Sunday, May 3, 2009

How I Learned to Drink Coffee

This post is offered as a response to FatLad's Riders Writing Cycle # 5; What was your best ride?

As a kid I thought few things were as wonderful as the smell of fresh brewed coffee in the air but it represented a huge mystery to me as well. How could something that smelled that great, have such an utterly repulsive taste? I tried it every few years and recall thinking each time that it tasted even worse than the time before but its’ aroma continued to be one of my favorites.

I did a lot of self-supported bike touring in my teens and early twenties, mostly trips from the Twin Cities up to the North Shore of Lake Superior. My first trip was when I was 15 and had a ten-speed, a hand-me-down I’m sure, and my buddy had a five-speed sting-ray. That trip set the foundation for some pretty serious rides over the coming years and, eventually, a change in my perspective on coffee.

The following year I upgraded that old ten-speed spending a whopping $700 on an Italian bike. That was a lot of paper route money back in 1972! The bike was hotter than a pistol coming in under 20 lbs. with a Campagnolo frame and derailleur and sew-up tires. I was putting a lot of miles on that bike but thought I was a lightweight since one of my brother's friends bragged that his round-trip rides to Duluth and back in one shot, roughly 300 miles, was what it took to be a "serious" rider.

But I digress; I was supposed to be discussing coffee…

So anyway, it was on one of those northern excursions that coffee made a grand entrance that couldn’t be denied. It was our third day of the trip with 150 miles behind us and just over 100 on the schedule for the day. The day started out cool enough to delay our start but bright and sunny when we finally got underway. We were still on the early side of Duluth’s rush hour but didn’t make it far it up on to Scenic Highway 61 and my buddy's cassette irreparably busted.

Seeing as how I was the better part of a foot taller, and had the only working bike, it quickly became my job to ride back to Duluth with his busted cassette (I actually carried a cassette tool with me!) to get a replacement and back to where he waited, hopefully not smoking up our entire stash, er, I mean eating all the chocolate chip cookies mom had sent along, yeah, cookies that’s what I meant...

Anyway, the day that had started out so sunny and bright had become ominously overcast with a blustery chill in the air. With a growing headwind we hurried to get the bike fixed and be on our way and hopefully ride out of the approaching weather. However, just as we completed the repair and jumped back in the saddle, a slight mist developed which soon became a steady drizzle. Within five miles we were pining for that steady drizzle as it had become a real gully washer with ever increasing wind and dropping temps.

For those of you not familiar with the magnificent Lake Superior, this is a huge body of water, a fresh-water ocean really, that averages something like 38 degrees Fahrenheit and this was early June so it was still reminiscing about the winter ice pack. When the wind comes across this frigid water it can create a bigger chill than your sweetie catching you smoochin’ an old flame*. Back in those days it was a 100% cotton wardrobe and I don’t recall having any kind of raincoat but if I did, it was completely ineffective. So there we were riding into a hellacious headwind, temps dropping I would guess into the 40’s, soaked to our cotton-clinging skin.

* I have no personal experience with this but have observed it...

Did I mention this was a camping trip? Being high school students, we didn’t have much capital leverage so had planned the trip around free camping spots along the route as we had on all the other trips we had taken. I’m pretty sure I had never stayed in a hotel without my folks so getting a room simply wasn’t within my reality.

But then neither was battling a frigid rainstorm, soaked to the skin. Grinding along the side of the highway was getting more miserable with each turn of the cranks so when a quaint little village of cabins with a vacancy sign out front came into view, no discussion or even eye contact was required. We simply rolled down the driveway towards that classic north woods lodge, parking our bikes on the porch out of the rain and headed inside.

What waited inside was as close to heaven as I have ever been. There was a roaring fire in the fireplace, and the smell of freshly brewed coffee thick in the air. We were both so stiff with cold and chilled to the bone that putting one foot in front of the other took as much effort as we could muster. There was no one in the foyer when we arrived but soon a pretty young lady appeared behind the counter and as soon as she saw us got a huge grin on her face and announced that she had just brewed fresh hot coffee and asked if we would like some.

Before we could get the whole word ‘yes’ out of our mouths, she spun around and was gone only to return in a moment with two huge mugs of steaming hot coffee. We were both struck by her beauty and would likely have said yes even if she had offered us ice water but when I wrapped my numb fingers around that mug of java she became irrelevant.

I was keenly aware of my dislike of the taste of coffee so at that point I didn’t figure I would even drink any and since it was too hot to drink anyway, I just enjoyed getting the feeling back into my fingers and savoring the exquisite aroma. The longer I smelled the coffee, the more it called to me and when the thawing began heading up my arms, I decided it was time for a sip.

Expecting a wretched taste to flow over my lips, and hoping not to sear the flesh in my mouth, I gingerly took my first sip. At that exact moment I came to know that in fact the taste was somehow spectacularly better than the smell. As the warmth grew in my belly, warming me from the inside out, I knew my life had just changed.

We could have finished our coffee and headed back out as soon as it cleared and had expected to do just that after warming up and changing into dry clothes. Somehow the moment was just too perfect and when the young lady behind the counter saw our hesitation, offered us a small cabin that was in the middle of having some work done but if we didn’t mind we could have it at a discount. Oh, and she also offered us more coffee so that sealed the deal.

I never gave her another thought and don’t remember much about our stay or even the rest of the trip but knew that I had been smitten by a steaming hot love that would last a lifetime.


  1. Nice post. It reminds me of the one and only cup of coffee I ever drank. I am a tea man for life. Still ove the smell though. Really great post!

  2. Love the story! And the discount cabin was icing. My coffee intro had to do with college and staying awake to study...boooring.

  3. I think every coffee-drinker remembers the first time they drank- and enjoyed the taste of- coffee as well as they remember their first sexual experience. My story was nowhere near as good as yours- it involved early morning high school marching band and breakfast before a cold football game. (I’m talking about the coffee experience, not the sex-experience, here; I never got any action via marching band-related events or activities…)

    Interestingly, here in Utah I know many adults who don’t drink coffee (it’s a no-no for Mormons) but love the smell.

  4. HWB - Thanks, I drink a bit of tea as well but to me it's just tea.

    TOB - I don't remember what we paid for the cabin but it was quite torn up.

    Watcher - For a moment there I was regretting not having been in marching band. I used to travel out to visit Novell in Provo quite a bit and the first time was an eye opener as the joint we selected for breakfast didn't even serve coffee. We were more careful on subsequent trips.

  5. I'd always drunk coffee but always the instant powdered stuff whenever I neede a pick up. When we came to the states last year there was a coffe machine in our Chicago apartment... I haven't looked back since and now both Mrs Fl and I have got into the hot black completely now.

    Nothing has yet to come close to the mug of very very hot coffee I had in the New York diner the last day before we came home.

    The strong evocative smell for me will always bring back our out of this world experience in that wonderful place for as long as I dare it to be

    Fat Lad

  6. We had been accustomed to making espresso on the stove top but when our kitchen remodel project started, since we were to be without a kitchen for several months, we needed a stand alone solution and picked up a Krupps espresso maker. Now we wonder how we managed without it.

  7. I had my morning coffee while reading this story. Great coffee, great story. It was nice.

  8. Anonymous7:57 AM

    mmmmmmmmmm, coffee is the most wonderful thing in the whole wide world. I started at 15, working as a busboy, wearing a magenta polyester vest, at a Village Inn Pancake House. Loading the 25 gallon drum coffee maker was my first task. I instinctively used double the amount of grounds that I was told. That's still how I like it. Juancho

  9. Roberta - So nice of you to join me for coffee, we should do it again sometime!

    Juancho - Good instincts but the visual of the magenta polyester vest offers a whole new sort of eye-opening...