This early-autumn discovery was the result of my desire for freedom, not my thirst for coffee. I went to the town of Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania in search of a local institution: The Appalachian trail. Or, rather, a connection to it. The Appalachian Trail, famed across the country for its beautiful vistas, challenging climbs and (at least in Pennsylvania) many, many rocks, winds its way right through my home turf. It’s always been there as a background fact, lurking in local lore, unseen to anyone who isn’t a hard core hiker or hunter. I’ve always liked hiking but it’s only been recently that I’ve started to entertain the idea of starting a trek down this most famous trail of the east coast. Let’s just say I’ve started to see the virtues of getting lost in nature. People are becoming rather irksome. Oh that’s right, it’s election season isn’t it?
Be that as it may, almost as important as the nature you see on the trail are the people you see on the trail. I say almost because few hike the Appalachian trail for the company. Nightlife out here consists of bears, owls and possibly the odd Sasquatch. And yet, you will meet interesting folks in the wild. You will also meet interesting folks serving the trail community. In fact, multiple towns and villages have been designated ‘trail communities.’ It’s an actual term. An important sector of the local economy of these towns revolves around serving the hikers, drifters, wanderers and outcasts who wind their way along the over 2,000 mile trail. Boiling Springs is one of those places. You can tell that the town is different; it’s unusually artsy for a town west of the Susquehanna River, a region known more for its farms than its fanfare. Yet here I found a lake with artists along the shore with easels set up, painting in French plein air style. I saw political signs more in line with a college town than a coal town. I saw old barns and family restaurants mixed with more self-consciously sophisticated offerings like Cafe 101.
The cafe itself is a large building, standing out quite prominently near the center of town. I went to what was clearly the entrance, only to discover that it wasn’t the entrance, and worked my way around the edifice to the actual entrance. I could tell from the stylized AT stickers that this was likely a place where hikers came to refuel. That impression was reinforced once I got inside; there was a community board for posting local events and a rack of fliers for businesses taking advantage of the town’s acclaim as a center of local hiking culture. It’s worth noting that hiking culture is not the same as hunting culture in Pennsylvania. The gear is similar, but the attitudes are often wildly divergent. I think it’s that hunters are still very much invested in the culture at large. Hikers on the other hand like to drop out of normal culture whenever they can put together the cash. The cafe reflected that very eclecticism. The outside featured a patio that could host garden parties. The interior had an ornate dining room mixed with more private nooks and crannies where one could sit down for a bit, but the coffee itself was offered up quickly for people on the move.
The coffee itself was a medium roast; a blend of some kind. I can’t tell you what it was a blend of, because no matter how I interrogated the staff, nobody seemed to know. I looked right at the bag and I still don’t know. All we could collectively figure out is that it was a gourmet roast courtesy of Kaffe Magnum Opus. That particular roaster started out in East Rockaway, Long island. A man named Bob Johnson started it when, at the age of 10, his parents made him grind coffee and the aroma stuck with him. He’d smell that homey scent again later at a mall in Philly, and the rest became history. Back to the meat of the matter, or rather the bean: I just couldn’t place this flavor. It had the slightly bitter taste that diner coffee tends to have…but only at first. The aftertaste showed a remarkable amount of detail. You could tell it was a boutique coffee, but only after giving it a nice long swirl in the mouth did the artistry show itself. It was obviously no cheap Robusta (often the source of the inexpensive, low acidity/high bitterness associated with lower quality coffees) but it didn’t seem to have a defining characteristic. It was, rather, a swirl of characteristics done with a light touch. It would make a wonderful breakfast coffee…but I got it in mid-afternoon. It was a slightly confusing but ultimately lovely experience. Come to think of it, that’s not unlike hiking.
Before I left, I made sure to drive past the lake and take in the entry point to the Appalachian Trail itself. They’re typically well cared for sites, clearly marked as being part of the Appalachian Trail system, with the signs usually carved into wood and accompanied by a tree or post marked with the ‘white blaze’ symbol that let’s hikers stay on the right path. In a lot of ways, the open trail is like the open road. You can start down it and not know where you’ll wind up, even if you have a map close at hand. Destinations shift with the movement of people (or trees as the case may be). There is always, though, the clear sense of a new horizon. We need those. Oh well, enough philosophizing. Until next time, stay caffeinated.