catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 19 :: 2006.10.20 — 2006.11.03


Merlino's cider

The simple mathematics of a road trip read like addition and multiplication: number of passengers, square feet of space, mileage and hours. However the experience of a road trip is calculus, is it not? Hidden variables, unknowns. There are twenty hours of driving between my college in Indiana and my summer job in Estes Park, Colorado, when driven at a steady pace. Simple addition and multiplication. Is twenty hours long or short? Is the car an intimate space, or is it just small? These are calculus questions. Does anyone really know where the road will “end up?”

I made my first trip west of the Mississippi via plane, followed by the most glorious and eye-popping bus ride into the Rocky Mountains—during which I fell madly in love with all things not flat, the way the light and shadows shift at each new angle.

And to return to work the following summer, I signed on as passenger with a college driver from a Denver suburb, whose interests were Fashion and Herself. She had many Concerns about me, about how her parents might look askance at me, in my thrift shop army pants (which were the cutest army pants you ever did see, honestly). I should not mention to her parents, she said, that I was from A Broken Home, that my parents were Not Even Christians, or that she listened to rock music in her car, when she had sworn not to do so. Twenty hours is long, long, long when you are being reduced to an ill-fitting caricature and are riding with someone who has already so reduced herself. Taylor University was a lovely place, a challenging place, but also a place in which pretty women excelled in whatever it was that they wanted, which I couldn’t name. She was a classic Taylor Girl in the “preppie” era, and I was something else, making myself up as I went along. My parents were afraid my Christian college was a cult—I carefully watched my driver, wondering if perhaps my parents were right in some respects, then remembering The Popular Kids are actually a cult in every setting, though they held little or no power over me. My cute army pants rendered me impervious to her critical stance.

Oddly enough, I think her parents were rather amused by my working class aura, bemused by serving me. I’m not saying they embraced me as an exotic fascination, or worse that they made me an object lesson. I’m saying rather that they were purely and simply kind to me. They refused to allow me to ride the bus to Estes Park, insisting instead that the entire family would drive me, though it was obvious their daughter was absolutely sick of my company. These two saw my simple need as an invitation. And along the way, these parents whom the driver claimed might be appalled by “my type” introduced me to a delight I still taste, often, in my dreams: Merlino’s.

Every city has its own brand of ice cream stand, or several, with plenty of parking, a service window for ordering and an overhanging roof to protect customers from weather. But north of Boulder there is a T intersection crowned by Merlino’s, which sells not ice cream but cider, served either hot or cold, and not only cider but flavored cider—the only flavored cider I have ever tasted. Strawberry cider, blueberry cider, and my favorite cherry cider. On a hot day, served cold, cold, cold, it’s just the thing you didn’t even know you wanted. Perfection in a cup. An unknown magic variable: now that ride wasn’t so long, was it? Cider that eases road stress. Elixir.

In my dream I am sitting at a picnic table at Merlino’s. The road has been winding north and now it will turn sharply west. The cool wind, ceaseless, smells of the mountains. I look to my right, “I look to the mountains from whence cometh my help,” and my heart lifts. Around the next big bend, the road will open into sharp rising cliffs and hairpin turns and I will be glad I am not driving so my eyes can fly along the heights as fast as I can turn my head. This dream is about anticipation, about hope. Perhaps it is also about “going up to the city of God,” like pilgrims to Jerusalem on ancient feast days, singing as they approached. I do dream of mountains, but more often I dream of Merlino’s, of being “almost there.”

I don’t remember this woman’s name, some Kerry-Sherry nothing-so-plain-as-Mary, and perhaps that is my mind’s intention, but I remember the look on her parents’ faces, buying me a half gallon of each of my two favorite flavors of cider for the weeks ahead, offering me the blessings their snobbish daughter would not.

Kerry-Sherry warned me, by way of farewell, that she would probably not greet me “in public” back at our college in the fall. She was thinking my feelings might be hurt by this, and she wanted to prepare me. Somehow twenty hours of riding together had not taught her I couldn’t give a damn about her little clique of powerful friends, nor about fitting in with them. “Well of course I’d never expect you to embarrass yourself that way,” I said brightly, appalled by her bald-faced pretentiousness.

But her parents, who looked and dressed just as pretentiously, were glad for an excuse to visit the mountains, they said. They were glad for this odd urchin of a hitchhiker on their doorstep, as I would be glad to host some child today. Their good intentions left me with deeper treasure than they knew, some location my heart craves, close to where the road “ends up.”

I never passed Merlino’s without stopping, after that trip. Even in the dead of night, I insisted that we stop, if merely to pay homage, to note for myself some unseen cairn.

I harbor the sweet thought that any given road trip might open my senses with such a rare surprise, that my heart might never be the same. Perhaps that is why I travel, when I am able—something might happen. Calculus, the beautiful unexpected. And some things do happen on road trips—I’ve been writing a book about travel mishaps and boyfriends, forgiveness and decisions I made while watching the countryside unfurl, a road atlas in my lap. Without fail, time on the road is healing for me, for my relationships, and I’ve yet to figure out why. “Thinks Better While Moving,” my unwritten label on some passport of the soul. Is it just that I’m more available to the Holy Spirit when my chores and surroundings are shifted? Even hardened and crusty parents of Kerry-Sherry find their hearts open to blessing and hope, on a road trip to the hills, from whence cometh our help. How much more so, for un-crusty people like you and me?

Does this ring true for you, too?

I last drank Merlino’s Cider in 1987, en route to Washington State in my new blue Nissan. I detoured to Estes Park to hike Teddy’s Teeth with Peter, a student from Erie who worked in Colorado at my suggestion. It never entered my mind that I might not enter the Front Range of the Rockies for twenty years, and now it wouldn’t surprise me too much if I never see those beloved mountains again. Ten years ago, a fellow lover of the Rockies told me Merlino’s was still in business, and I hope that is true now. I find no trace of Merlino’s in my research on MapQuest or businesses north of Boulder.

Nevertheless, I visit Merlino’s now and then, in the landscape of my dreams, ready for the last leg of a great trip. Meet me there, sometime, and we’ll go up together.

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