful and more loved. Such is the transformative power of summer vacation.

That glow of possibility lasted about a week, until the reality of my underage, suburban situation set in. I had no money, no transportation and few friends within the construction zone surrounding our brand-new ranch-style home. In the 1980s, Cameron Park had yet to evolve the amenities that make a subdivision a community. The public library, the annual Summer Spectacular Fireworks Show, the community center yoga classes, the three Starbucks and the countless soccer leagues were all in the unforeseeable future. We suburban pioneers counted ourselves lucky when Sizzler moved in, and we no longer had to drive to Sacramento for cheese toast.

Our backyard, like the others in our freshly leveled housing development, was a sea of red dirt. It was hard to lounge on, even through a beach towel. The dust stuck to my suntan oil and thwarted my best efforts to imagine myself as Pauly Shore’s guest at the MTV Beach House. When the temperature reached 100 degrees, as it nearly always did by noon, I’d grab my boombox and run indoors, overheated and defeated.

Eventually, I’d settle into a routine fueled by the self-righteous boredom only teenagers can generate. I’d sleep late and spend the day on the couch with the phone in one hand and the television remote in the other. My friends and I yammered endlessly about how there was never anything to do in our town, while sitcoms laughed in the background. We conspired to convince our mothers to drive us to Folsom Lake, to Sunrise Mall, to any place where life was really happening.

When in Rome: Poor Red’s Bar-B-Q in El Dorado, whose Golden Cadillac cocktails will have you forgetting that you sleep in your childhood bedroom faster than you can say “school’s been blown to pieces.”

Photo By Becca Costello

If my teenage self was here now, sitting at her desk with the summer breeze beckoning outside her bedroom window, would she be surprised by how much our hometown has grown? Trees my mother planted are taller than our house. Our backyard is a swimming-pool oasis. There’s a stack of books from the Cameron Park Library by my bed and fresh scones from the nearby Azna Gluten Free bakery in the kitchen. Would she smile at Canada geese honking overhead, softball players drinking beer in a parking lot after a game, Easter egg hunts, dog parks and the amazing fact that, most days, the wind is the loudest sound you hear? Would she finally appreciate the gifts of suburbia her parents worked to bring her?

Or would she urge me to get up and drive someplace—any place—where life is really happening? With a car, a paycheck and a legal drinking age, I finally have the freedom to seize summer by the beach balls.

I’d hate to tell her that my adult summers usually fly by in a blur of work, errands and good intentions. It’s a sad fact that once you have the ability to drive anywhere, to see any show, to stay up late whenever you want, it becomes easier than ever to put those things off.

Here in my childhood bedroom, I can still feel my adolescent frustration with suburban summers bound by plaster walls and carefully mapped cul-de-sacs. I owe it to my younger self to do things differently. I won’t wait for the perfect summer to happen to me. I’ll go find the magic myself.

This summer, I will run through Cameron Park’s now shady streets. I will smell the wild roses and eat blackberries straight from the vine. I will stay up too late at the drive-in movies with an extra-large bag of popcorn on my lap. I will dance to cheesy cover bands at Red Hawk Casino and down a Golden Cadillac at Poor Red’s Bar-B-Q. I will jump off rocks into the American River and crane my neck to see Fourth of July fireworks and have my face painted with glitter at the El Dorado County Fair. I will make this place, my home, the place where life is really happening.