I promise this is about donuts. Mostly.

I have begun to fear the way time is passing me. In the end of my sophomore year of college, I feel like I am in a constant state of evaluating options. I have watched what started out as 32 courses turn so quickly to 24, 16 and soon to be 8. Two years ago, I had so much time to take the courses I wanted, to study abroad and to spend my summers trying donuts.

I had so many choices, but here I am feeling as if I am losing the ability to be the one who makes them. My plans have begun to change daily at the hands of a cast of characters who are constantly informing me what is in my "best interest."

So at the moment, I guess that is why I am holding onto my small and beautiful goal of traveling the country to try the “best” donuts. Because it is mine.

Instead of spending the spring break of my sophomore year on the beach, I decided to travel 3,000 miles to see the Southwest region of this country, and to learn about it through trying donuts. I hoped that four donut shops over the course of 3,000 miles would remind me that the world is so much bigger than 2,000 undergraduates at a small liberal arts school.

I wanted to learn something new about the world. 

So I headed…

For Whoo's Donuts in Sante Fe, NM

Maria Cortner

We took off early on a Thursday morning with my car pointed south toward New Mexico. I watched the miles add on as I let my stress peel off. We looked forward to starting Friday morning at Whoo's Donuts.

The humble outside of the shop did not prepare me for the overwhelmingly fresh, crunchy and unique donuts that lined the shelf. I started my morning with a Lemon Pistachio donut that was perfectly sweet and just bitter enough, with a hearty filling that was not too dense.

milk, espresso, coffee, tea
Maria Cortner

My friends, Becki, Bianca and Koki, who strangely agreed to travel all this distance in a 14 year-old manual car with poor air conditioning and a broken stereo, munched on Blue Corn Blueberry Lavender donuts. They agreed that these donuts were perfectly glazed all the way around the sides with a variety of textures: crunchy outside, soft inside and chewy blueberries on top.

Koki (pictured below munching into her donut) mentioned it was refreshing to “taste a hint of lavender without soap.”

coffee, tea
Maria Cortner

We spent the rest of the day wandering through corners of Santa Fe, through the art, through the chocolate, and through the street vendors and their turquoise earrings. We ended the day around a fire back at our campsite, finding things out about ourselves and one another in our late night conversation.

I continued to fear the way time passed, but little was I aware of how much I was going to see and discover of myself, my friends and the world in the next week.

So I headed..

For Bosa Donuts in Casa Grande, AZ

espresso, beer, tea, coffee
Maria Cortner

And as we headed, we watched the miles on the road signs dwindle down next to the name of a small town named “Truth or Consequences.” We spent two beautiful days under the Tucson sun and realized, in talking to my cousin Bob, how much the world and college climate have really changed.

When Bob was in our shoes, as a college student, he spent the weekends of his sophomore year collecting tropical fish in Mexico for the University of Arizona aquarium. Now he is retired, sharing with us stories of his college experiences and of the wildlife that fill this part of the country. Don’t fall into a barrel cactus with fishhooks.

We pulled off the Arizona street corner with our car pointed west toward California. At Bosa Donuts, I ordered a chocolate-covered old fashioned with a perfect crunch. Koki devoured her pink- frosted donut with sprinkles, Becki got a classic glazed old- fashioned, and Bianca munched on a chocolate glazed with rainbow sprinkles.

beer, tea, coffee
Maria Cortner

It was in this "hometown" looking shop that I could tell my stress of choosing the "right" donut stressed out the happy-go-lucky man behind the encounter. I just had so many good options, and this was a choice I got to make all by myself. This choice was so purely mine.

The happy man working behind the counter recognized the customers behind us and addressed how much the boy had grown. Between this, the classic dependable old fashioned, and idea that we would see the ocean before sunset, I pulled onto the highway thinking that for now, this was my “American Dream.”

So I headed…

For Donut Bar in San Diego, CA

Maria Cortner

The drive from Arizona to California hit me in newfound ways throughout the six hours. In Yuma, AZ, just moments away from the border of Mexico, we sat in stopped traffic in 100 degree weather. After we saw the California sign, the world turned to sand. Lone houses appeared frequently stretching along the border.

We turned a corner at one point and all of a sudden there was one, two and then what seemed liked thousands of wind turbines. As they disappeared, a world of mountains made of small fragmented rocks welcomed us. 

The world, or more realistically “my world,” was changing so quickly. Our first night in San Diego, in a little taco shop it became clear how sheltered we had so far allowed ourselves to be. We became much more aware of our position as a language barrier complicated ordering a simple taco. 

Koki explained to us after we left that this cultural discomfort is something that she often feels at our school. At home, her cultural values are collectively based. At a liberal arts school in the U.S., these values are not always the most represented.

After a year and a half of knowing Koki, it really occurred to me how different we are, and should be, having grown up on opposites of the map, Massachusetts and Hawaii. I could try to relate this to cake and yeast donuts and how they both develop out of the same idea but turn out so differently, but still great. But I won’t. I am just glad donuts allowed me to see myself and my friend in this new way.

Maria Cortner

The next morning at the Donut Bar, I ordered the Chocolate Espresso and Toasted Coconut, both of which had first bites that made me smile immediately. Once again, I overwhelmed a worker named Adam with my inability to make a decision. Adam let us know that his day was going well because he sold a mimosa at 8 a.m. that morning and he claimed to respect my donut-picking dilemma.

It was here that my friend Becki (pictured below) said she felt like a child again. She talked about how Dunkin’ Donuts had given her a bad impression of donuts, but this one was just the way a donut should be because it was sweet, sticky, goopy, fun to eat, and, most importantly, it made her happy. She said, and I quote “The donuts were very pleasing to look at. So was Adam.”

Bianca (pictured above among the donuts of California) ordered a Blood Orange Raised Donut that had a perfect bitterness that disintegrated like water in your mouth. She gave this place her stamp of approval: 10% Adam, 60% Donut, 30% Coffee.

So I headed…

For Pink Box Donuts in Las Vegas, NV

tea, coffee, beer, pizza
Maria Cortner

From San Diego to Los Angeles to Las Vegas, we watched the world and people around us change. The Las Vegas Strip attracted every kind of assortment of person. For some reason, it felt so much smaller than I imagined. The way it sprung out of the desert, it could have been the set of a real life monopoly.

I promise you I have never looked so out of place and 19 as I did that day on the Las Vegas Strip. I was wearing a five-dollar tee shirt I bought in Sante Fe, very old and worn jean shorts, hiking sandals and had a blow pop in my mouth.

Before we even experienced the Strip, we stopped at Pink Box Donuts. This was the only donut shop where my order was set. I was getting myself a Fat Elvis. This was a plain yeast donut with chocolate frosting and peanut butter and banana filling.

cake, butter, chocolate
Maria Cortner

If you are ever in Las Vegas, I am telling you, skip the Strip to go get one of these. Maybe I am a sucker for banana and peanut butter, but this donut would have been good for breakfast, lunch, dinner or dessert. Trust me, I don’t always feel that way.

There is the Lemon Pistachio, which was perfect for breakfast and the Dark Chocolate Salted Caramel, which was solid dessert. There was the Raised Blood Orange, which would have been good for lunch and a Glazed Old Fashioned could have been tempting for dinner. But the Fat Elvis had the most satisfying peanut butter banana filling that I would have had any time of day.

cake, pizza
Maria Cortner

We saw the Strip, we saw the sunrise in Moab, and we made our way home. Back to a comfortable and quaint college campus with less satisfying donuts, with lots to be learned, and less to be seen.

I am afraid of the way time passes.

Six years ago entering high school, I was so excited I would finally be in the same school as my brother. I remember how sad I was the day he left for college. I remember all of the times he warned me that college was hard and no one year is “the year,” they were all filled with so much good and bad that shapes you. I'm sure I will look back on this time in my life as very important, but at the moment it feels difficult.

A week after I drove 40 hours to try donuts in the Southwest I was flying to Virginia because six years later my brother was finishing his senior year at the University of Virginia.

So I headed…

For Sugar Shack in Arlington, VA

gingerbread, candy, cookie, chocolate
Maria Cortner

My mom, my dad, my little brother and I went together on the way to the airport. I ordered the Samosa, Chocolate Caramel Sea Salt, Honey Lavender and Maple Bacon. It was at this shop where I saw how much, in the year since Andrew came with me to try my “second” best donut shop (his first), that I noticed what an incredible person he had become.

As he bit into the Chocolate Caramel Sea Salt he smiled, but whispered quietly “I still think Duck Donuts.”

chocolate, bread
Maria Cortner

In this year where I tried 13 of the "best" donut shops (and probably close to 40 donuts), I got to watch my younger brother go from experiencing the childlike wonder of trying his first “best” as a incoming senior in high school unsure what he wanted from life to becoming extremely critical when trying his fourth “best” as a near high school graduate with college on the horizon.

I am now reflecting on my own position and how I have mentioned that I am so fearful of time passing.

What I am realizing is that in less than a year I have entered 13 states to try their best donuts. The year is not even technically over. I guess my point is that life throws so much bullshit your way, but it is so important to grab hold of the small things that make you happy, that give you purpose, and that no one told you to do but you are gonna exert way too much energy into anyway.

I have loved every moment I have spent traveling to donut shops. I have loved seeing the places, dragging old friends along, and being reminded that this is my life and therefore the person who has to dictates my choices is me.

coffee, cake, tea, pizza, beer
Maria Cortner

So I’ll have a Lemon Coconut from Duck Donuts with a Lemon Pistachio from Whoo's Donuts on the side (sorry I’m a sucker for a well-done lemon donut).

This journey is wildly stupid, but it is mine and I’m going do it anyway.

So I'm headed…

Hopefully for Doughnut Dilemma in Burlington, VA

My extremely subjective ranking so far:

Duck Donuts 

Muriel’s Donuts

Federal Donuts

Whoo’s Donuts

Union Square Donuts

The Holy Donut

Allie’s Donuts

Donut Bar

Glazed & Confuzed

Pink Box Donuts


Bosa Donuts

Follow the rest of my donut search on Instagram: @mariaeatsdonuts.