I am fairly well convinced that Net’s Cafe in Maybell is the only place worth eating in Moffat County. I tried another place in Craig twice (apparently expecting improved results the second time), but the patty melt doesn’t lie. How do you ruin a patty melt? Well, if you follow the model of the unnamed cafe in Craig, you’d start by putting barely-cooked (and oil-saturated) red onions on it. Red onions? Really? At Net’s the onions may still be a bit undercooked, but at least they’re sweet and yellow. Offering sweet potato fries is definitely a plus 1. So yeah. I judge restaurants by their patty melts. But this isn’t really about sandwiches.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about these tiny, often overlooked hamlets—typically bedroom communities where the stray traveler passes through every so often and the desperate traveler stops even less frequently. One thing I really enjoy about my field work is that it requires me to travel along roads that are off the Yelp-reviewed path. Probably 90% of the named “towns” I drive through have zero amenities, but every now and then, there’s a Maybell. Whizzing by on the highway, you’d probably only notice the general store. But Maybell actually has a campground that, more importantly, has a surprisingly nice shower house ($3/shower; honor-system) and a hand-pump for well water (free). You’d be surprised how difficult it is to find a shower and a place to easily fill a 6-gallon jug, even—or maybe especially—in bigger towns. When I stop in these small communities, whether it’s to find water, use a bathroom, or just stretch my legs, I like to imagine what life is like for the folks that live there. Having lived in an outwardly-similar village (El Portal, California), I know there is often more going on than what meets the eye.
So, back to Net’s. The cafe lacks interior decor almost entirely—or at least any sense of cohesive style. Almost everything is cream in color, there are a few crooked, cheaply-framed photos on the walls, and you have a view straight into the kitchen from nearly every seat in the room. All that aside, there is one small detail that adds a bit of local flare and offers a smidge of insight into what Maybell is all about. The booth benches in this otherwise scantily-clad shell of a building have cattle brands (and ranch names) wood-burned into the seat backs. I could leave you to make a basic assumption here, but the symbols and names etched into the seats of a cafe in the middle of nowhere are real brands from real working ranches. The reason I know this is because I’ve met some of these people through my work. I’ve chatted on the phone with and met a small handful of landowners in person, the majority of whom have granted us permission to survey birds on their land. I generally enjoy these encounters, especially when I get to meet landowners who have been working with RMBO for years. I like to think that growing up around a dairy farm, riding dirtbikes and horses, and being able to talk about hunting gives me a more relatable demeanor, but who knows. I think coming to the table with an open mind, a friendly smile, and a firm handshake is a big part of it. I can only wonder what they think about the young lady who drives around the state of Colorado looking for birds. There are reasons why I refrain from slapping (politically and culturally) polarizing bumper stickers to my truck. It’s likely that I refrain for the same reasons that other people do just the opposite. We’ll just say that not all landowner interactions are savory experiences and I prefer to speak for myself.
More often than not, I relish the opportunity to listen to what they have to say—actually listening, hopefully learning a thing or two, and gaining a tiny bit more perspective on the people of my country. You may laugh at that, but I am often amazed at the sheer diversity of regional and localized cultures in our country. Many of these people live miles and miles away from others and are carrying on a way of life that is being lost as more people are being raised in urban areas. These cattle and sheep ranchers, coal miners and farmers are what keeps the wheels in the big cities spinning. This is Middle America. Real people who care less about wifi and 4G than you do about the territorial behaviors of earthworms. Seriously. These people are fading in our society and I wish it weren’t so. Especially since fewer farmers means fewer (and larger) farms that are farther away from where you live, expanding the distance between you and your food (or other commodity). And it also means a dying livelihood that will not be passed down to children and grandchildren.
On a few lucky occasions, I’ve been invited to come up to the house after my survey for coffee. I’ve been offered eggs and toast, tips on where to pick the best wildflower bouquets, intriguing local histories, the best place to see X bird, tall tales, book recommendations, and even a few rocks from a cherished collection after a long conversation about our respective treasures. I like to think that every interaction with a person has the potential to result in agreeable conversation and coffee. Sometimes nothing happens and you leave no better or worse off than you were before and sometimes you get a new friend and a cup of strong, black coffee (like the kind my Swedish grandmother makes).
So. Where the hell is Maybell? The boring answer is 30 miles west of Craig on a dreadfully lonely stretch of Highway 40. But places like this (and the people who inhabit them) are slowly fading from the map. Or rather, slowly fading from existence and living on only through a marker and some text on the map. However, they’re not all gone and I bet that if you open your eyes, you could find Maybell not too far from wherever you are. Just don’t blink or you might miss it.