At the Ute Coffee Shop in Cortez, Colorado, it is apparent that the regulars don’t exactly trust me.
“What magazine?” one says.
“This magazine,” I say. I place it on their table. Out of an 8-top of retired farmers, ranchers and oil workers, nobody reaches for it. “I don’t want to be in a magazine,” the steel-jawed rancher with sod busting hands and eyes made red by the four-corners dust says politely but resolutely, refusing to give me his name.
“I don’t blame you, but the story here is interesting,” I reply.
The Ute Coffee Shop has sat in a football-field-sized dirt lot at the west end of 160 since 1952. It has a truck stop vibe without the semis. Some of the guys I am talking to right now ate hamburgers here when Eisenhower was president. Same guys, same table, although there have been some small reconfigurations over the years which still haven’t been forgiven by this group.
“You guys went to high school over there (I point across the street to where the high school used to reside). How does that feel … to know each other that long?” I am wishing I could snatch these wimpy words back as they fall out of my mouth. There is an uncomfortable silence. They can smell city on me (and city, for these boys, means Durango). Lord, in my next life, make me a plumber.
“I don’t understand your question,” Jonny Green says.
If this were an Italian restaurant (that served a popular ranch dressing made from a secret recipe), and we were in the south end of Boston and not the west end of Cortez, Jonny Green would be the Godfather. In overalls.
The Ute has been owned by Donna Bowling more than once, but since 1991 for the latest stint. Donna, who will be 77 this year, still makes the cinnamon rolls and the pies. Her daughter Bonnie Ellis manages the place. She pulled her first shift when she was ten, in the ’70s. Troylene Torres, another daughter, has run the kitchen since she returned home from Montrose 14 years ago. Jenny Martinez has prepped in the kitchen for 14 years. Today she is making frybread. Her son works here in the summer. Justin Lewis has been cooking here full time for 18 years. He started in high school. It’s the only job he has ever had. His mom, his grandmom and his grandad all worked here, too. And Mary Chico, the now-retired dishwasher, used to drive all the way from Shiprock for 31 years before she went home to take care of her husband.
“This place doesn’t change,” says the tattooed Troylene as she prepares a “5-cup salad,” its marshmallows and red grapes catapulting me back to my childhood summers in south Texas and my summertime best friend who I can still see and hear but cannot remember his name.
“It must be something about that generation,” Sunny Warren says. Sunny’s mother-in-law is Jenny (the one currently sizzling frybread in the kitchen). Or, it is just something about The Ute Coffee Shop. Sunny has waited tables at the diner for 13 years. “I don’t have friends like that. I have like one. And she is my boss.” While it is quite comforting to consider that Sunny, a native of Cortez, and I may be in the same boat, anecdotal evidence observed by this reporter contradicts Sunny’s self-perception. “It’s like that show ‘Happy Days,’ but it is 2016,” Bonnie says.
The next night, I am at a cider-tasting party where 20 locals, including vintners, orchardists and artists, gather on a beautiful wrap-around porch on fertile farmland between Mancos and Dolores (read the story on page 28). The moon is one day from full. We sip private reserves noting nuances like cider sommeliers. “Do I taste molasses, or is it caramel?” It was all quite lovely but privately I was a little tortured by the paradox. Where do I fit? I smelled city on myself (with a hint of suburbs). I knew that if I had any hope of ever writing the story of the Ute Coffee Shop, I could never let the Godfather find out that I was sipping small-batch cider.
I never did scratch out a story for this issue. I couldn’t sculpt a tangible question from what existed as a yearning. I was asking rooted trees to describe the forest – the same forest I have spent a lifetime frantically running from in search of the next thing. Like the infamous 19th-century children’s fable, I am the tiger chasing the tiger until I turn into butter. Meanwhile, this coffee shop and its people simply use that butter for pancakes.
– Rick Scibelli, Jr.