Finding Bliss in a Slice of Pie

Sep 18th, 2023

Death is the ultimate bliss. Victims rescued from drowning recount the warm feeling of acceptance that washes over oneself when faced with an undeniable, undefinable fate. As for myself, I believe euphoria can also be found along the Southern Tier Bike Route, at the Hillsboro General Store Cafe, smothered underneath two scoops of homemade vanilla ice cream.

In December of 2021 I completed my Industrial Engineering degree, and wanted to commemorate my graduation with something special. The days of summer vacations and winter breaks were behind me — finishing college meant I was also finished with these brief periods of uninterrupted leisure. I wouldn’t see another month-long sabbatical from my commitments until retirement, 45 years in the future, and I would never forgive myself if I didn’t seize what could be the last opportunity to sate my desire for adventure.

I wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail, but graduating in December meant I would have to wait months to start the hike. I also couldn’t justify to my new job in Flagstaff that I would need to push my start date out by eight months just so I could walk around.

Then, I had an idea that felt almost ridiculous. What if I cycled from my home in Rhode Island to my new job in Arizona? I had brought my mom’s old bike with me to college as a way to get some exercise. What if I set it up to make the 2,000-mile trip to the American Southwest?

This ambition was pretty far-fetched, considering the longest I had cycled was about 15 miles. I had very little experience cycling and absolutely no experience with touring, so I needed someone to guide me. The charity near my college, Troy Bike Rescue, took old bike donations and fixed them up to give to people in the community. Maybe I was an unusual customer, but I was definitely in need of transportation, so I started there.

Isaac, one of the guys who ran the charity, spent time with me over the next few weeks helping get my bike ready. I learned what it takes to complete a trip like the one I had in mind, and I would bring my bike to the shop after class while we shared the excitement of adventuring. One night, the idea of biking all the way across the country came up.

At first I thought it was too ridiculous to even think about, but then I realized it wasn’t far from what I was already trying to do. It only added a few hundred extra miles to my trip, and it would be an incredible achievement to look back on. Isaac pointed me to the Adventure Cycling Association maps, and I was instantly drawn to the Southern Tier Route. Not only would I be able to bike from coast to coast, but I could do it on a route where hundreds of cyclists had already paved the way, and more importantly, in a place that wouldn’t be frozen over during January and February.

man on beach with bike
The author about to set out on the Southern Tier
Julian Casanova

My mind was made up, and I left from St. Augustine, Florida heading west on January 12, 2022.

As a lover of good food, one of the first things I immediately missed was cooking; heating dehydrated pasta meals over my camping stove didn’t scratch the same itch. I had contemplated sending home a container of spices because it was heavy and awkward to pack, but I was glad I’d decided to hang on to it. Being able to season my food how I wanted was a huge morale boost at the end of a long cycling day.

Around Las Cruces, I bumped into two Southern Tier cyclists coming from the west, where I was heading. They told me about a bed and breakfast up in the mountains called the Black Range Lodge, and said it was one of the most incredible places they’d ever been. After living on a diet of artificial meals and dense energy bars, I gained a new appreciation for good food, and was instantly intrigued.

Seldom does something as simple as a slice of pie bring meaning to the entirety of existence, but when it happens it is undeniable. It is, in short, transcendent.

Their descriptions of historic libraries and warm, welcoming pioneer aesthetic inspired me, so I took their advice and set it as my next destination.

Cycling up the Black Range Mountains the following day, a glance at my food bag made me nervous. I hadn’t had a chance to restock for many miles, and there was a whole day of cycling uphill ahead of me.

Soon, most of my energy was focused on beating down the ravenous hunger that comes with burning 6,000 calories a day on a bike tour. I searched on my phone for something to eat and found a restaurant called the Hillsboro Cafe not far away. I continued pushing up scenic mountain roads until I came to Hillsboro, a small mining town tucked between Las Cruces and Silver City. I followed my GPS to an unassuming cube of adobe architecture, with a sign out front that said Hillsboro General Store Café.

storefront with trees

The Hillsboro General Store Cafe itself
Julian Casanova

I parked my bike on the side of the building and stepped into the café. With relics from the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the Spanish-American War, the cafe is firmly rooted in history. Walking in feels like you intruded on a company of actors rehearsing for an upcoming Arthur Miller play. The ambiance of the Café evokes images from American Romanticism and Norman Rockwell paintings. To call it “ambiance” is almost too crude a word; the café is truly authentic. It offers a genuine authenticity where gentility, grit, and history are as much a part of the structure as its baked clay exterior.

I ordered the chili con carne, and sat waiting in my banquet chair, absorbing forgotten Motown hits from the speakers sitting on the counter with wires haphazardly strewn about. There was a clunk as a patron battles with the aged latch on the front door, and the register made an anachronistic “ka-ching” whenever someone paid in cash. These small touches give the Hillsboro General Store Café a distinct, honest reality.

My food arrived, and despite its humble presentation, this cup of chili con carne transported me into a world without time. All at once I was in a storybook eating spoonfuls of the highest form of food. The act of chewing seemed profane. The potatoes had the taste that only real potatoes have, something I had almost forgotten. The beef was seasoned with the discerning touch of an artisan who produces uncompromising art. The warm tortilla was clearly made by a human being with human hands. With every bite it was as if an 1800s sailor’s grandmother had prepared her grandson his favorite meal before setting off to sea and I had stolen his dinner.

chili with bread on a plate
The chili to end all chilis
Julian Casanova

I scraped the bowl clean and ordered a slice of bumbleberry pie for dessert. I had no idea what a bumbleberry was, but based on that experience, I can only assume it is a fruit delivered once per millennia on a golden chariot from heaven, driven by a team of Food Network chefs and led by Dionysus himself.

Rarely have I had an experience so exceptional. From the first bite, my face spread into an broad smile, and I had to stifle my laughter. The pie was perfect beyond words. It was perfect in the way only something flawed and human can be perfect. When you look your spouse in the eyes and tell them that in spite of their mistakes and imperfections and stupidity you love every fiber of their immaculate being, you know the taste of this pie. The subtle tartness of the bumbleberry, not too sweet, the creaminess of the vanilla ice cream, and the flaky, buttery texture of the crust all joined together in a chorus of flavors that sang “this is what life is for.”

a piece of pie and ice cream
Julian Casanova

This was food that heals wounds and saves lives. There is a certain magic that humans are capable of that isn’t talked about enough. Giving yourself entirely into what you produce has an effect more than a materialist viewpoint might intimate. This wasn’t just good food created by someone skilled at their craft. It was a defiant testimony in the face of God; despite the pain and suffering that we are naturally faced with, despite the insurmountable challenges and inevitability of our eventual erasure from existence, we can work to create good in this life.

That chili, that pie were sacraments offered by one feeble person to another in a dark abyss of despair and turmoil, so that a small glimmer of joy may shine through the vale of earthly decay.

The banality of day-to-day life serves to elevate an experience like this. Seldom does something as simple as a slice of pie bring meaning to the entirety of existence, but when it happens it is undeniable. It is, in short, transcendent.

I thanked my server for the food, paid my bill, and mounted my bicycle to continue west. After climbing up mountain roads all day I was looking forward to a drop in elevation.

Between the pie and the road, it was all downhill from here, and I was looking forward to it.

Related Reading