muhabura

On the first day of 2017, Chelsea and I penned (nerdily) “bucket lists”, outlining goals and hopes to accomplish within the year. This is a favorite practice of mine, as setting forth possibilities simultaneously allows us to appreciate our experiences and relationships held in the past.

In this list, I included trips I wanted to take (visiting the East Coast, for example, to reunite with my girlfriends from college), writing projects I wanted to do (beginning a book!), and commitments I wanted to engage with (joining Denver Community Church).

I also jotted down highlights of the past year, grateful for so much that had happened – even in a turbulent year of change and uncertainty.

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I believe in holding loosely to plans, of course, but I do think there is something intentional and progressive about jotting down the pieces of life you are consistently striving and working towards.

This includes climbing insane mountains.

I knew the first couple of months of my year would be in Rwanda since I was scheduled to be with The Women’s Bakery team at our headquarters in Kigali.

Knowing I would have weekends to gallivant the country or do things I’ve left undone in previous visits, Mount Muhabura topped the list of activities I wanted to do. It’s been on the back of my mind for literally, years. When I was in the Peace Corps I often thought about tackling this brute of a mountain, but frankly, didn’t want to fork over the money for it. This actually makes a lot of sense since I was living on a stipend of around $250 monthly and the costs for a permit to hike Muhabura is $100, at least for a non-resident. Regardless, I let Muhabura slip away from me and decided at the start of this year that I would finally, finally attempt this trek.

A dormant volcano, Mt. Muhabura is the second highest point in Rwanda at 4,127 meters (over 13,500 feet). It is also a part of the Virungas, a series of peaks across three countries: Uganda, Rwanda, and the Congo. The Virungas are made famous for a few reasons, namely, Diane Fossey and Gorillas in the Mist. The Virungas have a more controversial history too, as the epicenter and convergence for military and international conflict between countries in this part of the world.

Muhabura can be approached via Rwanda or Uganda – with the easier side known to be Uganda. With a small crater lake at the summit, the total hike involves over 5,000 feet in elevation gain. Muhabura translates as “the guide” so naturally, when I arrived back in Rwanda this winter, I knew it was time to go and finally find my place. To be guided, if you will.

My colleagues and friends, Meg, Julie, and I initially planned to arrange our permits for two Virunga hikes.  Ambitious and perhaps slightly naïve, we originally intended to complete the Muhabura climb on a Saturday, followed by a hike to the top of Mt. Gahinga the following day. When we arrived at the Rwandan Development Board in Kigali, though, we decided to focus on one hike. After all, upon purchase of our permits, every official seemed to repeat the same thing: “you must be fit.” To be honest, I approached comments like that with loads of laissez-faire, confident that my daily walks and occasional weight-lifting would be enough to get me up (and down) the mountain.

We bought our tickets, packed our car, and left for our short trip away.

Only a 2 ½ hour drive, our launch town was Musanze, in the Northwest corner of the country and a popular outdoorsy stop for tourists. For locals, the North is characterized by the thinner, more brisk air, potatoes, and green rolling hills of tea. The beauty in this part of the country is stunning; in fact, while driving, it’s hard to even absorb the fact that the views are real and you come to the stark realization that no matter how many photographs you take, you will not capture the essence of the terrain.

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Our guesthouse at Kinigi (just outside of Musanze town) was quaint, welcoming, and perfectly simple. Adorned with black and white cow-colored stones and red brick, I appreciated the homey-ness of the place after a trip out of the city in a 4×4. I was ready to relax and mentally prepare for our formidable task ahead. We were welcomed by Faustin, a young gentleman with exceptional customer service. Sometimes, finding accommodating and helpful service in Rwanda can be difficult, however, he not only had our rooms ready, but customized our orders for dinner and was beyond friendly for the extent of our stay. It was refreshing, honestly.

As we settled into our room and ordered brochettes and stews for the evening, the girls and I put our feet up (literally), read our books, and sipped hot ginger tea. I began reading The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (lovingly given to me by my dear friend Jordana) and I was hooked immediately. We read for nearly an hour until dinner arrived. As the evening slipped away, we were in bed by 8:30pm, anxious for the adventurous day to come.

Sporting my beige Columbia boots and black fleece (acquired 2 years ago at a gorilla naming ceremony, naturally), I was hiking-ready. We packed nearly six liters of water and a healthy load of snacks (Whole30 compliant as Julie and I started the natural cleanse this month) in our daypacks for our day on the mountain.

From snooping on other blogs and doing extensive web searches, we had heard that the predicted time to summit would be around 6 hours. Because of the time-intensive nature of the trail, we wanted to get as early of a start as possible. So, we ate breakfast right around 6:15am. After coffee, eggs, and bananas, we met with our guide, Patrick, and drove to the presumed “base” of the mountain.

“Base” was an overt exaggeration; Patrick claimed that the size of our car (think mid-90’s jeep, Pajero) would be unable to pass some of the steeper, rockier parts of the path. Normally, this would hardly be an inconvenience, however, this created an additional 40 minutes of walking time (one way) from where we parked the car to where the entrance of the trail was marked. Nonetheless, we begun. Stubborn at first, we weren’t entirely sure about hiring a “porter” to help carry our bags. Meg was quick to agree with Patrick that it would be helpful and so for the equivalent of $18 we paid Damascene to join our crew on our journey. In my opinion, it was the best investment of the day – without question.

Along with Patrick and Damascene our motley crew continued to grow. We were also accompanied by 5 military officials, tasked with the job to “watch out for buffalo.” They hiked the entire way with us, usually veering off the path. Even now, I’m a bit aghast that they could hike the mountain with guns (think huge rifles) dangling over their shoulders while wearing heavy camouflage. When in Rwanda, I guess?

At right around 9:00am, we crossed a creaky wooden bridge and Patrick announced, “this is it.” And so, we started the official climb, just past tremendous fields of wheat and the extensive, green forest before us. Reminiscent of Fern Gully, I was slightly full of trepidation as we started. I mean, the first 40 minutes of walking was hard, so what in the hell was I going to be like for the remaining day? I wondered these things as I had a “short call” off to the side in the bush.

Here goes nothing.

The forest instantly captured my imagination. It was like a dream; green forestry surrounded us entirely and though we were already climbing at what felt to be a 45-degree grade, it was beautiful. It was hellish, though, after we acclimatized, because my body was not quite ready for the steep incline. Julie and I had done a relatively intense gym workout just two days prior and so my muscles were already sore.

I focused on my step, my muscles, my mind, and my surroundings. It was kind of a spiritual experience during the first part of trek, actually, because I was absorbing everything around me. The first two hours was brutal. I tried to leverage my body with existing roots of trees and pre-planted steps, but my small legs had to take big leaps at times. We took breaks every 45 minutes or so, ready to catch our breath. I loved having Julie and Meg with me, knowing that we were doing this together helped me stay focused and motivated even in the most difficult parts.

At around 11:30am we reached a point by which we would be taking lunch. We sat on the cusp of the upcoming rocky terrain and looked at the horizon upon us. It was the closest I had ever felt to seeing all of Rwanda – at once. It was a relief – to be sitting, but also to feel like Rwanda wasn’t so daunting, hard, and complicated. It reminded me, again, that Rwanda is also beautiful and expansive and I loved being able to take it all in at once.

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Patrick asked us a lot of interesting questions while we were eating our carrot sticks and previously roasted sweet potatoes.

“What can Rwanda learn from other places?”

“Why is customer service lacking?”

“What do you see in other countries in the region that is unlike what you experience in Rwanda?”

I mused over our answers and tried to breathe as much as I could, as if I knew I would be in short supply as we went up in altitude. At this point, he remarked that we were about 45% complete with the climb to the summit. When I looked up, I didn’t feel assured by this – the next part was completely vertical.

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The terrain switched fast; out of the forest, we were now climbing on grey, volcanic rock. Forget your standard switchback, we ventured straight up the mountain. Meg, Julie, and I alternated carrying our two packs and I was glad for this. We also each had sticks to help us, though one of them was hardly useful. Considering these things, we attacked the incline like beasts. We hit another “false peak” but we were not dismayed – the summit was in sight. Together, we finished the last part of the summit together. I had to take a few moments to motivate myself and to do so, I remembered what I always repeated in my head during field hockey games:

Leave no doubt. The words came from Remember the Titans, and they always inspired me to give my best in everything. I might not BE the best (which is totally, completely fine) but I will give my best efforts. I had a few more rocks to overcome and I was going to do it. I summited, along with the girls, at around 1:15pm.

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Julie, Meg, and I took pictures together at the top. Turns out, per Patrick, in his 6 years of guiding hikes on this mountain, we are the first team to finish together. Usually he leads groups of one or two and in the case of two, someone either takes more time, or turns back. Needless to say, our adventure was a strong team-building activity.

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At 2:00pm, we began our descent. For the lack of a better term, it was hell.

It would take us over 4 hours to get off the mountain, and to be honest, there were moments I wasn’t even sure I could get off. My muscles were so tired that with each step, I wasn’t sure if it would hold up. Several times, my legs completely gave out and I fell on my ass. Tears came fast when this happened. Not out of pain, but out of frustration. I pride myself on being strong and this mountain was making me feel so very weak.

For probably 30% of my descent, I had to hold the hand of our porter, Damsascene. He was kind and gentle, assuring me that we would get down, we just needed to go slowly. I am convinced I wouldn’t have gotten down the mountain without him. I prayed multiple times – mostly that I would be able to find enough strength to finish – and tried to engage in light chatter to distract myself from the pain. We talked about food, Donald Trump, and cultural norms in Rwanda.

The military men behind us snickered at times, baffled by how slow I was going, but I had to ignore them and keep on going. Meg and Julie were ahead with Patrick, so I simply did my best to move quickly, but also move within the pace I had set for myself. I fell at least 6 times and cried at least 7. Turns out, adventures on a mountain does feel like a life journey, full of ups and downs (literally). Julie got altitude sickness on the way down and so she had to deal with an excruciating headache. Clearly, at least for us, the first two hours of the hike were the most difficult, and the entire descent was incredibly challenging – physically and mentally.

When we entered the clearing, after the forest, I was so happy and relieved.

We made it.

I was accompanied through a small village center by Damascene and the soldiers. For a small, remote mountain village, you can imagine the kind of spectacle this created. I encountered plenty of drunk people (apparently, since Sunday is a day off from the fields, many people rest by drinking plentiful amounts of home brew) and was even asked jokingly if I was a gorilla. Sometimes, these things just don’t seem real.

As we got closer to refuge (the car), I shook the hands of an older woman with a stick. We exchanged pleasantries and she asked where I had been coming  from. I simply commented, “Navuye hejeru. Nasuye Imana.”

Translation: I am coming from heaven. I visited God.

It didn’t feel like a smart-ass remark. It seemed appropriate given the fact that we had hiked straight into the clouds and sky. She laughed and raised her hands in humor. In these kinds of situations, if you can simply make people laugh, you’ll be good to go.

When I did reach the car, reunited again with Meg and Julie, I just wanted to sleep. I was so glad we had done the journey, but it was one that I’m not sure I would do again. Scratch that. I don’t think I’ll ever want to do Muhabura again. However, I’m incredibly glad I did it.

It feels empowering to accomplish things that you set your mind to. I didn’t realize how much of my body, mind, and emotions I would have needed for this climb, but luckily, I came ready.

Muhabura, like life, isn’t for the weak. It’s a formidable mountain, one that should be taken seriously. But with grit, perseverance, and strong legs, you can climb it. You might have to crawl up at times, or perhaps slide through mud and rocks on your way down, but it can be done.

Cross that item off the bucket list. Huzzah.

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nairobi, kenya.

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Monkey business – Animal Orphanage.

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Stunning. One of 32 lions brought to the Animal Orphanage for care following abandonment or inability to survive in the wild.

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No foolin’ around with this guy.

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Touring traditional hut styles from Northern Kenya at BOMAS Cultural Center, Nairobi.

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I JUST LOVE THIS. YES.

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BOMAS Cultural Center; one of 12 traditional Kenyan-style dances performed.

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At Nairobi National Museum – the highlights? Probably the oldest skull & human remains findings in the world (!) and the exhibit on Kenyan History.

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BECAUSE TREES

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Loved this architecture, heading into the city centre.

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Walking near the bridge, close to the University of Nairobi.

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Above the bridge; downtown.

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Welcome.

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Coffee & Newspapers. Because that’s a thing. And I love that! Nairobi Java Coffee – one of 37 city locations. Hello, franchise.

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AMAZING Kenyan food at the Highlands Restaurant; Githeri (beans and maize), Kienyeji (mashed potatoes with peas/maize and pumpkin leaves), and Sukuma Wiki (collared greens).

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The retrieval room at the National Archives; because my bestie is an archivist.

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TENNESSEE SHOUT-OUT HERE. Hello fish and chips…from the South? Hm.

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Keep Nairobi Fresh. Please.

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Love the ‘matatu’ designs (on the buses). Especially this one.

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ALL THE SCHOOL FIELD TRIPS. Love the uniforms & adventures. At the Elephant Sanctuary.

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Touched this bad boy.

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Itchy butt…?

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With of 29 current elephants. They are kept until age 3 – then reintroduced into the wild. At the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage.

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The watering hole. The elephants are publicly viewed for only ONE hour per day (from 11 -12) so they gotta look fresh.

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Youth for Christ – Kenya.

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Upon visiting….why not bake bread? I mean, really…? They got an oven, ingredients, and a whole lot of motivation. 

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The women with all of the goods they produce at the Women’s Rehab Center. These are all skills they have acquired at the women’s life rehabilitation center. Let me know if you are interested in any – I can direct you to the right person!

the things we share

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45 minutes into our Saturday mountain drive, approaching the rocky crevices with the old mining town of Georgetown wedged in between, I asked Goshen plainly,

“…what do you want to do with all this? What is your dream?”

A gifted young man with his own story yet to be told, he commented,

“My dream is to share stories people don’t know…the things untold.”

Goshen is an aspiring independent filmmaker; a US resident for the past 4 years, originally from the Congo, by way of Ethiopia. His mother, whom he hasn’t seen in something like 8 years, is in a refugee camp back in East Africa and his grandmother is residing in Gisenyi, a Congolese-Rwandan border town on Kivu’s north coast. I happen to think Gisenyi is one of the most beautiful places in the world. At least from what I’ve seen.

20 and undeterred, he will go to film school in Denver and continue working full-time to support himself and his brothers.

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Rewind.

The whole reason were on a late fall Rocky Mountain adventure in my little maroon Honda?

Mom and I attended a film festival a couple of weeks ago (sponsored by Emily Griffith Technical College) that highlighted local refugee stories. Goshen sat on a question & answer panel after one of the showings, and when asked what he would recommend to Colorado visitors in regards to things to do, he commented, “I’d say the mountains…but I have never been there myself.”

My eyes widened, a spark inside my body lit and God spoke clearly, you will go with him.

I approached him afterwards, before mom and I headed to the small wine bar in the corner, and we exchanged numbers and I vowed that we would find a date to go. He must of thought I was crazy; this random girl who insisted that we go to the mountains together. Yet, when he realized I spoke Kinyarwanda, his demeanor eased and he must have thought, oh, well, this is interesting…

Last Saturday had to be that date to drive up for a mountain joyride; it was just shy of 85 degrees outside and I knew it was meant to be.

You see, God knows us intimately too, and just as Goshen has a dream to tell stories – so do I.

Mine is rooted in writing and also in experiences.

I thrive in doing new things and in them, helping others experience new things as well. Call it passionvocation…I don’t really know, but it’s always been a source of deep gladness. Ice-skating with Arkansas youth, summer field hockey trainings, reading with my 1st grade buddy back in college, facilitating the arrival of cleats and balls in Ruramira sports, traveling long bus routes for religious pilgrimages, enjoying an African safari alongside my girls, helping them access a sustained and continuous education, and even helping to implement “mindbenders” into my current work staff meetings. Experiencing new things, often with some element of service, but always appreciating joy that can be found in the world is what I want to do when I grow up.

My conversation with Goshen, on our two-hour road trip, helped me realize as much.

With an extra push on my accelerator, we eventually reached Winter Park, walked around aimlessly, took photographs, and later hiked up the moist trails of Berthoud Pass. Living only in the present reality, I loved that day. Goshen’s first mountain trip, he had fun too, I think.

The snow surprised him and the plethora of pine seemed to capture him in awe. Driving home, I anxiously and excitedly put my Kinyarwanda music CD in my stereo and he explained bits and pieces of what the lyrics tell us. I could understand the basics, but Goshen was able to expound in further detail, as he has the ability to speak English, French, Kinyarwanda, and Swahili. Impressive, right?

God couldn’t have orchestrated it any better – and I just beamed in God’s glory and power to give us the people, the revelations, and the stories right when we need them. Goshen certainly wanted to see the mountains, but I wanted a friend that I could exchange cultural stories and nuances with. I wanted someone who could understand – far better than I can – the two worlds I myself have blended together.

I do new things and revel in them because always life can be appreciated that much more. When you do that, God always follows through and provides people to share this with. Life is meant to be shared, after all. All to His glory, amen.

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Check out Goshen’s latest documentary piece on youtube:

Winter Park, Colorado

Winter Park, Colorado

snow. from where I stand.

snow. from where I stand.

Goshen & I

Goshen & I

Berthoud Pass, Colorado

Berthoud Pass, Colorado

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the search for great coffee

Last Monday morning started just like most work mornings.

Alarm goes off. Eat oatmeal. Read daily devotional. Write a small blurb in my journal. Get ready.

But y’all, I was dang tired. I had come back from my trip with Grandpa up in the Northwest and I was still feeling a bit lagged.

There’s an easy solution, I thought. Let’s get some coffee.

I used this incredibly useful device on our recent travels that I’m sure most of our technologically apt society is aware of: YELP.

‘Yelp’ is awesome because it helps you find the nearest eateries, bars, cafes, and the sort in the area you are. AND, reviews and rankings are readily available to help you discern and make the ultimate dining decision. After coming off of two years of eating rice, beans, bananas, cassava bread, and potatoes, all of the options are exciting (albeit overwhelming) and I take my choices seriously.

And so, I used this wonderful application and decided I would spend this week searching, scoping, and perusing some local coffee shops I could find. Here’s a bit of what I found.

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MONDAY: KUNJANI COFFEE HOUSE

Yelp’s highest rated coffee place within a relatively close radius was this cozy, beige-colored joint right off Lincoln & Jordan, not far from my home. I noticed the stone fireplace immediately and was excited that at even at the bright and early hour of 6:30am there was a fireplace going. It added to the worn couches and fresh flowers scattered among the wood tables. It felt like the perfect place to have a warm cup of coffee.

There were two male baristas that were nice enough, but they seemed like they could use a cup for themselves – they seemed a bit sluggish. But hey, they probably woke up well before 4:00am so what can I really say? I ordered an Ethiopian dark roast for a nice price of $2.47. I sat at a table in the corner and sipped a bit of my drink before heading to the office. Bold, strong, with a taste of pecans. I liked it.

TUESDAY: DAZBOG COFFEE

Dazbog, up until recently, has been a Denver-only sort of thing. I perused their website and it appears they are expanding their operations to Wyoming and to Texas as well. And you know what? They should. They know how to serve a good cup of joe.

Their website tells web visitors that,

“Dazbog Coffee is the realization of the American dream by two immigrants of the former Soviet Union, Anatoly and Leonid Yuffa. The dream that is now Dazbog began on a bitter cold night among the cobblestone streets of Lenigrad. The Yuffa family fled Russia to embark on a new and better life of freedom, democracy, and opportunity…Anatoly and Leonid have found a way to honor the past and enjoy the present in a rich-tasting cup of coffee. The history and character of their homeland inspired the unique and intriugiing names of Dazbog’s fresh and roasted blends. The White Nights Espresso is named for the summer days in Lenigrad when the sun never sets. The Hermitage, once home to the czars and now a world-renonwed museum, is the namesake of their Hermitage House Blend, a fine medium-roasted coffee that appeals to wide variety of tastes.”

A coffee house with history? I can get down with that.

I ordered a large 20oz café au lait using the house blend, called ‘organic mocha java’. I tasted dark notes of chocolate and a nice blend of sweetness with the soy I ordered. I was pleased. I sat in a red loveseat, crossed my legs, and looked around. The walls were full of Russian sayings and near the barista station was an entire box full of merchandise. Rock music blared through the sound system. I was the only customer inside; most of the clientele was hopping around the corner through the drive-through window. My hot paper cup cost me only $2.98. And with milk! I liked the price, probably could do without the rock music (maybe it was just too early), but I miss the “localness” the shop used to have a few years ago. It’s expanding – and fast – and while that’s great, I miss the local-ish ambience.

WEDNESDAY: LORA’S DOUGHNUT & BAKERY SHOP

 If you want any kind of pastry, cake, doughnut, sweet treat….THIS PLACE IS IT. It’s adorable and has a selection that could rival a lot of doughnut places. I arrived really early this morning as I wanted to do some writing before I had to report to work. I was the only person in the store and I was engaged instantly with the large pictures of doughnuts on the wall. Cinnamon, sprinkles, chocolate, you name it. Like I said, choices are a plenty.

However, this place isn’t really the place to get a coffee. I mean, it’s good, but it’s exactly what I had sipped on Tuesday – they serve Dazbog. So, while I enjoyed my soy latte for a jacked up price of $4.76, I was hoping to get a different sort of feel after having visited Dazbog the prior day. But no worries, the latte was even more delicious than the café au lait. It had more of a kick and was a better mixture, in my opinion. I sat at a high-table, did some writing, and sipped my drink in preparation for the day. And boy, with tax season in full swing at work, the caffeine sure did help.

SUNDAY: JAVA MOUNTAIN ROASTERS

My last coffee tasting experience for the week of ‘the search for great coffee’ ended up in Idaho Springs, Colorado. Dad and I had finished an attempt to drive up to the top of Mt. Evans and had stuffed ourselves to no end with Beau Jo’s Colorado-Style Pizza. I hadn’t drank any coffee by noon, and so I was determined to find a shop before we hit the road. Luckily, there was a cute café and roasting company right across the street from Beau Jo’s. The coffee gods were definitely taking care of me.

JMR – Java Mountain Roasters – hands down had the cutest shop I had visited all week. And I don’t think it was just because we were up in the cute mountain town of Idaho Springs. It had that relaxed, homey feel. Books lined the old dressers in the shop, and they displayed various beans they roast from around the world. It’s a family owned place and they were certainly kind and chirpy in greeting me. I ordered my go-to, a soy latte, and poked around the coffeehouse while they were working on my cup. I found all sorts of home-roasted products and cozy decorations on the walls. There were a lot of pastel colors in the shop and so you could just feel instantly at ease. If we weren’t in a rush to get back home I would have been fine hanging out there all day.

My order came and I paid just over 4 bucks for my large cup. Totally. Completely. Worth it. It was the best tasting coffee I had had all week. It felt smooth, easy to drink, and was the perfect temperature. It wasn’t too bold; probably made with a medium roast, and had a perfect balance of flavor. I loved it. And I told them as much.

I’ll be back! I yelled on my way out. And I will, because this shop, well it’s exactly why it’s fun to look around and explore new places in the first place. Because you find winners and places you want to come back to. And let’s be real, finding the perfect cup of ikawa (‘coffee’ in Kinyarwanda) is a nice, lovely surprise. Particularly on a nice afternoon Sunday drive in the Rocky Mountains.

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