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SUMMARY: Students' departure - like their arrival in the fall - signals a delightful change for Missoula.

The change was palpable Monday morning in Missoula. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, traffic was light and the Dumpsters were filled. And college students were scarce.

Ah, yes, one of our two favorite times of the year is at hand, when the University of Montana wraps up its spring term with finals, commencement exercises and a flurry of garage sales, after which most students load up and move out.

Don't get us wrong. This isn't an anti-student rant. Our other favorite time of the year is in early September, when UM fires up for the fall, and students fill the town with new faces and a fresh energy. This would not be the Missoula we all know and love without the university and the thousands of students it attracts.

But it wouldn't be quite the same, either, unless most the students cleared out for a few months every summer. We regard this transition much the way magpies probably do the start of winter, after the meadowlarks and other avian transients head south, leaving the place to the locals. There's no question now who rules our roost.

The students' departure is part of an environmental change that includes better weather, longer daylight hours, more reasons to spend time outdoors and days filled with reminders of why we live here. Life shifts into a different pace - slower in civic and political matters, faster in recreational and family activities. It may be our imagination or a simple case of projection, but it seems people in this contentious town seem happier in summer, occasional visits from the Hells Angels notwithstanding. It's not because the students are gone; their departure merely signals the onset of summer-mode Missoula, just as the first crocus announces that winter isn't going to last forever.

Life in Missoula is a tale of two cities. Except it's the best of time and the best of times, with students and without.

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