My Worst Cup of Coffee Was Also My Best Cup of Coffee

My Worst Cup of Coffee Was Also My Best Cup of Coffee

Shannon Davis

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Camped in Prescott National Forest, we woke just before sunrise and set a large, dented enamel coffee pot over the fire. This rig used to have a percolator, but it was long gone. Twisted baling wire strung through two holes formed a long top handle. Woodsmoke charred its base. 

Similar to these coffee pots over the fire, here.

As the water began to steam, we scooped copious coffee grounds into the pot and let them steep. Once it seemed like it had been somewhere between long enough and too long, we dropped a good-sized rock into the carafe to break the surface tension of the grounds and, in theory, send them down to the bottom. Then I grabbed the pot by the wire handle and swung it in a circle over my head, windmill style, so that centrifugal force might send the rest of the grounds to the bottom, too. This is the “cowboy coffee” brewing method, and since we were on a horse packing trip from one ranch to another through the Arizona high desert, it was the absolute right way to brew. But that doesn't mean the coffee is great.

The first couple of cups are good enough, strong, and relatively clear of grounds. But your next cup is sure to have some chew. And it might be best to avoid the third cup. 

I saddled my horse and mounted with a gritty, late-pot cup in hand which I nursed for an hour. It had a power to it, like ambrosia to a Greek god. Had I ever felt more awake? More in the moment? More aligned with everything around me? I doubt it, and that’s the power of a good cup of coffee anywhere. Even a cup you might say is bad in another context. This type of bad cup is the perfect cup when you’re in the backcountry, rife with singular tasting notes that reflect the full experience of where you’re adventuring and who with, even if you might need a toothpick and a Tums after.


Bonus points if the mug is sludged with a melange of dust, hot cocoa crusties, evergreen needles, and Jim Beam fumes from the night before. Or the classic cup-o-soup or Good Earth tea remnants. My favorite barista can’t make that and likely wouldn’t want to, but I can and have been lucky to have done so in so many places, from the flanks of Mt. Rainier to the banks of Utah’s Green River. If you’re reading this, you probably have, too. 

Coffee cup that's not nearly as gross as what I'm talking about.

Backcountry coffee, brewed by fringe methods or classier ones like a pour-over, french press, or aeropress, are ultra-memorable because no two cups are alike. They'd never fly in the frontcountry or be on a menu. In fact, if I replicated it in my own kitchen, I’d probably toss it off the back porch. And that’s the exact beauty of a backcountry cup like this. Perfection lies in its imperfections. It ties everything together in oneness, and puts a day right on course. 

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