COXSACKIE, N.Y. -- Nearly three decades of New England season cycles and the first roaring wave of summer still takes me by surprise. If you're as enthusiastic about this summer's warm weather as I am and have spent the past few weeks trying to spend each moment outdoors, I've got a hot tip.
The Hi-Way Drive-In Theater is located just 40 quick miles west on I-90 and has been since 1955. The past half-century has seen the once modest theater expand to include four massive screens in a sprawling field along a lonesome stretch of road, far from noise. Pole-mounted speakers have given way to your car's own radio and major credit cards are accepted, but not much else seems to have changed.
The evening's memories flicker with a dreamlike quality reserved for those few summer nights so warm and humid as to demand an unconditional surrender to whim and leisure. My friend Lauren is as bewitched by living relics of faded Americana as I am, always eager to get lost in the Interstate system seeking some hidden neon wonderland.
"Any interest in going to a drive-in double feature movie show?" That's one of the best text messages I've ever received in recent memory, followed closely by, "There are four double features to chose from, they start at dusk. It's about 45 minutes away."
Four of us rendezvoused in Stockbridge shortly before 8 p.m. and in a flash we were flying down the highway, warm wind rushing, as I sprawled in the back seat like an unquestioning child. My only recollection of attending a drive-in theater is from youth, a few whips of smoke forming the scene of my family leaning to one side of our parked car listening to a single speaker mounted by my father's window. I only know that we saw "Sister Act" from being reminded years later, but vividly recall the excitement of the concession area as if it were the Vegas Strip.
This same sense of wonder was waiting as we pulled off a dimming stretch of Route 9W into a sprawling field aglow with coming attractions beamed down from silent giant screens erected on all sides like a mental theater of imagined worlds. The entrance to this valley of mirages is marked by the Hi-Way's original marquee, the names of contemporary films on a glimmering Deco billboard copied and pasted from shortly after the war.
For such a physically expansive business that can accommodate over 600 cars, the Hi-Way's staff was noticeably hands-off. A woman peeked in the car and sold us four tickets as we drove past the radiant sign, and three or four teenagers ran the snack bar and surrounding amenities, but we were left to find our perch and occupy it as we saw fit. With plenty of spaces to chose from, front and center was ours for the taking.
A hurried visit to the snack shack (more foot traffic truck stop than candy counter) revealed a summertime playground drawing all ages from lots projecting a small but diverse selection of first run double bills; "World War Z" and "Man of Steel," "Monsters University" and "Epic," "This is the End" and "The Internship," and "The Purge" and "Fast & Furious 6."
Lauren convinced the teens working behind the counter to concoct the root beer float she'd fantasized aloud about since Exit 2. Ali zeroed in on some jalapeño poppers that looked much tastier than regular old theater grub. A small boy was vocally overjoyed at the promise of ice cream as two adolescent chaps latched onto the counter with the express goal of flirting up the young women working the register. Some grown couples seemed as charmed as I did and hastened back to the fun of their cars with arms full of munchies.
We went with the R-rated comedy line-up, settling into our cushioned seats just as Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel, playing themselves, arrived at a raucous party at James Franco's Hollywood home in the too-clever-to-be-called-a-stoner-comedy "This Is the End," in which the "Freaks and Geeks" alums are joined by some of their A-list pals in a drug-addled attempt to navigate the Biblical Armageddon.
The pleasure of unrestrained laughter and quick "Where do I know her from?" asides has been trained out of the movie going experience for so long that this freedom discovered in our self-contained theater was a source of raucous fun. Though the lot was largely empty, I envision a sea of hootin' and hollerin' cars on an August Saturday. I'm already planning my next visit, hopefully involving a caravan of cohorts and at least one pick-up truck with pillows in the bed.
If you go ...
What: The Hi-Way Drive-In
Where: 10769 State Route 9W, Coxsackie, N.Y. (518) 731-8672 www.hiwaydrivein.com
Hours through Labor Day: Earliest screenings start at 8:40 p.m.
Food: Snack bar, opens one hour before first movie starts