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There are no boring places, only boring minds.


About two miles up the road from my house lies a little abandoned mining town called Buncom. I drive past it frequently and admire the old-timey vibe of the wooden buildings. But, to be honest, the “town” doesn’t amount much—just the empty shells of a bunkhouse, a cookhouse and a post office. “I wouldn’t recommend stopping here unless it’s on your way to somewhere more exciting,” writes a TripAdvisor reviewer. “Horseflies abound.”


I wonder: Is Buncom even worth writing about?


My college professor Lawson Inada would say ‘Yes’. A former Oregon poet-laureate, he encouraged us to be unhesitant in writing about where we are from—no matter where that place is. It was an important message for us at the time: Our college had little prestige and was far-away from the hip, big cities. Most of the students came from the surrounding rural areas and unheard-of small towns, like Coos Bay and Klamath Falls


I think most of us entered his class with the belief that poetry was the preserve of the extraordinary: for Montemartre bohos in Paris, for tortured artists in New York City apartments, for jazzy coffeeshop beats—people who led big, interesting lives. Not us. So, at first, we pretended—writing big, abstract lines in an attempt to be profound, lines like 'midnight stars twirl and explode in my consciousness'--lines that evoked nothing and meant nothing.


But Inada continued to nudge us toward the ordinary, toward the personal, toward the real. “Are you from Grants Pass?” he asked. “Then write about Grants Pass!”


One of my favorite books illustrates the beauty of this advice. PrairyErth is a 622-page tome about, of all things, a county in Kansas. The amazing thing about that Bible-sized book is that, although it’s about the seemingly empty midwest, it is utterly fascinating. The writer, William Least Heat-Moon, finds the extraordinary in the ordinary, the great within what’s humble.


He writes: “For years, outsiders have considered this prairie place barren, desolate, and monotonous… but I’m not here to explore vacuousness at the heart of America. I’m only in search of what is here.”


Heat-Moon goes on in the book to create a “deep map” of the county—diving into it from every angle: its geology, its residents, its tall grass prairies, its native people. I loved that book, underlined my favorite passages, copied its lines by hand, and from it, ultimately learned how to think like a writer. After reading a book like PrairyErth, one can only conclude: There are no boring places, only boring minds. Afterall, who hasn’t encountered a provincial character who fascinates, or met a world traveler who bores?


And, so, with my wider travels now on-hold, I actively apply my explorers mindset to places like Buncom, a two-star attraction where “horseflies abound” and, at first glance, seems about as boring as its name. I look again at the very ground underfoot, with all of its thistle and rock and learn how to ask: What kind of thistle is it? What kind of rock? Stay Tuned for more about Buncom...maybe even poetry!


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Updated: Apr 14, 2022

If your parents didn't teach you to leave the wildflowers alone, then poison oak will.

As I write this, an itchy rash stretches from my chin to my knees in one of the worst outbreaks of poison oak that I’ve had in a long time. I guess it makes sense; spring has arrived and the stuff is leafing with a vengeance along my favorite hiking routes—The Jacksonville Woodlands and the Applegate Ridge Trail. Flaming red and glistening with oil, it’s at its most menacing right now. Although I tread the trails like tightropes, my dog is less mindful. I’m now pay the price of nuzzling his warm fur a little too much.


The plant’s offending oil is called Urushiol. The substance itself does not cause the burning, but instead tricks your immune system into regarding your own skin as the enemy. I medicate this madness with a regime of Cortisone creams and Calamine, Clariton and Benadryl, and rash-soothing soaks that have my bathtub drain clogged with oatmeal.


In spite of all of this, I am grateful for poison oak.


Although it’s tempting to regard the plant as some evil intruder, the truth is, poison oak is perfectly native. Terrible as it is, it has a legitimate role in the landscape, providing food and habitat for many insects, reptiles and deer. It also outcompetes many invasive species that would otherwise take over.


Science-talk aside, there is one quality of poison oak that I especially love. Come spring when our many native wildflowers blossom along the trails, poison oak stands as a protective barrier—deterring off-trail tramplers and errant wildflower pickers. In fact, right now, the Frittilaria (endemic to our region) is in its full glory. Most of the red blooms are nestled right amid patches of poison oak. You’d be crazy to venture off trail and try to pick one.



Yet, some people do. Every spring, I come across at least a few bouquets smashed along the trail, which for some reason has an outsized emotional effect on me (It’s a wonder I can get through a day in this world!). Maybe I'd feel less sad if the bouquet had been gifted to a friend, or enjoyed in a vase on a dinner table; the act of love would be a small redemption for the plundering.

But picking the blooms only to drop them symbolizes something less-than-wonderful about our human species: the way we sometimes seize beauty, only to discard it.


And so, I’m grateful for the way poison oak stands sentinel over our rare wildflowers and minimizes our intrusions. If your parents did not teach you to leave the wildflowers alone, then poison oak will. It makes me wonder if there is a sort of morality in nature. Not to anthropomorphize plants. But sometimes in their efforts to thrive, they do send a clear message.


As does my itchy rash. Off for another oatmeal bath.




It's not just about the coffee...




When it comes to living on a budget, an obvious indulgence to trim is coffeeshop visits. At nearly $3.00 a cup each day, the habit adds up to $1,080/year. I could put that same money into a mutual fund and watch it roughly double every seven years. Pragmatically-speaking, going out for coffee is a huge waste of money.


That’s when I realize that going out for coffee is not just about the coffee.

I’ve spent most my life in café-saturated towns and have always taken them for granted. But now, living without a coffeeshop in rural Applegate*, I can see clearly the role they have played in my life. For one thing, I've accomplished a lot at café tables: essays, art projects, business plans. I found the bustle helpful—due to a phenomenon that my friend Caroline calls “parallel play”. Parallel Play simply means two or more people working on separate projects in proximity.


Writing guru, Natalie Goldberg, describes the benefits of parallel play well:


“The café atmosphere keeps that sensory part of you busy and happy, so that the deeper, quieter part of you that creates and concentrates is free to do so. It’s something like occupying a baby with tricks, while slipping a spoonful of applesauce in her mouth.” (Writing Down the Bones)



Beyond parallel play, coffeeshops provide community. My friend, Megan Fehrman, invokes the term “third places” to describe this function. "They are a place you go where you are not at work or at home. You go to see neighbors and friends,” she explains, “to bump into people, to exchange information. I consider them a fairly essential place for community interaction-- a 'hub' if you will.”


In my travels, I find this "third place" function crucial. As a stranger in a foreign land, cafes provide an accessible intimacy with a place without requiring an invite. At the Taste of Rome café in Sausalito, I absorbed the salty atmosphere of the docks by overhearing sea stories told by sailors. At Café Clock in Morocco, I became familiar with the spare notes of the oud and spicy joys of traditional harissa. In Kathmandu, I have peered down from the terrace of the Himalayan Bean and puzzled over of other lives as I watched the monks circle the stupa below.


Closer by: At The Book Passage in the Bay Area, I found myself fueled up on city-style ambition at their evening author events. And locally, I have spent much time at The Good Bean in Jacksonville mining for words amid those perfect vintage brick walls from the Gold Rush era. After repeated days in these spaces, you find a sense of home, even in a faraway land.


Coffeeshops also provide a forum for chance encounters and the exchange of ideas, the kind of collaborative cross-pollinations that push communities forward.

Case in point: in lieu of a coffeeshop, some friends and I have created a local remote work group. We take turns hosting and meet once a week. Already we have seen the mutual benefit. When Alex mentioned he was volunteering for a Los Angeles-based kelp farming project, Katrina tipped him off to a kelp processing company in nearby Cave Junction. Meanwhile, Caroline was drafting an ad for a property caretaker, and I was on hand to edit it. Toward the end of our meet-up, when I started to complain about my sore neck, Jeffrey mentioned how the Feldenkrais body he was studying could help. And so we leave our work gatherings not just buzzing from caffeine, but from ideas.


And last but not least: Cafes are good for showcasing local talent. They are a place for poetry readings and live music in the evening, monthly rotations of visual art on the walls. All the hard work that artists do in private has a chance to shine.




There is a reason why cafes have persisted since the Ottomon Empire, why they have proliferated across the sidewalks of Europe and across the Middle East and can an often be found even in the smallest of towns here in the U.S. They are an essential part of life. My friend Caroline sums it up well: “ Coffeeshops help keep a community alive and connected-- maybe even sane.”

Much stands in the way of an Applegate coffeeshop. There is limited commercial space and what there is is already claimed—even if it stands unused. Attaining more commercial space would require a change in zoning which feels complicated in light of state land use laws. But maybe it's time to reckon with the fact that people in rural areas are not just farming and ranching, but increasingly finding remote-work style employment that needs to be accommodated. The arrival of fast Starlink Internet is only going to accelerate this trend.


Sure, we could all save money and never go out for coffee. But we would be impoverished in another ways--poor in ideas and in social connections, deprived of the dividends of joy and inspiration that coffeeshops pay out.


After all, it was never just about the coffee!


I surveyed and heard back from over fifty people about what they want to see in a café. Here is what they said:


-A space that is lively enough to feel like a "hub" but quiet enough to actually get some work done or take a Zoom meeting.

-Fast, secured wifi

-lots of electrical outlets

-both chairs and couches

-newspapers and magazines

-really good black tea

-fireplace

-breakfast burritos

-patio

-dog-friendly

-recyclable cups

-good lighting

-good conversations with interesting patrons

-A professional espresso machine with a barista who knows how to foam silky milk.

-A huge harvest table to gather next to a couple of more intimate gathering spaces.

-Local art on the walls.

-Fresh croissants

-kick ass signature drink, like a cardomom cappuccino

-Good lighting

-local art

-congeniality

-warm tones

-Eclectic Interior

-Cozy

-Curated Background music

-A space to spread out

-Strong coffee and getting the order right

-An aesthetic that feels chosen, as if whomever put it together was stoked to do so.

-Soundtrack combining the familiar with the novel.

-The ability to be there for hours. Comfy chairs, some real food to balance out the pastries, and high quality coffee. A decent bustle, but not a pile scene.

-Books

-The glorious smell of coffee




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