This Thanksgiving, I felt incredible gratitude for two things: my family and the mountains. Yes, I’m grateful specifically for the Appalachian Mountains, at the foot of which I live and write. Through most of my life, I’ve been far and away more of a city boy than a country boy. Recently though, I’ve been getting more interested in the virtues of the countryside, and not just for the obvious blessing of clean air. All right, so my appreciation for the outdoors is not entirely without precedent; my parents are, after all, from the small town of Sunbury. My Dad and I have always gone on hikes since I was quite small. And ever since the TV show Firefly came out back in the early 2000s, I’ve associated bluegrass music with the outer space (another of my loves) and freedom.
Freedom is what I was looking for when I rode up Route 322 a week or so ago in the passenger seat of my Mom’s car. We were both looking for a bit of that, which is why she generously offered to drive. If you’re from Pennsylvania, you’ll recognize Rt. 322 as the road which, during any other autumn, would be jammed end-to-end with traffic headed to Penn State. Now, I should tell you right now (if you haven’t guessed already) that I am one of few Americans who sees freedom vs. safety as a bit of a false choice caused by a lack of individual reason. Unfortunately reason has apparently fled the world for a bit, and so in turn I feel the urge to flee myself to places where natural law is the only law, enforced by powers beyond the control of humans. I could have said ‘people,’ but if you’d grown up around the non-humans that I did, you’d get the distinct impression that a lot of them are, in fact, persons, and far better company than most of the ‘people’ you know. You could live in the mountains. You could die there too, but knowledge will save you. Wisdom is rewarded with life. Can one say the same of civilization?
Such were the thoughts in my mind as we drove through the seemingly endless wooded hills into the small and meandering village of Mifflintown, Pennsylvania, nestled snug in a valley carved by the Juniata River. There are no coffeehouses of note in Mifflintown. There is, however, one just to the north in the even smaller town of Cuba Mills and it’s called the Guante Cafe. From the outside it looks like many of the other decidedly ‘improvised’ appearing structures that make up the majority of the small towns of Appalachia. Dusty white boards and the stuck-on black letters “GUANTE CAFE” left me wondering if this was really just a run-down diner masquerading as a coffeehouse.
In fact, the reverse is true. When you step inside, you’re immediately greeted by the colorful wall-painting of a heart rendered in dreamlike colors. To your right is a plush little lounge with a map of the world behind your head. To your left is a pretty counter, with craft coffee brewing behind it and a young, thoughtful barista putting acoustic music on the radio. It was like an eruption of big-city artistry had happened right inside an old village shop. Actually, this isn’t far removed from the truth. Apparently this cafe was a collective effort; the barista told me that the woman who owned it had a great deal of help from the local community in making this all happen. I hope you’re thinking the same thing I am; in other words, I hope that you’re having a smile at the fact that the community of a town in one of the most conservative counties in the state came together to pitch in on a project that seems dedicated to art for the sake of art. My, is it easy to forget how universal the artistic impulse is (and what good news that is).
The coffee wasn’t what I expected either. Again, burdened with my absurd stereotypes, I assumed that it would be mere diner coffee. Nope. It was a well-made brand of Peaberry coffee from Costa Rica. Yes, I’m puzzled by the plethora of Spanish in this backcountry burg, and will have to look into that at a later date. For now, let me explain a bit about Peaberry coffee. It is so named because it results from a mutation present in Robusta and Arabica coffee beans wherein only one bean is inside of the coffee cherry, not the usual two. Coffee, you see, is actually a fruit, not a bean, and the contents of that fruit (the seeds) are what we call ‘coffee beans.’ Some say this mutation results in a sweeter and more caffeine-rich roast. I would believe the caffeine part of that equation, but as to sweetness? No, I would say there was more of a floral overtone to this and an overall lack of astringency similar to the last Arabica I reviewed. The freshness may have seemed like sweetness, but was more uniquely defined by the little subtleties of flavor than by any one quality. Had I not been too late for breakfast it would have made a delightful breakfast blend. As it was, the added caffeine gave me a much needed boost of pep for the beautiful but sometimes monotonous ride home.
A meeting of worlds. That’s what I’d call Guante Cafe. Far from the city, and yet not so far from the spirit of creativity that blooms there, at times all too tenuously. But isn’t that the way it should be? Far from the noise of the media, in an area of the country where having an axe to grind means you’re literally preparing to hew wood, shouldn’t that be a site for art to flourish? Certainly Tolkien thought so, and I daresay he proved it. The next time I come up this way into the mountains, I’ll have to take the back road. There are some little villages along that long stretch of hilly byway that I might have ignored in my tendency to gravitate towards college towns. After these crazy holidays, I’ll let you know what I missed. Until then, stay caffeinated.