It’s always funny when an annual landmark comes around in your life, be it a holiday, birthday, anniversary, etc. It’s always slowly anticipated, but never fails to come up quickly, and you find yourself having no idea how a year could have gone by so fast. And even though in day-to-day life not a lot seems to have changed, I, at least, always seem to feel the change of a year within myself when I really look back. I always ask the question: If I could go back in time exactly one year and tell myself the exact thing I would be doing on this day, would I even believe my own words? The answer is almost always no in my case; there’s just no way of predicting what a year can bring to a person. And this year, for my annual landmark of September 23rd, my 22nd birthday was no exception.
It all started on a greyhound bus. Pretty exciting already, huh? Well, after a few bumps in my initial plan of my fall out West, I finally reconfigured my schedule and it just so happened the best day to get to my new destination, Paonia, Colorado, was Wednesday September 23rd, my 22nd birthday. Well, no better way to start on a clean slate, I thought. After saying goodbye to Charlotte at the bus station in Denver, I walked my bags through the terminal to load them on the bus that would eventually lead me to another Colorado city called Grand Junction. This route would take me almost all the way across the northern portion of the state, as Grand Junction stands not too far from the border with Utah. From there I would eventually find my way south to Paonia, but many hours and miles stood between my final destination and where I was then.
The five hour ride across the mountainous landscape was easy and eventless. I dozed off in the first half hour or so since it was still pretty early, only to wake up looking at a snow covered landscape! Breckenridge is just that much higher in elevation than Denver, and the chilly evening after a warm couple of days brought precipitation in rain form down below and in snow form up above. Very cool to see in September to say the least. There were a few other stops along the way - Frisco, Vail, Glenwood Springs – where I was able to enjoy nice views, bathroom and stretch breaks, and an early self bought birthday gift of a pack of Rolos and Winterfresh gum. Who said your 22nd couldn’t be as wild as your 21st?
When we finally pulled into Grand Junction, I unloaded my stuff and walked into the small bus station where my connection bus to Delta, CO was to arrive 2 ½ hours later. Huh, 2 ½ hours…what to do. There was a snack bar, a broken TV, a microwave, a few dirty café tables…I guess I could buy a candy bar, see if it blows up when microwaved, while looking at my reflection in the TV screen? Although tempting, I knew it wouldn’t do. The expected rainy raw weather turned out to be a beautiful sunny day, and I couldn’t accept sitting inside of the station watching it go by for the interim. I finally asked one of the guys at the desk if there was a place for me to put my luggage for a bit. Zach looked unsure at first and then divulged that he had a secure closet that he could stash them away for the time being. I gave him my many thanks as I walked out the door onto the sunny sidewalk.
Grand Junction, I have no idea what to expect of you, I said to myself as I passed by the first few stores. From the pickings in the bus station it seemed like no matter what the only way I could really go was up. With the first couple of side-streets not looking too promising, I suddenly found myself crossing a street that reminded me a whole lot of Church St in Burlington, Vermont; a pedestrian type street lined with different stores and restaurants full of people bustling about in their everyday business. Right in front of me on the corner of the sidewalk was a store with a big sign reading ‘ALIDA’s Fruits’ in big bold letters. I like fruit, I said, and that’s all it took for me to open the door and go inside.
“Well HELLO there!” the man behind the cash register bellowed with his arms open as I passed through the doorway. “Welcome! Come on in, how are you today?” I couldn’t help but smile at this jubilant, middle aged man with his white mustache and circular framed reading glasses. We introduced ourselves and got to talking, mostly about the area and what brought me to these parts of Colorado. It turns out I had found myself in a fruit growing mecca of the state, which this store had taken advantage of with its shelves of canned sauces, salsas, syrups, preserves, and candies all made from local fruit – apples, peaches, cherries and grapes especially. Tom showed me around the different parts of the store and stopped at the final destination of the fudge counter. “Now do you like sugar?” he asked. I think the look on my face and my burst of laughter answered his question adequately. He laughed along with me as he cut a piece of their homemade fresh peach fudge. He looked both ways as if he was smuggling me the newest imported drug from out of the country, “Our best fudge here, made fresh with our proud peaches!” I tasted it and instantly realized why he was so proud of it – deliciously sweet, with the classic fudge texture…that all took the backseat to the killer punch of fresh peach flavor you cannot get from any imitation flavor additive. “Tom, you’ve got some special fudge here” I told him, and his beaming smile back told me he knew he did too.
Tom tended to other customers and I took my time looking at all of the different preserves, sighing after each one knowing that there’s no way I have more room in my suitcase to fit such precious – and breakable – gems. After I finally realized I shouldn’t tease myself anymore, I thanked Tom again and started my way towards the door. “Wait!” he said, as he held out a small package wrapped in poster board type paper, “a little something for you.” Did I forget something? I took what he gave me from his hand only to look down to see a small bag of homemade peach jelly beans wrapped in a note bearing the message: Happy Birthday! Earlier when he had asked me how old I was, I said I was actually exactly 22, not knowing that he had really taken this into account. “I know it’s hard to be traveling and without family and friends on your birthday, so I thought some of our peach jellybeans would at least hold you over until you can celebrate with them another time.” The smallest act of kindness could not have made me feel more touched. I stood there for a few moments of without saying a word, thinking about how grateful and surprised I was for the gift this person had given me after knowing him for about 45 minutes of my life. Finally I said “Tom, thank you so much, you’ll never know how much this means to me!” We shook hands and wished each other the best. “Now is there anywhere else I shouldn’t miss on the strip as I browse around?” I asked. “Oh yeah, that gelateria down to the left you’ve got to go to, that is if you like gelato.” I gave him the same look and laugh as I did with the fudge and told him that I think I could somehow find a way to fit it in my schedule.
I happily walked down the street with a new spring in my step. A lot of people don’t realize how special a nice conversation and something as simple as a bag of jellybeans can make you feel. I leisurely walked by the different restaurants and shops along the road just to get a feel of what this center had to offer. And just as I decided the ballpark of what type of gelato flavors I wanted to get, a sign claiming “Fresh local microbrews served here!” caught my eye. Seriously? I was all excited for gelato and now you have to come at me with fresh, on-location brewed beer. Fiiiine, I decided, since it is literally impossible to walk by this pub and not enter, I guess I’ll force myself to drink a delicious fresh draft and my cone would just have to wait a bit longer. Talk about sacrifices.
As I nestled into my seat along the bar, the bartender and I discussed the styles of all the different brews on tap. Did I feel like an amber? A porter? An IPA? It’s sad how much I struggle with these decisions. Luckily, Kyle didn’t think there was any reason to be that unsure, and offered me a healthy sample of almost every flavor. I finally decided on my go-to wheat beer of what they called the ‘Widowmaker Wheat’ and I embarrassingly called the ‘Windowmaker Wheat’. How much beer was in those samples again? Either way, it was deliciously crisp, carbonated, and fresh – just what I was in the mood for. Kyle finally looked at my ID and the fact that it was my birthday was quickly overturned by the fact that I was from Massachusetts. “You like football?” he asked. I proudly confessed my love for the Patriots as I took another sip. He looked at me with a sly grin, only to step back and get some space to act out and recite those retched four letters: “J-E-T-S JETS! JETS! JETS!” “Ohhh nooo,” I gasped, wide-eyed. “Ohhh yes!” he replied, with the same chesire cat-like smirk. He proudly ranted about the Jets recent 16-9 victory over the Pats that broke their 9 game losing streak with the franchise. “Yeah, yeah, whatever” I said as we were both laughing. “Great way to earn your tip Kyle” his boss said as he walked by.
The discussion of the NFL went on while other people seated at the bar chimed in. A couple from Wisconsin sat next to me and I learned that they were there visiting their son who had just recently moved to Grand Junction. When I told them about my WWOOFing goals for my own trip, Todd the husband instantly lit up and started explaining every aspect of his garden he started up this summer. “You should’ve seen it, cucumbers and zucchinis growing like weeds! And the tomatoes…little pieces of heaven!” They fully supported the motives and aspirations of my adventure, and made me promise that I would take what I learned with me and make sure to share that knowledge later on. I told them I would do my best to make sure of it. I finally said my goodbyes and denied my invitation to become a member of the Mug Club for the last time (where you can hang your own mug in the bar with your name engraved that comes with bonus’ like free beer and discounted meals) and found my way to the sidewalk once more.
I looked down at my watch. Nice! There was still time for gelato. Even though I was pretty full at that point, why not continue on with the plan? It seemed to have been working out so far. Quicker than I expected I was already at the front door of the little gelato shop. I had to stop and tell myself that I couldn’t expect much from this place, since the last time I had homemade gelato was in Rome where I swear the owners make gold into ice cream form – it’s that good. I entered with caution and approached the glass case.
Well what do we have here? Does that really say Avocado? Sweet corn? Pumpkin? I think I started fidgeting I was so excited. A stout woman with grey hair was bustling around in the back room and finally saw me standing there. “Oh my! I’m sorry I didn’t see you there – would you like to try something dear?” she asked. Again with the obvious questions. Before I knew it I had at least 8 sample spoons in my hand. If I even slightly glanced at a flavor, I instantly had a sample of it ready for me to taste. You could immediately tell every flavor was homemade in small batches. The texture was luxuriously creamy, and the flavor was undeniably true to its title. In the midst of our discussion of each flavor, I learned that Paula has been making homemade gelato and ice cream for over four years in her retirement with her husband. As she ran her finger down the lists of flavors in her store brochure, she assured me that if I was craving any specific flavor that I can call her the night before and she could have a batch waiting for me the next morning. I assured her that if I lived in the area it’s almost certain that her number would be on my speed-dial.
“Now what brings you to get some gelato today?” she asked while cleaning her scooper. “Well I figured I should have some sort of sweet treat on my birthday and this looked like the place to go. Tom down the street told me…” Before I even finished my sentence her hands were up in the air “It’s your birthday?! Oh why didn’t you tell me dear!” She shook her head and filled a cone with a scoop of pumpkin underneath a scoop of their fresh local peach. “You enjoy your cone, and get on with the rest of your day!” I again couldn’t believe what had just been placed in my hand from a complete stranger that was even more excited than I was that I was turning a new age. I couldn’t get enough Thank You’s out before she shooed me away and had to finally talk with the other customers. Where do these people come from? I thought. I happily licked my gelato and found myself on the sidewalk once again.
I swear if someone had video taped me walking down the street at this point you could have mistaken me for an 8 year old girl who had just gotten a special ice cream treat after a little league game or something. My only regret is that I didn’t have someone to share all of these moments with. But then I remembered that all I needed to do was really soak in what was happening and try to remember the most of what I could, so I would be able to share this day with others at least through the story I could tell. I had just enough time to finish my ice cream while continuing my stroll when I suddenly stumbled upon yet another store I could not resist. ‘Cookies by Design’ is what the hanging sign told me outside the small store’s door. ‘Are you kidding me?’ I exclaimed out loud while I stopped in my tracks. How can they seriously fit all of my favorite things on one strip? At that point it would be silly not to enter, so for the sake of consistency I bit the bait and entered the bakery.
The front part of the bakery was no bigger than a 12x12 room that was full of different gift baskets and designs all made out of cookies - cookie pies, cookie lollipops, cookie bouquets – and of course there was the glass case that held all of the freshly baked cookies for the day. A woman came out from the back room and asked me how I was and if I had decided what I would like to try. I learned that Joanne had been baking for about 20 years but had been with the store since 2000. I told her she had a great venue and that the smell alone could lure in customers by itself. She laughed and said thank you, and asked me about my story as well. I began to tell her about my afternoon and how impressed I was with this whole community, and again, before I knew it, my top pick of a cookie – The Trail Blazer – was placed on a napkin in front of my on the counter. “You should’ve said something in the first place! Enjoy your cookie and don’t miss your bus,” she ordered with a smile. I looked down at my watch and realized she was right, time had surely passed quickly and 3:15 was not far away. “Thank you Joanne! Keep baking, your treats are delicious!” I yelled over my shoulder as I jogged out the door.
I hustled down the street juggling my backpack and purse and warm cookie. Again, if someone had had a video camera… But I made it safely back to the station with even five minutes to spare. Without even asking or seeing him, all of sudden Zach appeared with both of my bags over his shoulders and placed them next to me. “All safe and sound,” he said with an assuring nod. I again couldn’t get enough Thank You’s in, and forced a piece of my cookie into his hand to try to make up for it. The bus arrived and I walked on and picked a nice window seat. I sat down and nibbled away at my awesomely oaty, chocolatey, and nutty cookie, and watched the scenery go by. I started laughing to myself as I thought back to what I had originally thought my afternoon would have turned out to be – 2 ½ hours stuck inside a bus station on a rainy day – to how it actually unraveled. Never would have believed myself with that one! Of that I was absolutely sure.
When I finally arrived in Delta, Elane, one of the orchard owners, was there to pick me up with her horse Nick in the trailer behind her truck. We had a delightful ride back to Paonia, which I quickly realized is undoubtedly one of the best kept secrets of the state, even the country. We arrived at the orchard and I settled into my new home placed in the middle of rows and rows of apple, pear, peach, cherry, apricot, and plum trees. I did a 360 standing outside my door in one of the fields and all I could see were mountains and long mesas, with an array of orchards and pastures down below in the valley. Where am I and how is this in the state of Colorado? I ran around some of the fields with their four guard dogs Lwee, Zoe, Miko, and Sizzle until dinner time. Elane and Paul, her husband, took me to a local joint downtown where we enjoyed a delicious pizza with artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, black olives, and sweet sausage, and a nicely flavored red ale made from the brewery right down the road. We chatted about their history with the farm, the community, organic growing practices, the future of our food system, and everything in between. I thanked them for a wonderful dinner as we pulled into the driveway, only to have Paul reply that it was the best place to go to celebrate a birthday dinner. I told him I couldn’t have agreed more.
I went to bed that night in the nice, warm, clean sheets in my new bed and thought to myself how I still couldn’t believe all that had happened to me that day. It amazed me how perfect strangers made my day that much brighter and exceptional, especially when it had the ability to turn into a wasted day of traveling and waiting around aimlessly. Although I have no way of guaranteeing I will ever see those people in Grand Junction again in my life to tell them exactly how thankful I am, I know that I can at least do them justice by passing on their acts of kindness towards other people and at least sharing their story. That’s what brings me here now, and I only hope that you can be inspired by their actions too. That day I learned that even something as small as a jelly bean, a pint of beer, a cone of gelato, or a homemade cookie, can make a difference as big as the world.