How much does adventure cost? Tonight it costs $9.50 plus snacks, that’s the price of admission for one adult and one child to the Valley Hi Drive-In in Lake Elmo, Minnesota. These days drive-ins are considered kitschy cool and this one is revered for being the last of its kind in the Twin Cities area. But we didn’t come here because of that, this is a tradition being passed down from mother to daughter. Twenty-five years ago I was the child bubbling over with anticipation in the backseat in this same spot and tonight I initiate my six-year-old Layna into one of summer’s greatest pastimes.
Movies are kind of our thing—a bonding time we’ve enjoyed since we got swept into Disneymania four years ago. We like the ritual of escaping into stories together for a couple of hours, sucking sweet candies and taking our pictures in the arcade photo booths. But here at the drive-in, the movie is almost beside the point. The point is that all the rules are broken: pajamas in public, staying up way past bedtime, sitting in the front seat eating popcorn and gawking at the long line of cars inching their way in to join us.
We arrive a good two hours before the show starts to secure our spot and allow ample time to soak in the experience. Families are grilling, kids are tossing footballs, and teenage girls are strutting while teenage boys practice the time-honored practice of alternating between feigned nonchalance and awkward flirting. Lawn chairs litter the spaces between cars and make-shift beds are laid out in the backs of trucks and on the tops of minivans.
Layna looks at me with wonder in her eyes and giddily unpacks the dozen or so dolls and stuffed animals she secreted away in her backpack. Her favorite vampire doll gets the place of honor on top of our sunroof; the others nestle on the dashboard and along the back seat. We visit the lobby where you can buy cheap, gut-rotting food, visit the photo booth, play video games or take spin on a mini Harley motorcycle ride. Layna begs and I plug in two quarters for a very sedate back and forth ride that leaves her unimpressed. Here in a rare after-bedtime outing full of exciting people and forgotten rules it’s not hard to see why she expected something wilder.
My date spends much of the movie sitting perched in the open passenger window of our car, doing her best to take in every bit of action around us and hoping to be noticed herself. “Oh yes, I am sitting with my butt out the window, this is not safe!” she announces in that theatrically loud tone she uses when putting on conversation-as-performance art.
It’s hot and despite my only motherly admonishment of the night “Don’t slurp all of your drink, save some for the movie!” she finishes it well before the show begins. In the spirit of adventure and making a few bad choices for the sake of memories I share my Diet Coke.
It’s nearly midnight when we slowly snake our way out of the parking lot. There are two more movies on tap but we are tapped out. Sticky, bug-bitten and deliciously exhausted we drive home, already planning our next adventure.