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Aug 21, 2006 09:24 PM

Small Town America -- Alive and Well (and Well-Caffeinated!)

So as I like to do from time to time, I just spent the better part of 10 days in and out of the prairies, mountains, plains and forests of the upper Midwest and West. On the way to and from, while criss-crossing some of the most lonely and desolate back roads available anywhere (mostly in South Dakota, North Dakota and eastern Montana) I learned one very interesting can get espresso damned near anywhere in America.

It really was amazing -- some of the most rural "towns" (and the quotations are because the "towns" were nothing more than two buildings a flag pole and a post office) had drive-through espresso booths. Sure, some of them were modified 1970s Winnebagos but if it wasn't a freestanding booth, the town cafe or saloon has recently painted "espresso" on their sign right under "Cheap Beer, Lousy Food" or "Git Yer Viddles Here" or wherever it would fit.

I wonder...who the hell drinks all that espresso out there?!?

Towards the end of my trip, I was wishing I had jotted these down -- places with populations under 100 had sources of espresso. Every town I would pass through, and nowhere near an interstate. Just about the only place that DIDN'T have espresso available was a place called Sumatra (Montana). Go figure.

Anyway -- rural America is still alive and well up in those's just a little more hopped up than days gone by.

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  1. Interesting! So, the places you encountered in the small towns were independents, and not Starbucks and Caribou? I wonder if there are more independent places in small towns than in medium-sized cities, who probably have had a Starbuck invasion.

    So, you're not going to post a detailed road-trip report for us?


    2 Replies
    1. re: The Dairy Queen

      TDQ, I can gladly say without exaggeration that I drove almost 2,500 miles without seeing a single Starbucks or Caribou Coffee. After driving away from Minneapolis, the first one I saw all week was when I got back to Lakeville (MN) 10 miles short of the end of my trip. That said, most of that 2,500 miles was done on back roads (Mapquest Powderville, MT and you'll get the idea). For that reason, I probably won't post a report -- not much of what I ate was noteworthy. The Jersey Lilly saloon in Ingomar, MT (just east of Sumatra) was really cool.
      - Go into town
      - It's the building

      Only other noteworthy places were Restvedt & Son Meat Market in Ennis, MT (superb) and Bugaboo Cafe in Big Sky, MT. Also the Campfire Lodge for breakfast (off 287 between Earthquake Lake and Hebgen Lake), the Happy Hour Saloon (also adjacent to Hebgen Lake) and the Chuckwagon Cafe in Cameron, MT for burgers).

      I passed by a gazillion small town cafes but I'd never get anywhere if I stopped at every one. Ah to live life driving around the back roads of the United States...But I have family to get home to. Although I was on and off this route (give or take 100 miles north or south), if you ever want to experience wonderful small town America (starting in MSP for those reading that don't know TDQ and I are MSP people), drive (or bike) west out of MSP on Highway 12 until you hit the Pacific Ocean.

      1. re: MSPD

        I have to totally agree with you about Restvedt & Son Meat Market in Ennis, MT. My wife and I took a road trip from Mount Vernon, WA down to Boise, through Yellowstone and then up to Missoula this past fall. For a snack on the road I walked over to Restvedt's Meat Market and picked up some beef jerky and pepperoni. I will make a special trip out of my way next time just to go down there and pick some more up - it was that good.

        I plan on going back to Montana next year, but this next time I plan to take more back roads and really get a feel for the country. If anyone knows of a great steak house out of the way, I'd like to know.

    2. I've always been surprised at the number of Subway sandwich (blech) locations in small western towns. If the town's big enough for a gas station, it's got a Subway. Aometimes these businesses are in the same building, and often they are ALL that's in the town.

      1. I don't think any of us should (nor am I suggesting that anyone is) count small town America out in terms of being au courant with the latest trends. As first newspapers, then radio, then broadcast TV, then cable TV, then satellite TV, then the Internet spread their webs, it has given almost everyone the opportunity to know about the latest and greatest.

        It's nice to know that I can find some interesting coffee choices almost anywhere, now if I can just be reassured that the independent dining establishments will continue to survive and God forbid, thrive, all over middle America, then I will know that civilization is alive and well.

        1 Reply
        1. re: ChinoWayne

          Oh I agree. When I got where I was going, I was staying in the middle of the mountains dozens of miles from the nearest town, water line, cell signal or power outlet but could have had a long hot shower or watched 500 channels on the Dish Network as easy as a flick of a switch if the mood struck (it didn't). Technology and advancement are everywhere.

          It wasn't so much amazement that ultra-rural folks like drinking espresso and enjoying the latest trend, it was more surprise because there just aren't any people AT ALL where these things were. The "espresso-place-per-capita" ratio has to be one of the highest in the country. Mostly I was wondering to myself how the booth ones could stay afloat.

          Also, it was reassuring to drive for hundreds of miles without seeing a chain place. Every crossing of roads that involved pavement of any sort had a back country cafe. Very cool.

        2. I understand the uniqueness in sitting in a small town coffee shop, but I was unashamedly SO happy when I saw Starbucks in Skagway, Alaska. The chain places undoubtedly offer a piece of civilization and home.

          1 Reply
          1. It's a Western thing. I didn't see a single Starbucks or Caribou on my recent Wyoming-and-Montana trip either.

            Also, even crappy dives have marvelous microbrews on draft. (Heck, even national-park concession stands have marvelous microbrews on draft.) Coffee-and-beer country. Mmm.