By Sam Larson
That last sip of gas station coffee goes down smooth. It’s almost entirely hazelnut flavored creamer at this point, and little more than lukewarm, but I am loving it. Road trips have rules and the first, inescapable, and utterly important rule for my road trips is a large cup of coffee from the first gas stop on the route. Why, for God’s sake, gas station coffee? It’s not my lot to understand these things, dear friends. I’m encouraged, compelled if you will, by forces greater than myself to follow certain edicts to ensure a seamless road trip. I am ready to go for five, maybe eight hours depending on the quality and availability of on-the-road snacks, restroom breaks, and the all-important gas station coffee.
There are some important steps to make sure that my gas station coffee checks the required boxes. It’s always the small cup, since large cups have assumed the proportions of a thermos and what is described as small is still 16oz too much of sugar and caffeine. But it’s the small cup, filled three quarters of the way, with three flavored creamers. I prefer hazelnut but I’ll accept Irish Cream. French Vanilla is a creamer of last resort. A quick stir and I snap the lid on, running both thumbs around the rim to make sure that I don’t dump coffee in my lap while I’m on the road, something even seasoned road trip professionals are prey to. The first experimental sip is always at the condiment station in case I need to make any last minute adjustments, adding a fourth creamer, or evening out the excess sugar with an extra splash of coffee.
Up at our family cabin we had a commercial coffee urn until recently and my grandfather would brew a one-gallon pot of Yuban within half an hour of arriving. That coffee pot would sit on the burner for two or three days, each cup getting more syrupy and raw until it tasted like kerosene and so deeply bitter that you shivered with each swallow. But my grandfather kept drinking it, fifty years of coffee habits helping him through the bottom of the pot. The final cup was poured into his travel mug as he was cleaning and getting ready to leave. That final cup of coffee was totemic, a powerful ward against trouble on the road ahead. It sat in his cup holder, oily, dark, murderously bitter, with a thick scum of grounds at the bottom of the mug, rocking and swaying with every bump in the road. I never saw him drink it. It would sit untouched until we reached Kremmling or Steamboat Springs where it would get splashed out on the side of the road to be replaced with a fresh cup from the gas station. Because, as he still says, there’s nothing like a fresh cup of coffee.
Rituals being what they are, I still abide by gas station coffee when it comes to road trips. I may have the rod cases and waders heaped in the back of the car, I may even have remembered to pack clean clothing and sunscreen, but the real road trip, the part where you’re not just turning out miles on an interstate but charting a path to absolution, or enlightenment, or the kind of free-rambling conversation that underlies the best fishing friendships, doesn’t start until I get that first cup of gas station coffee. 7-11 is the best since they tend to have the freshest pots, though I’ll accept a Conoco. On a truly long haul on the interstate Loves reigns supreme, though TA can get me through. Nameless small town gas stations are iffy. I’ll blame it on questionable coffee freshness, inattentive attendants, and the side-eyed stare you get from locals in a failing mountain town that’s strayed a few decades past its mining glory days. And while the ever-encroaching forces of Starbucks ensure that we’ll never stray too far from our caramel-flavored, $5-per-cup comfort zones I prefer not to frequent them unless there’s no alternative.
Give me a foam cup of gas station coffee, three hazelnut creamers, and a playlist of road trip sing-along favorites and I’m ready to go, a madly spinning human maelstrom of caffeine and barely contained excitement for the road ahead. The rod cases clatter with each one-handed, coffee-gulping turn through the canyons and as I tip the last syrupy sip of coffee from the bottom of the cup I know that it’s going to be a good day.