It was the place where to this day I will always remember as finding the perfect espresso. And this demitasse cup of caffeinated mastery was by the best of good fortune, discovered by accident. For it was only after taking an unexpected exit from the autostrasse en route to Austria that we found ourselves in this tiny Italian village, barely large enough to warrant a speck on our Michelin Italiano road map.
Adding to the unanticipated experience, we sat at the table in the tiny cafe, draped of course with a red table cloth, and sipped our coffees as we “oooohed and aaaahed” at the stunning architecture, cobblestone streets and soaring snow-capped peaks of the Dolomites. This, with the muzak of beautifully spoken Italian as our two baristas curiously questioned us as to where we were from, where we’d been and where we were going. Had it been up to me, we wouldn’t have been going anywhere else!
Naturally, as if this wasn’t already like a stereotypical, beautifully filmed Italian movie, a thin, fit, Italian lad with wavy dark hair protruding from a stylish Italian cycling helmet, dressed in perfectly matching cycling attire (of course proudly displaying the Italian colours and some logo like Cinzano) dismounted his steed and leaned it delicately against a post directly in front of our vantage.
Given the setting, I surmised his name was likely Guiseppe, Benito, Agostino or other such perfect Italian name. As he entered our little café it was immediately evident he was a regular. A simultaneous “buon giorno” and the customary Euro-cheek-kiss were exchanged. A demi-cup similar to mine was handed him and a friendly, exaggeratedly animated conversation ensued. He quickly dispatched its contents followed by more beautifully exaggerated Italian-accented words, another Euro-cheek-kiss for each of the baristas and just like that, he was gone. No money exchanged, just a Ciao! and a wave. Had it not been so damn cool, it would’ve been sickeningly sappy and obtusely cliché.
Regardless, I never wanted to leave.
An experience in Ouray, Colorado this past weekend came mighty close to replicating that exact feeling I got back in Italy.
Ouray, being dubbed by the Chamber of Commerce as being the “Switzerland of America”, for all intents and purposes felt very much like strolling through a village of the European Alps. Of course the major difference being that instead of perfectly detailed Maseratis, Alfa Romeos or the omnipresent Fiat, the main street was dotted with mud and ice covered Ford F-250s, Toyota Tacomas and Subaru Outbacks. Nevertheless, the surrounding peaks and laid back atmosphere evoked a feeling of being in a world far away from the hustle and bustle of the Boulder Valley.
Although we’d just partaken in a tasty, but far from piquant continental breakfast at the Vic (the Victorian), our home for the previous several days, we decided we’d walk the two blocks to town and try to ferret out a gourmet coffee and fresh pastry to appease our still needy appetites. A funky vibe, genuinely friendly greetings from the cool guy and girl behind the counter and the sight of decadent pastries such as pain au chocolat as well as a tray of neatly folded croissant told me that the Artisan Bakery & Café was indeed the right place to be in this mountain hamlet.
Feeling European-y all over again, I carefully scanned the list of available hot drinks and decided on a Café Americano. Espresso was also a thought, but I passed this time. I paid and found a spot on a well-worn sofa in a corner at the front of the shop. Erin was already there with her drink perusing the latest issue of Rock & Ice Magazine — shoes off and feet resting on the equally worn coffee table. Andrew sat in an oversized, overused chair sipping his coffee and scanning through the local paper, all 12 pages of it.
“Here’s your drink love”, the young barista with a groovy mountain-aura said a few minutes later, holding my drink just above the counter for me to see. Before putting the lid on my cup, I noted that the thin layer of foam sported an aspen leaf, carefully drawn using a toothpick. “Thanks”, said I and gave an extra smile and nod in appreciation of the bonus art. Once I returned to my spot in the sofa, my entire world was immediately reduced to about 1,000 square feet of commercial retail space. The rest, well, it ceased to exist.
We read, sipped, chatted about photography since Erin was now engrossed in the Photo Edition of Rock & Ice…only one of the many climbing, biking and various outdoor magazines scattered about.
Occasionally a truck would pull up in front and a local would come in for their ritual morning beverage. In most instances they never ordered because the barista and guy who I assume was the owner already knew the order and had it started before they could reach the counter. Occasionally though, an “out-of-stater” would stroll in and seem utterly confused by the relaxed, bohemian setup — directly opposite what they were likely accustomed to at their local sterile Starbucks. It was tangibly evident that they felt just as out of place as I felt totally at home. Still, the barista and owner kept right on queue with their friendliness and superb laid back demeanor.
Then, as if I was all of a sudden thrust into some parallel universe, a young girl (a very cute one I might add) rode up on her mountain bike, dressed in her perfectly appropriate and well worn Carhartt jeans, North Face puffy jacket, wool Sherpa hat, ultra cool sunglasses and raggedy looking trail running shoes — her look certainly suggesting that she’d lived there for quite some time and had eschewed the silly fashions of big cities such as Montrose or Gunnison and opted for functionality in the chilly climes of this awesome little town.
Similarly to what Guiseppe-Benito-Agostino had done in Italy, this girl leaned her bike against the building and came in, pulling her wool gloves off with her teeth. She exchanged pleasantries with the owner and barista (in English unfortunately), chatted about this or that, sipped a little of her very large cappuccino and left. I was hoping to see the Euro cheek kiss thing, but it didn’t happen. As she rode away, she controlled the bike with one hand and held the hot beverage in the other. Behind her, the towering peaks of the San Juans were succumbing to the storm rolling in from the west. A few flurries blew around the mostly empty Main Street and life was for the moment, was perfect.
There again, I never wanted to leave.
I realized, just as I had done in Italy, that my life can so easily get out of control without me even knowing its happening. Why am I not living the life of the girl on the mountain bike in Ouray or Guiseppe in Italy every single day? We rush around like crazy every day, pin ourselves down with our cell phones and laptops and can’t make a move without checking them every fifteen seconds. You don’t have to look too hard to see what I mean because there is always some douche bag walking around talking on their ridiculous blue-tooth McDonald’s Drive-Thru looking headset, or, every seat and three within its proximity is taken by somebody who feels compelled to make Starbuck’s their personal office and spreads out their laptop and associated papers so that all the passing patrons can revel in their self-importance.
Although I love Boulder, after feeling so connected to everything around me as I did in those two places, I’m getting more and more convinced that I need more of that Ouray, Dolomite Village lifestyle. And what made the whole experience even better was when we were walking down the street one evening and Joe, a guy who works at Ouray Mountain Sports, calls me out by name after having only met me once when I was down there climbing a few weeks ago. We stood in the lightly falling snow talking about climbing, ultra-running and general adventuring and in the process so many common acquaintances and experiences just kept coming out. There I was, 337 miles from my house in the Boulder Valley, standing on the streets of the Switzerland of America, talking to someone as if I’d known them for a long time and feeling utterly and completely as if I lived and belonged there. Pretty much perfect.
I honestly never wanted to leave, and if Ouray had had only one decent gelateria to go along with their world class ice climbing, I might never had.