By the time Kendall said something, we’d already missed the turn.
It was Friday afternoon a couple of days before New Year’s Eve and the roads and skies and fields were indistinguishable greys. My wife and I we’re headed south on US-10, making our way from Mercer in Wisconsin’s far north back home to Milwaukee. Outside the car, the air was all needle-point and nettle.
We were speeding through the same stretch of farmland south of Stevens Point that we always do. The trip up to the cabin is a giddy shot north. But by this point on our drive back to Milwaukee, we always just want the five-hour drive to be done with. We’re tired of being tailgated by pick-ups loaded with snowmobiles. Tired of losing time in the car. As we head south, the trees shrink. What forest remains steps back from the road. Then, suddenly, it’s all pasture and pit stops.
But this time, Kendall said, “Let’s stop at Ruby.”
In the middle of Wisconsin, in the middle of what seems like a near-nothing-left town, is Ruby Coffee Roasters. It was Friday, and I knew their tasting room is only open on Saturdays.
But, Kendall reasoned, we were right here. Two-and-a-half hours from Mercer, and two-and-a-half hours from home. So what the hell.
We turned west onto WI-161 and the land seemed to open differently. It hummed with something between desolation and capacity. Maybe it was because the roads were so snow blown and slick—as if the cold could wipe away both crop and cracked road. I counted slouching, abandoned barns. More beautiful for their losing war with the wind.
This is the type of country that through the frosted glass of an airplane window is all order and precision. Clean geometries. The organization of agriculture. On the ground, in winter, that order escapes you. The land swells like a tossed and dirty white quilt. Messes of trees erupt sporadically, most bare and some standing dead in their bleaching.
We were about five minutes from Ruby, and we planned on the door being locked. But it wasn’t.
From the parking lot, we saw a few people standing around talking inside. Instead of listening to the sign that said “Closed”, we poked our heads in. We said hello to an old woman, a young man standing next to her, and a bearded man cleaning out some plastic crates. Nobody said, sorry, we’re closed.
The roaster is in an old, long warehouse in Nelsonville that was formerly a workshop for Alchemy Concrete. Inside, it’s a work of minimalist style and grit. Alchemy Concrete poured the polished concrete floors. The building is split: the tasting room, and the roasting room.
The woman—maybe in her eighties, wearing a brilliant red wool coat with intricate stitching that reminded me of rosemaling—smiled at us and asked where we were from. Laughing, she said she knows everyone in town. And she doesn’t know us. That we were from Milwaukee could not have been less impressive. She noted that people seem to come here from just about all over.
When I asked her if a lot people from town show up for coffee on Saturdays, she laughed again saying this is the town.
She and the man she had introduced as her grandson left, and the bearded man behind the tin-corrugate counter asked if we were after some coffee. He was wearing an old t-shirt, jeans, and work boots. Actual work boots that he’d probably walk through a pile of cow shit in and not think twice about it.
I said I was hoping to pick up some beans, the brighter the better. About forty-five seconds later, he was weighing out some Ethiopia Kochere. He said he hadn’t tried it yet either and we could sample it together.
I said I was already caffeinated out of my brain. He laughed and said, me too. So another cup of coffee it would be.
He was new at this. He used to be a farmer just down the road from here. No, he wasn’t from Wisconsin. From Chicago, actually. He came up to Stevens Point for school and stayed on in Nelsonville when he got a gig at the farm. I think his name was Jacob.
I could try to talk about how bad-ass it is that Jared Linzmeier, the founder of Ruby Coffee Roasters, moved back to Wisconsin with his family to create one of the best roasters in the nation. I could try to talk about how they won a Good Food Award for their Ethiopia Guji Uraga. But I don’t know Jared, and I’m not a coffee expert. But I do know this: the tasting room was supposed to be closed, and next thing you know my wife and I are sipping a fresh brewed Ethiopian in the company of a stranger who probably just wanted to get home to put his feet up. Kendall and I weren’t supposed to be there, but he wasn’t getting rid of us. Instead, it felt, at least, like he wanted to take the time to share something new with us.
Turning off the highway to find Ruby Roasters reminded me that we encounter small kindnesses where we least often expect them, and that so often we make new memories where we wish we no longer were. In the middle of a grey Wisconsin winter, I was happy to be halfway home, sipping colorful coffee in unexpected company.