Java in the Woods

By Will Swartz

Will Swartz was interviewed in our current issue about his hike on the Michigan Shore-to-Shore hiking trail (read here), a 220-mile (350 km) long trail that runs between Empire on Lake Michigan and Oscoda on Lake Huron. The following is an excerpt from his book about the journey, A Walk Across Michigan: Hiking the Michigan Shore to Shore Riding and Hiking Trail. 

The next day began like most other days on the trail, with stiff stretching of sore limbs and reluctant wriggling from cozy comforts. A peek through the tent flaps revealed another perfect summer day that was just beginning on our side of the world. Strange that others, twelve hours away, were preparing to end the day. Hazy light was dull on the newly formed dew. I dressed quickly and began preparations, even in the wild, to soothe my morning addiction.

I came to appreciate the hold that coffee can have on a person when I was on a father-son camping trip with a friend (who shall remain nameless here — though Mark will recognize himself in the story — for fear of shaming him in public). I woke up one morning to the sound of my friend making a fire and rattling some pots as he heated water. When I came out of the tent he was carefully pouring steamy water over a sock draped over a camp cup. The sock had coffee grounds nested in it and the water was slowly steeping and draining through the sock where it was collected on the other side. 

Who does that? Why would someone drink coffee strained through a sock? I didn’t ask any questions about the sock, though, because I didn’t want to know. He lovingly coddled the cup like it held liquid gold. Desperate. The epitome of desperation. This was before I became a coffee lover. I should have heeded the warning signs to stay away from the stuff. I now understand.

I’ve evolved into a coffee snob. It was a slow descent into the world of caffeine-infused beverages.  
Caramel macchiato.
Cafe con leche.
Cowboy coffee.
Espresso shots.
Cafe mocha.
Iced coffee.
Caffe latte.
Not hazelnut.
French press.
Turkish coffee.
Fresh ground.
Whole beans.
Grind your own beans.
Dessert coffee.
With cream. 
With flavored creamers. 
Flavored syrups. 
Not hazelnut.
With spirits.
Mixed blends.
Jamaica Blue Mountain Estates, Hawaiian Kona, Ethiopian, Kenyan.
Cafe Bustelo, Maxwell House, Folger’s, Yuban.
Tim Horton’s, Biggby’s, Dunkin Donuts, Starbuck’s, Caribou Coffee, Seattle’s Best.
So many more.
Freeze-dried crystals.
Instant coffee.
Motel coffee.
Waiting room coffee.
Gas station coffee.
Vending machine coffee.
Not hazelnut.
I could go on, but you get the picture.

Curious, too, since I didn’t become a regular coffee drinker until well into my teaching career, though I grew up in a household where my parents and every adult around me consumed potfuls of the stuff everyday. A recent article about how to roast your own coffee beans using an air popper, the kind you use to make popcorn, caught my attention. The author claims that it produces coffee that is as much improved over whole beans roasted and packaged in air tight pouches as fresh ground beans are from beans that are pre-ground. It’s only a matter of time and a good hot air popper sale away.

Not that I have a particularly discriminating palate when it comes to coffee. It mostly tastes the same to me and I drink it several ways. Black is good, especially in the morning or with desserts in the fuzzy, mind-blowing sweetness range. I can add creamer, plain or flavored (not hazelnut) and drink it with or without something to eat with it. 

I learned to love cafe con leche, which is Spanish for “coffee with milk,” while living in Mexico. The milk is scalded, which gives it a unique flavor, and a cup of cafe con leche with a tamale in the mercado (market) in the morning was a favorite. It differs from the French cafe au lait, which is also “coffee with milk.” 

There are slight differences among these and the other ways to drink coffee, but it’s those subtle differences that make a great cup of comfort or a bitter ending to the story. It’s the same obsession that wine aficionados, craft beer lovers and cigar smokers have with their vices; the search for the perfect combination of strength, temperature and taste.

There are several ways to make coffee on the trail but, for a decent cup of coffee without a lot of hassle, I go to one of two proven strategies. Whenever we travel and stay at motels, I always snag the single cup coffee pods and pouches in our room and stick them in my luggage to take home, where they are transferred to the camping box. Hot water in a camp cup and a coffee pod will do it. A little more elaborate method is to use the Aeropress Coffee and Espresso Maker I discovered in Tim Ferris’s book, The 4 Hour Chef.  It makes one of the best cups of coffee you will ever have.

P.S. If you find yourself in a situation where you are truly desperate, you can always try the sock method!

Will lives in Canton, MI, with his wife, Kate, in a riverside Cape Cod house, where River Deer and other wildlife regularly stop by to distract him as he writes. They have five children (none of whom is a wild child burden on society or living in their basement) and six grandchildren. Will has worked as a teacher, coach, librarian, school administrator, trainer, and salesman, and he is now hard at work creating additional resources for hikers interested in the STS Trail. Connect with Will at, , or

Posted on May 9, 2016 .