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Setting sail with a treasure chest full of wisdom and chocolate cake

Last Saturday morning, I had the opportunity to meet the individual who bested me in this year’s Archuleta County Fair Baking Competition, Grand Champion Baker, Natalie Mashue.

Natalie, now well known for her sinful chocolate cake, lives here along with her parents and older brother, Tucker. She is a ballet dancer, pianist and aspiring violinist. She plans to one day become a pediatrician. A lover of ruffles, Natalie is 6 years old. Oh, I’m sorry, that’s 6 1/2 years old.

Thanks to an invite from her mother, Sarah Mashue, I had the privilege to meet Natalie and receive a few pointers on my new career choice (baker — no more journalism for me). After reading my declaration in The SUN that I was giving up my pursuit of higher knowledge for a better-cookie quest, Natalie and her mom were kind enough to reach out to me so that Natalie might offer me some advice and show me how a real baker gets things done.

Donning her signature baking uniform of ruffles and an apron of her own design, Natalie commanded her kitchen that Saturday like a captain commands his ship. I, the second mate, was tasked with following her every order, that our cake might complete its journey safely.

Having no ruffled uniform of my own, Natalie was kind enough to loan me her mother’s ruffled apron (I suspect the ruffles may be the key to her success, further field research will be necessary to determine if that is the case).

Clad in our ruffles, Natalie and I braved the stormy seas of cake baking and set about recreating her grand champion chocolate cake recipe, which can be found on the back of the Hershey’s cocoa powder box (to each his own — I get my recipes from the Internet). Natalie directed me in all manner of stirring, pouring, scooping and cracking, all under her meticulous supervision. Captain Natalie sat atop her kitchen-counter-high stool that she might keep a weather eye to the horizon for any error or miscalculation on my part.

Though Natalie and I successfully baked a divine chocolate cake, I can’t help but feel doubtful that I have what it takes to be the baker I aspire to be. To be a truly successful baker, one’s creations must be replicable. Mine are not. I’m afraid I don’t have the patience or measuring skills to bake a recipe the same way twice. That, and I am far too short on ruffles. Perhaps it’s best that I return to my dreams of knowledge, intellectual advancement and the written word.

With my time here in Pagosa coming to an end, I must face reality. I must accept that I am no Natalie Mashue and I may never master Hershey’s chocolate cake as she has. But, I will not be disheartened. Aside from the honor of becoming an award winning baker (I concede, not a grand champion baker), I have had one wild experience after another in Pagosa Springs this summer.

I have met countless crazy, incredible people. Both those who have lived their whole lives in this place and those who have chosen here, instead of anywhere else in the world, to be their odd, wonderful selves. I have heard stories you wouldn’t believe if I laid my hand on the Bible while telling them. I have been offered treasure chests full of invaluable pearls of wisdom. And I have become more myself then I think I’ve ever been before.

I’m young, so I’m still figuring out who I am and who I want to be. And I have to say that coming here, meeting these people, hearing these stories and experiencing this place, I have been inspired to my core to pursue myself, the person I was born to be. Yes, that statement is corny and fluffy and everything that good writing isn’t supposed to be — but it’s the truth; this place has affected me. It has changed me. You, the people of Pagosa Springs, have touched me.

I leave now to head back home to Memphis richer than when I arrived, full of gratitude for the people — the eccentric, the quirky, the curious, the kind, the passionate, the uncommon people of Pagosa Springs.

Just to clarify, I am a couple of weeks shy of 19 — I was defeated in this year’s Archuleta County Fair Baking Competition by an individual a third of my age. Am I embarrassed? Not one bit, because — one final bit of wisdom from Natalie, the bold little baker — age is just a number.

Godspeed, Captain Natalie. And Godspeed, Pagosa Springs. It’s been quite a jaunt.

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