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Welcome to the online blog for traveler/writer/photographer Steven Barber. Come in. Relax. Take off your shoes and socks -- or any other article of clothing, this is the internet. Have a look around. I hope to intrigue, amuse, entertain, and maybe provoke you just a little. I love to find adventure. All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Taster's Choice and the Open Road

My wife and I have often talked about the trips we took as kids. By and large, our fondest memories are those of road trips with the family.

I am fortunate to have crossed the country a number of times, as well as lesser trips up and down both coasts. Road trips were an essential building block of my current passion for travel.

So it occurred to me this morning, as I was popping a Folger's Black Silk K-cup into my Keurig coffee maker, how much the smell of coffee is closely associated with my childhood memories of those dark, cold mornings as we set out for another fascinating destination.
Black coffee. Strong coffee. Coffee poured and consumed on the road, the smell of which drifts (wafts?) into the back seat of the car, where my sisters and I would spend many hours looking out the windows at the passing scenery. Collectively, it has to number easily into hundreds of hours. In cars ranging from a black Corvair to a green Pontiac LeMans. From a blue Ford station wagon, to a silver (and gutless) Chevrolet Vega. Roads as traveled as Interstate 95 on the eastern seaboard to the Pacific Coast Highway in the west -- and as untraveled as Bear Valley Road through the desert, southeast of Victorville, California and sidetrips through the Arkansas lake country.

O'Dark Thirty
The setup is this: Wake up at o-dark thirty, a phrase coined by my father to describe those hours before any sentient being should legally be awake. (We always had to be on the road very early in the morning, this was part of the overall plan with my parents. If you're on a long haul, it's best to start before the roads become clogged with commuters. To beat the middday heat, and to have the opportunity, at the end of a long day behind the wheel -- or in the back seat as was usually my lot -- to get out, stretch the legs and have a more relaxed evening before rising again early the next morning to continue the journey.) (I never quite understood the phrase “to beat traffic” until much later in life when that same traffic would become the bane of my existence. One of them anyway. I always connected the phrase to somehow getting pounded if you missed your window.) (But I make the first of several digressions.)

The family would be rousted out of bed by my mother, some time before the sun was up. We would shower, get dressed, then head down to the kitchen for breakfast before leaving.

(“Down to the kitchen” is an interesting term now that I look at it, since we always seemed to live in two story homes and so the gathering of the family was always “down” in the kitchen.)

(The truth is, now that I consider it, that we moved into a two story while I was in third grade and every home subsequent to that had more than one floor. Since post-third grade is where the majority of my clearest memories are in still-accessible parts of my gray matter, the description “down” to the kitchen fits.) (But, again, I digress.) 

Back to travel. And coffee.

One of the essential accessories on each trip -- well, road trip -- was the tall, usually red plaid Thermos bottle my mother would prepare and bring along with us. Coffee. Strong, black coffee. Black was the only way my parents ever drank it. Usually Taster’s Choice Instant, since I rarely if ever saw a percolator or other brewing device. Black.

(No jokes, but I will admit to laughing out loud at the movie Airplane. You know the line I mean.)

 Sugar and milk were reserved for those rare occasions when we kids got to drink a cup. Oh joy, oh rapture. There was something magical and delicious about getting the treat of a cup of coffee that sticks with me to this day. Not to diss that 20 ounce beast sitting on my desk while I write, but it can’t compare to the deeply ingrained memory of what I sipped when I was twelve, thirteen. No matter that the cup was 30% milk and heavily sugared, it was my cup -- which not only tasted good, but made me a quasi-adult for the duration, or so I imagined. I empathize with other teens who held the same view of cigarettes, though in all honesty my coffee fix was a bit more sustainable. (Yes, digression #3.)

So, awakened at an early, pre-dawn hour we performed the litany of last-minute activities necessary for an extended trip -- loading luggage into the trunk; taking turns in the bathroom to make sure no unnecessary stops would be needed; making sure the dog was walked and fed -- while Mom heated tap water in a coffee pot on the stove and organized the half-lidded progeny through their respective chores. After the requisite number of spoonsful of Taster’s Choice, she would pour the boiling water into the Thermos. She’d tighten the cap, screw on the cup, and off we would be trundled into the car.

Them, somewhere, usually once we’d achieved the interstate and it was smooth sailing, the top would come back off, and I can summon, to this day, the nose prickling aroma as my mother gently poured a half cup for my father, handing him, carefully, that pre-travel-mug plastic cup of morning nectar. From the back seat I would watch as the steam rose up from the throat of the Thermos, filling my nose with that wonderful scent of early morning traveling coffee. It meant somewhere distant, somewhere interesting and new, was just down the road. And it was a fundamental part of my childhood’s framework of travel. Early=coffee=road trip.

A coffeehouse cup? Not the same.
To this day I look forward to that first sip of coffee from my travel mug as we head down the highway in search of adventure. It's rarely o'dark thirty any more -- that's pretty much reserved for my daily commute -- but it is an exciting and fun way to start the day, knowing there's something very cool awaiting you at the end of the line. But it's not quite the same, truth be told.

Like so many childhood recollections, that same morning tradition, packed into the back seat as the smell of Taster's Choice wafts back from the passenger seat as it gets poured, cannot be recreated, duplicated or re-experienced, try as I might. We’ve grown so accustomed to our Starbuck’s Venti paper cup, sitting in a car’s now-standardized cupholders, that the thought of home-made instant coffee in a Thermos seems distant and somehow wonderfully Father Knows Best

But to me, and doubtless many more around the country, it’s a part of the trip, it’s a part of the tradition, and it’s a part of the memory written indelibly into the dark corners of my thoughts.

We have a road trip coming up in the new year. Maybe it’s time I bought myself a Thermos.