Zooming on home

I knew I had a full day of driving ahead of me on Tuesday, so I hit the road bright and early, searching valiantly as I headed south out of town, hoping, wishing, imagining I would spot a little coffee stand - but no such luck. "Ha!" I said, mocking my own useless hopefulness, "It's only 30 miles to the bustling metropolis of Bluff, Utah where surely they'll have a nice espresso bar!"
According to Wikipedia, Bluff, Utah has a population of around 300. You drive across miles and miles of flat brown desert in the remote southeast corner of Utah, unremarkable in any quality expect for maybe its uniformity, when suddenly the geology of Bluff springs up dramatically in front of you - a veritable southwestern Brigadoon. Whatever volcanic forces that decided to erupt there were certainly capricious. The land in every direction lies flat and docile as far as the eye can see, but when you round that last bend before entering town, you suddenly find yourself in a maze of colorful 300 foot high sandstone bluffs.
There's a ton of history that goes with the place, including ancient cliff dwellers going back 13,000 years and an invasion by the Hole in the Rock Mormons in the late 1800s, but today it seems to be mostly a dusty little town, parched by the sun, isolated, dog-eared. So imagine how I about dropped my teeth on the way out of town when I saw a sign ironically beckoning me toward the espresso bar I had mockingly conjured up earlier that morning!
Comb Ridge Coffee occupies a trading post in Bluff that dates from 1942, tastefully decorated, soundtracked with the warble of new age flutes on the CD player, dramatically lit with halogen spots. A slim Navajo boy of 18 or so darted back and forth behind the hand-hewn timber counter, adjusting the bells and whistles of the sleek Italian coffee maker like a wizened old south Austin barista. His glorious crown of long glossy black hair was pulled back with an elastic and moved to and fro like an enormous horse tail as he worked the buttons and knobs and levers with intensity. His only adornment was a pair of self-consciously hip rectangular black eyeglasses that suavely insinuated "I don't belong here!" He seemed vaguely irritated and a tad short with his customers - perhaps exhibiting a faint whiff of discontent to those who cared to notice.
While I waited my turn (there was a constant stream of customers), I found a short menu that unfortunately sat directly beside a hand written notice that only coffee would be for sale that day. I sighed wistfully when I read about the likes of arugula, fresh mozzarella and heirloom tomatoes. Not today though, not in Bluff, Utah.

When I finally had the attention of the fella that was slinging the grounds, I said, "Boy, I sure didn't expect to see a menu like this in Bluff, - why, it even has arugula! I thought fresh vegetables weren't allowed in Utah!" I found myself desperately wanting to make him laugh. Instead, I apparently hit a nerve: "Not only will you not see good food in Bluff, you won't see it anywhere in Utah! This place is a culinary wasteland!" I couldn't argue with him since he probably hadn't ever tasted Judy's enchilada casserole or Stuart's English toffee or a fresh hot scone from Angie's. I myself had the pleasure of knowing there to be several oases of deliciousness in the vast gustatory desert of Utah.

No, it was plain to see this poor kid just had a bad case of the I-need-to-get-out-of-this-town blues which may or may not have been exacerbated by the pair of matching middle aged ladies with fanny packs that pulled up in a Volvo with California license plates just as I was leaving.
Happily, the cup of coffee he brewed for me was by far the best one I'd had since leaving home. I bragged on it to several approaching customers to try and help offset the memory of watching that boy trapped behind the counter, pacing.
When I resumed my journey, delicious cup of coffee nestled in the cup holder, I started listening to the audio book that Bruce (who is always a step ahead of me) had given me - a Tony Hillerman book called The Fallen Man about a corpse found on top of a volcanic rock formation called Ship Rock that's sacred to the Navajo (that's a picture of it above from Wikipedia). As I pulled out of Bluff, Ship Rock lay about 80 miles south and east of my position - so the route I was taking would land me smack dab in the middle of the area where the story took place! lt turned out to be a lot of fun to drive through the very towns that were being talked about in the story. I stopped at a Trading Post in one of them to part company with my excellent coffee and when I returned to the counter to pay for a beverage, the clerk and another shopper were speaking in Navajo! Man, the production team for my movie was doing a really good job that day.

After listening to several detailed passages about Ship Rock, I was eager to see it appear on the horizon. I knew it to be easily identifiable not only because of its distictive shape, but also because it too rests on a broad flat plane from which little other serious competing rock juts up. It can be seen for a great, great many miles from any approach. I really like the picture on the right that I found on the web, showing off it's strange geology.

I drove along, glancing out the window at that beautiful temple of nature every minute or so, contemplating and easily understanding why people both before me and after me have and will find this place to be sacred.

Ship Rock slowly faded from view and it wasn't long after that, that I ran out of two lane blacktop and intersected America's shining network of interstate byways. The scenery portion of the trip was over and it was time to cover some miles toward home.

I raced around Albuquerque and headed south on I-25 toward Las Cruces. My goal was to spend the night in Fort Stockton, Texas that night and that meant I had a fair number of miles to cover. When I'd gone a good bit south, I spotted a mileage sign that inspired me to formulate an immediate dinner plan - Hatch, New Mexico just ahead. Hatch, as any self respecting foodie knows, is the epicenter of tasty chiles in New Mexico. Every September, local farmers set up stands in the tiny town to vend their freshly harvested and roasted chiles. The stands are all festooned with a profusion of glossy red chile ristras, some even accented with yellow and orange and green. I picked the stand with the most color in evidence and bought packages of both medium and hot peppers to take home with me. I asked where the best place to eat in town to eat chiles was and got a quick reply. I drove to the restaurant and, alas the place was closed! And in fact, when I began to search, I found that every single restaurant in town was closed! Just after six on a Tuesday evening and not a single place to eat a freshly roasted chile except maybe from the ziplock bag I just bought. Oh well, c'est la vie. I was happy enough to have fresh Hatch chiles to take home to Mark. I knew he'd make them into all sorts of tasty things for me.

I did in fact make Fort Stockton late that evening and was happy to fall into bed. The next morning when I got up, it was overcast and breezy and cool. I had about six hours of driving in front of me to get home, but it was easy driving - straight down I-10 across the flat expanse of west Texas. Around Sonora, I ran into rain that alternated between heavy and light all the way back to Austin. When I finally pulled in the driveway, I look down at my tripometer to find that I had gone EXACTLY 3500 miles. My, I love a good clean crisp number, especially at the completion of a journey.

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