There’s a coffee shop right next to I-5. I’d love to say it’s one of those quaint truck stop places with a waitress in a red and white-striped apron who calls me Hon’ and seems to have a pot of coffee where most would have a hand. As I age I find that referring to me by an endearment is okay, if the source has a hint of matronly glow and was alive when Carter was in The White House (or is as gay as a spring hat). It’s a social interaction that requires a degree of finesse or it comes off as a bad imitation of a bad ‘70s sitcom. If pulled off, it can cast a nice glow on the whole dining experience. This place off of I-5 does not have a waitress. It has baristas. To say these people make their living pouring hot water through beans trivializes their ability to create magnificent works of art in the foam of a latte while somehow remembering the mechanics and ratios of all the different combinations of milk, espresso, syrups, and sprinkles. There’s a legend that tells of Bill Murray crashing a party and working behind the bar. No matter what anyone ordered, he served a shot of tequila. I sometimes wonder if those drink orders that sound like a Microsoft end user license get truncated Murray-style into something less complicated. Though the servers at this coffee shop have an appalling lack of red and white-striped aprons, I have a great deal of respect for their craft and their dealing with the under-caffeinated, even if they call me sir. Which I hate just slightly less then being call Hon’ by someone a third my age.
Monty and I would often mark the end of a motorcycle ride with a stop at this coffee shop. Monty always just asks for a coffee. The barista wants to know what size, what kind, if he wants room for cream, if he has a punch card…. About this time he looks at me then looks back at the coffee person and repeats, “A coffee, please.” Often there is a stunned silence from the non-Monty side of the counter. I usually jump in, suggesting a 16-ounce black coffee would be just fine. “Costa Rican or French Roast?” It guess it’s like waking into a pot dispensary and asking, “One marijuana, please.” Do dispensaries have punch cards yet?
Rather than contorting into the wooden booths that feel more like long–suffering church pews, we generally opt for the al fresco experience. We drag chairs from the covered patio table and situate them so we can watch the traffic, which is conveniently rushing along just beyond our parked motorcycles. (Motorcyclists have an instinctual need to always see their bikes when parked in public.) With our feet resting on the low brick wall, the view is: our riding boots, the parking lot, our bikes, the interstate. It’s loud, which is okay because Monty and I don’t usually need to fill the air with conversation—in no small part because we can’t hear shit anyway. We drink our coffee and track the path of each passing motorcycle on the freeway, pivoting our necks like we’re watching a one-way tennis match. When I meet other people at this coffee spot, I habitually head to the outdoors once served. This is usually greeted with, “It’s too loud out there.” Thus, foiling my plans to avoid conversation.
But, I like the noise this interstate makes. It is, after all, the artery of the state. It is the path through which almost all commerce flows, and that noise coming off the tires and tailpipes of the passing traffic is the sound of life. It is the sound of work. It is the sound of goods being brought to market. Most of the western states’ drug trade moves up and down this road. People traveling from the south without the benefit of proper paperwork are transported by various and often unkind means along I-5. This very interstate, 300 feet from the soles of my old leather motorcycle boots, has connected me to most of the people I care about. People on the road today have made choices that have put them on this road—an infinite number of choices for every mile of concrete, steel, and gravel. It’s drama; it’s the way life is moved from one place to another in our adolescent civilization. It’s loud, but it’s supposed to be. The time is coming when we will declare our need to travel more quietly. But for now we still do so by internal (if working correctly) combustion engine.
There is a strange sliver of land between the noisy lanes and me. At first glance, it looks like a ditch, but it’s actually a micro wetland—either by design or grace. Ducks seem to be comfortable quacking along a wing’s-length height over the water before settling into it. Foxtails bob shamelessly in the breeze when the weather gets warm and the bugs and small birds occupy their place in the hierarchy of who-eats-whom with their fast-motion twists and turns among the greenery. Raptors can be seen scouting for meals in lazy figure eights over the brush. All this is happening with the background roar of semis using exhaust brakes and Harleys sporting the loudest of small-penis exhaust systems.
This afternoon the sun sets behind a Chinese Maple (or some such landscape plant whose species I’m too lazy to look up) filtering nicely into a kind dusting of light that is easy on the eyes. I recline in an un-pew-like patio chair, striking a pose. I sip my coffee and listen to America’s pulse. Today the light was properly shaded and my eyes spied a creature weaving in and out of the grass. I set my mug down and walked toward the brush. There moseyed not one, but three nutria. They have been described as looking like large rats. Not a bad description. Most of us posses an evolutionary imperative that gets us a little fight-or-flight-y when presented with wild rodents. I’m not immune to such, but soldiered toward them anyway. When it comes to nutria I wasn’t too lazy to ascertain that they are an invasive species hated vehemently by the authorities, to the point where they transparently fail to dissuade anyone with a hankering to kill them from going nuts with anything but poison. Yet, here, in our little slice of heaven between coffee beans and tire shards, three of these beasts seem to live within running distance of their large hole in the bank. (Nutria warren? Den? Chalet? No idea what their pads are called.) They were gnawing on the spring grass, unimpressed by me stifling my near-phobic reaction to their appearance.
Monty wasn’t with me today as I observed these mega-rodents. He would like to see these guys. He’s a lifelong hunter and it has been my experience that most hunters have a true affection for things that run about in the wild. He would know more about them than Google and would have been the first to tell me I’m getting too close and to let them be. (There’s a story along those lines about me and a buffalo he loves to tell when I get too cocky.) So, I walked back and slurped the last of my French Roasted, Costa Rican, Nun-picked coffee before marshaling my mug to the bus tray and heading out to the bike. I gave the chorus of combustion a few more moments of consideration and appreciation before the earplugs went in and the helmet went on. The nutria were still shamelessly rummaging about, oblivious (or at least indifferent) to the monstrosity of human engineering a few feet away. With the turn of a key and the push of a button, my voice was added to that chorus.