The Polebridge Mercantile's generator kicks in at 6 a.m., and the day begins. Minutes later, a van backs up to the front porch to be loaded with pastries bound for the farmers' market in Kalispell.
Inside, Dan Kaufman readies the kitchen and awaits his newest apprentice, Flannery Coats. She arrives sleepy-eyed but smiley, wrapped in an apron and bandana, and warms a skillet. Two other bakers begin to roll and cut dough imbued with sugar, while Led Zeppelin blares from the speakers.
"It took me five tries to get down the double batch of chocolate chip cookies," says Coats, 25. "But I got the triple batch down. It was a glowing moment in my baking career."
Coats is one month into her summer-long "internship" under Kaufman, the baker whose pastries have become the soul of the Mercantile, the sweet manna that attracts travelers escaping into or out of the wilderness that surrounds it.
She takes the training seriously because on June 16 Coats and her fiancé, Stuart Reiswig, 26, became the new owners of the Merc, the much-loved bakery and general store in this isolated corner of Montana. After 15 years, Kaufman and his wife Debbie, both 59, are passing the torch—rolling pin, perhaps—to a young, doughty couple following through on an impulse many visitors have considered but few pursued.
"It's definitely a leap of faith doing this..." says Reiswig. "We don't know shit about anything—about living off the grid, baking and everything. It was just sort of determination more than anything. I keep telling people, we don't know what the hell we're doing, but we're doing it with confidence."
Coats, originally from Weiser, Idaho, and Reiswig, from Spearfish, S.D., met at the University of Portland. Coats completed her degree there while Reiswig transferred to the University of Montana. After they both graduated in 2006, they spent two years together in Ecuador teaching English before settling in Missoula, where Coats worked for WORD as an Americorps volunteer and Reiswig for the Poverello Center.
"I first came to Polebridge not long after I moved to Missoula, and instantly fell in love with the place," Reiswig says. "You come up here and you can just see, like, Jesus, the Dalai Lama and Woody Guthrie sitting outside having tea and shooting the breeze about the weather. It's something else up here."
On that first visit in 2005 Reiswig noticed the Merc had recently been put up for sale. The Kaufmans were asking $950,000 for 22.5 acres abutting the North Fork of the Flathead River, the Merc and four rental cabins.
"I walked away like most people did, and it was sort of the dream of getting a few friends together," he says. "I'm sure a lot of other people have had that dream."
Last fall, he and Coats returned to Polebridge while scouting wedding venues and the Merc was still for sale—but the Kaufmans were then asking $739,000. The Missoula couple's pie-in-the-sky notion started to smell somewhat realistic. They contacted real estate agent Joe Basirico—the same agent who sold the Merc to the Kaufmans 15 years ago—and in December drove the snow-packed road in Basirico's truck after their Saturn got stuck only a few miles from Columbia Falls. Coats and Reiswig returned again in February with Reiswig's parents, who offered to help chip in.
"I didn't think the bank was going to loan us the rest, and obviously we didn't have the rest...but we figured we'd give it a shot," says Reiswig, who notes the couple made less than $20,000 last year. "We were like, 'We can't walk away from it. Let's just make an offer, even if it's way under what they're asking, just so we can feel like we gave it our all.' So we made this offer...and they actually accepted it."
The final price, Reiswig says, was "significantly lower" than $739,000.
The deal involved more than just money, though. The Kaufmans had their own criteria for a buyer, though harder to quantify.
"My favorite author calls it a 'path of heart,'" says Dan Kaufman. "And there have been offers that I didn't really think had heart behind them, and I thought that's what it would take to do Polebridge."
Kaufman plans to stick around for the summer to ensure the sticky-buns come out right long after he moves to Costa Rica, where he plans to start up another baking operation. Meanwhile, Debbie and Connor, the Kaufman's teenage son who was home-schooled in Polebridge, are heading to Idaho, where Connor will begin high school.
For now, little will change at the Merc. Self-described "back-to-the-land-ers," Reiswig and Coats plan to replace the outhouses with environmentally friendly composting toilets, start a garden, raise chickens and a few goats, add solar power systems, perhaps even start a brewery to put Reiswig's biochemistry degree to use.
"She said that it would be real hard to fill my shoes," Kaufman says, "and I told her, 'Fill your own shoes. Just fill your shoes and everything will be fine.'"
One change frequent Polebridge visitors may notice immediately, though, is the absence of Sasha, the Kaufmans' three-legged Karelian bear dog. The Merc's unofficial mascot stood guard on the front porch for about 15 years.
"They're taking the dogs," Reiswig laments, "so we're going to put up a shrine to Sasha." The Cave:Advertising:02 Production Art:IndyLogoDingbat2002.tifB:'",,"")>