I am waiting for Jonathan to snap my picture in front a giant wall of water that is about to engulf me. If that doesn’t sound smart, I can’t argue, but I foolishly turned my back to the ocean only moments before
when the water was calm. Now I am soaked. Lesson learned: try not to win a Darwin Award.
The shelf of granite I am standing on is in Acadia National Park in northern Maine (state bird: mosquito giganticus). There is a strong offshore breeze, and the air is so pure you want to drink it. A cloudless pale blue sky is interrupted only by solid rows of pine trees behind and roiling ocean waters in front. Seagulls chase white caps across the waves in search of food, and small tidal pools contain their own little ecosystem. Green lichen covers my rocky plateau. Off to the left along the shore stands a solitary Cape Cod bravely facing the elements, its grey-shingled walls complimented by stark white shutters. It is a scene from an artist’s palette, and it reminds me of books I’ve read about this area as a child. It’s like living in a dreamscape, or a poem. Is there a difference?
We’ve come back up through Portland (which seems like a good working class town with a real shipping industry and a nice vibe at night), and have only been here a few hours now. We set up camp at a KOA with a very nice view of the water only about 20 miles from Bar Harbor (in Down Easter, “Bah Hahbuh”) and have already seen the Bass Harbor lighthouse, a mid 1800’s white brick structure with attached light keeper’s dwelling. It’s perched out on the edge of the world on a small cliff overlooking a craggy shoreline far from anything resembling civilization, and a lone Park Ranger will tell you the history if you ask him. There’s also a small, well tended, and easy trail that leads down to some slippery and dangerous looking rock formations, so of course that’s where Jonathan wants to get his picture taken looking out at the heaving Atlantic like he’s Henry Cabot Lodge. Soon, a fog mysteriously creeps in ”on little cat’s feet” (Sandberg?) and our view is completely obscured.
We go into Bar Harbor and it looks like the circus is in town, because the tourists are swarming like termites on a hot Florida afternoon. It’s wall-to-wall people on the sidewalks, bumper-to-bumper cars, and a very, very bad band is playing in the park. To enjoy this city at this time of year, you need to snap a few pictures of the quaint cottages and landmarks lining Main Street and park for free on West Street, where you can walk along the water’s edge and enjoy a view of the pier and the bobbing yachts beyond in the harbor without needing to navigate through the ocean of humanity on shore.
There is a century old sidewalk that follows the harbor around the umbrella festooned lawn of the painfully picturesque Bar Harbor Inn, which commands an amazing vista of the harbor side and is flanked by a brace of naval guns on the north end. You can get a nice view from this also at the park that is at the corner of West and Main, where a gazebo and trellis both provide a perfect frame for picture taking, complete with beautiful clusters of flowers in the foreground. So you’re standing there on a brilliant summer’s day, the Stars and Stripes are crisply snapping in the wind, and the town marches down to the water in neat little rows of cottages, tourist traps, and restaurants, and the whole effect is of a manicured, exquisite little creation, a slice of Americana, like something out of a big New England coffee table book, or the parody of a real town, I’m not sure which. Not a blade of grass is out of place.
The people are beautiful, in general, and there is a good mix of families and adults, all clothed by Abercrombie and Fitch, Land’s End, and Sperry. The cars are BMWs and Land Rovers, and they are all new.
This city is pure tourism, and Walt Disney couldn’t have done it better, because it has an authentic ocean heritage, but I feel as out of place here as I would playing baccarat in Monaco. I’m just an ordinary guy in many respects, with an ordinary income, and I know that this very expensive destination is merely a moment’s diversion for the well-heeled and perfectly coiffed and manicured people and poseurs clogging the streets here. I can enjoy it at a distance and only for a moment, like I would admire a Ming vase for its artistry or a rare flower species for its beauty. It doesn’t seem real to me, unlike other oceanfront towns that tolerate and even promote a kind of hedonism and individual expression that makes them seem funky, gritty, and real, and, while they can be tacky as well, they don’t try to disguise that, either. Don’t get me wrong. Bar Harbor is great eye candy, and a fantastic photo-op, just like a beautiful runway model. Just don’t mistake it for reality, or the girl next door.
Near sunset, we drive up a series of challenging switchbacks to the top of Cadillac Mountain, where we enjoy a 360 degree view of…well, it seems like the entire universe. The sun is descending from the heavens in an explosion of orange and red, illuminating the Western Bay and points far beyond, as well as the glimmering Eagle Lake 1800 feet below. To the east, huge glacier like banks of fog obscure the ocean horizon between island land masses, while to the north we can make out the lights of Bar Harbor and of the boats in Frenchman Bay. Southward, beyond Bass Harbor. lies the deepening blackness of the Atlantic. There are a hundred of us up here, and the mood is festive. It reminds me a little of a mild, PG rated version of a Key West sunset celebration. The wind whips so hard you have to lean into it, and if you can’t feel the hand of the Creator here, you have no soul. At last, something real.
We eat at Mainely Meat, which sounds hokey, and it is, but they offer up a huge 1.5 pound lobster with two sides for under $16 in an unpretentious but clean and friendly atmosphere. The name implies that BBQ is their specialty, but the big crustacean I eat is tender and sweet, they’ll serve you up a decent house wine in a big tumbler (yes, you read that right) for only $6., and the service is top notch. Go there.
We return to camp and I try to sleep, but I’m too old for this. I just can’t enjoy sleeping on the ground anymore, what can I say? I’m getting soft. Tomorrow, we are on the road all day, with a quick stop at my ancestral home in Vermont. See you then!