Cartography is as close as man has come to performing magic. With nothing more than pen and paper, entire landscapes are altered for eternity. Languages and laws of the land occupy places according to the lines drawn on it and eventually architectural styles and corporate entities follow their lead. Before maps, the land had no way to know what was expected of it.
As a Texan, I have a fundamentally skewed perspective of borders and their implications. There is much rigmarole about our southern, international border, though that is far above my pay grade to discuss. There’s the iconic shape that’s a result of some alchemy of rivers and straight lines. Then there’s the sheer size, which makes crossing state lines a truly big deal. To achieve escape velocity from Texas, you must point your car in a direction and drive quickly for a long time. Watch the landscape change. Get closer to somewhere else and a bit further from the heart of Texas. In short, you can see the border coming for a long time.
As you wind northeast towards the original colonies, states grow more compact. It is as if the founding fathers were unaware how much room they had and thus were economical with their cartographical decision-making. By car, it is possible to have breakfast in Washington, D.C., lunch in Philadelphia, and dinner in Manhattan. And Hank and I did just that (stories for another time). Then, as you drift further north, away from the nuclei of our East Coast, it is as if the mapmakers began to see a challenge in the weather and the woods, in a trek too far from the urban comforts of the cities they called home. Western Massachusetts picks up a bit of steam, Vermont and New Hampshire are wedged together uncomfortably and indistinguishably. They are vast and dense and mountainous and if you hike a little too far or get out on the wrong side of the canoe, you might innocuously find yourself in a different state than expected.
Then there is Maine. This is where the map grows especially challenging and a bit blurry in the minds of most Americans. There is so much water that the sheer act of accurately conveying the state is an ever-changing challenge not for the faint of heart. The woods are so thick that you may get hopelessly lost while trying to locate where exactly that river or inlet meets the sea. And then, there is the sea. When they decided what was Maine, they created a culture of lobster trapping and consumption that is strong to this day. People here don’t so much consider the lobster as they do voraciously trap and eat it and draw tourists from near and far who want to try their hands at trapping and eating Maine Lobster. This is the land where L.L. Bean created an entire Fortune 500 company on the back of some especially useful boots which are designed to keep your feet warm in the constant cold and dry in the frequent wet of this region.
The state with difficult to pronounce names that lend an authoritative and mystical aura to canoe companies and potato varietals. Above all, this is a place about as far as possible from Texas in the Lower 48, a place which only existed in the vaguest sense in my mind before I drove from Manhattan to Massachusetts to pick up my new-old Land Cruiser then kept driving until I pulled into Portland. Along the way, I slipped into New Hampshire just long enough to pay a toll and leave, then I drove through the piercing night on a highway through the trees until this coastal hamlet began to twinkle on the horizon. It is endlessly disorienting that you can be a mere mile from the Atlantic Ocean in some of the thickest woods on planet earth, with no idea which direction the waves are from your current heading. I was humming down the highway fiddling with various controls, mostly absorbing the mechanical symphony and trying to teach my ears and fingertips which noises and feelings were to be expected. Either because of location or something loose in the radio, I couldn’t find any steady FM signal. I was nearly resigned to driving along to the soundtrack of whirring BFGoodrich tires when I decided to push the CD button. Immediately I found myself mid-track on a live Dave Matthews album, which I proceeded to listen to two and a half times through while the faded hula girl bounced on the dash and I squinted ahead, trying to discern where I was and finding no obvious answers.
Arriving in a new city by night is always a confusing experience, made all the more surreal by the biting cold and sound-deadening snow that blanketed the town on Saint Patrick’s Friday. Aside from brief breaks for fuel and key exchanges, I’d last stood on solid ground in Manhattan, which made this quietude a special blessing and also a shock to an addled system. After checking into a nondescript chain hotel on the outskirts of town, Hank and I hurried towards the center. It was late, I was starving, and it was Saint Paddy’s Day. Two days removed from all antidepressants, I felt downright eager to drink a pint and celebrate like the Irish-looking Italian that I am.
Stop number one was a bar and grill that had ‘Bear’ in the name. I keep forgetting the rest, but everyone around Portland instantly knows what I’m talking about. It was raucous at 9 PM, the din inside quite unexpected from the frigid and silent street beyond the front door. Everyone looked like they spent a lot of time feeling cold, even though it was plenty warm indoors. I squeezed into a single stool at the bar and began drinking my local beer and waiting for my veggie burger and eavesdropping out both ears at once. To my left, a trio of young people discussed the relative merits and legalities of keeping a pet raccoon.
“You have to lock everything, the sugar cabinet, the trash can, the bathroom. All the time.”
To my right, an older man leaned wobbly on an equally-older woman who was at the bar with another man.
“You must be a witch or something… are you some kind of witch? Because you’re putting a damn spell on me.”
Then the conversations fused back together and my brain hemispheres gave in to the chaos around me. The young party got up and left and was replaced by similarly vague young Portland folk. The spellbound man came and went, always returning a bit more wobbly than before and with another line about sorcery or buffalo wings.
I finally got the bartender’s attention and paid, returning to Hank looking mighty cozy in our new Land Cruiser. It was strangely casual to hop right in and fire it up. We ambled authoritatively towards a bar that was mentioned when I Googled ‘dog bar portland me,’ which seemed promising enough to me. When we arrived, there was a sign on the door that had a list of things that were allowed and not allowed inside. Under the allowed header, it said:
- Service Dogs
- All Dogs
- All People
This was good enough for Hank and I, so we walked in with confidence and took couple of stools at the bar. The energetic bartending duo was pleased to see the both of us and alternated giving Hank treats, unawares of the other’s gifting only moments prior. I didn’t mind and neither did Hank—it was Saint Patrick’s Day after all—and instead of trying to discern which local beers I might be interested in, I ordered a Guinness. Apparently, in addition to being a total local hangout and exceedingly dog and human friendly, The Snug Pub is also Portland’s Irish Pub. We really lucked out.
In spite of its dog-friendliness, Hank was the only dog in the place and he took this opportunity and ran with it. He sat on the bar stool to my right, frequently put his paws on the bar, and did all he could to earn more treats or sneak sips of beer. Our backs were facing the door on the short side of the bar, so we were the first thing everyone saw when they walked in. This meant that the majority of the night was spent introducing Hank and answering questions about his lineage. The rest of the time, the female lead bartender was making riotously lewd comments about Hank’s penis size and attitude and really everything she could get her eyes on. There was one woman sitting cattycorner from us on the long side of the bar, and she kept making squeaky kissy noises at Hank which kept him a bit more alert than I would’ve preferred. So naturally we moved over a few spots so she could pet him instead of riling him up.
There was something striking about her icy blue eyes and dark black, curly hair. Not quite incongruous enough to get me wondering, but enough to notice. We began chatting and I could tell there were a lot of silent gears turning behind the cateye makeup and the neat whiskey. She was a real regular at The Snug, and a few minutes later some other real regulars entered and triple-taked her.
“You like my Amy Winehouse look?” she asked them with a strange serenity.
Then she turned back to me and explained, “I’m wearing a wig right now. My natural hair color is light blonde. Well, not my natural color, but the color my actual hair is.”
She pulled up her Facebook page and showed me a photo. Then I had to do a triple take as well.
“It’s interesting how differently I get treated when I wear the wig. Like, when I don’t wear it, tons of men hit on me and women won’t talk to me. When I wear it, women all want to be my friend and men don’t really acknowledge me.”
I tried to keep her talking between dozens more greetings and toasts and dog treats. She had a peculiar demeanor which made it seem like she was talking to herself even when answering a pointed question. All around us, the bartenders kept things hysterical but subdued. It was a full house but not a packed one, the turnover rate was low and the festivity rate was ample. Finally, everyone began to pack up and chug their last few sips. I peeked at my phone, which read five ‘til one.
“Bars close at one around here, huh?” I asked Amy Winehouse.
“Yeah, they do,” she smirked as she left a half-finger of whiskey in her tumbler and zipped up her jacket.
I walked into the cold night where Hank reluctantly peed on a five foot tall snow drift that the grass was hiding beneath. Inside, chaos birthed order as the regulars instinctively lingered while the less-regulars filed out. This was by far the most memorable and celebratory Saint Patrick’s Day I’ve ever had, and we trudged back to the Ramada and climbed into the bed and shivered. I couldn’t be bothered to figure out the thermostat controls, but I did lie restlessly in bed for a few minutes trying to decelerate after a day of freight train momentum.
We woke up late the next morning, our clocks confounded by time zones and daylight savings and erratic schedules. When I discovered the climate control in the morning, the room was 52 degrees. I turned on the heat and climbed into a scalding hot shower while Hank yawned and flipped and flopped on his back on the bed. I drove into Portland and saw the city in daylight for the first time. By dark, it seemed isolated and defiantly holding on. In the next day’s crisp sunshine, it felt resplendent and concentrated in its effort to exist in spite of every odd, meteorological, economical, or otherwise.
I pulled the truck up to a downtown coffee shop built in an old gas station. This slapped my slow, sleepy face as I thought of the building I have a line on in Fayetteville, Arkansas which is currently a muffler shop and could be a gorgeous coffee shop if ever I get my act together. I walked in and was greeted by the most glorious smells and cheerful people, and I immediately ordered a breakfast sandwich and pistachio coffee cake and a cortado and a coffee. I needed some help, and this was the best place to find it.
I took a seat at a high top community table, intending to write this story then instead of now, instead sitting and absorbing my surroundings. A pair of charming young French Canadian women sat next to me, two high school girls studying chemistry sat across the table. One of the Canadians pulled the cactus centerpiece towards her to take a photo of her beautiful cappuccino and the slightly-lost American succulents. In grabbing the glass bowl, it shattered explosively, no doubt stressed by too many Instagram moments and wild fluctuations in temperature. General chaos ensued as the girls sought bandages and tried to talk to us in more than single-word sentences. I did my best to understand a bit of French with my Spanish, and soon we produced an Army member who repeatedly tried to assure her it wasn’t as bad as it looked. I didn’t think it looked too bad, but there was a certain melodramatic French hysteria in our corner of the bustling café. I ate the egg sandwich and was born again, breaking a fourteen hour fast and a big-city hangover that doesn’t require a sip of alcohol to induce splitting migraine. And I’d had a couple of beers to fight off the biting cold and reintroduce myself to a normal lifestyle after taking my very last dose of citalopram two days prior.
I returned to the counter to compliment them and inquire after one of my favorite Austin acquaintances who I knew had moved back to his home state and worked for this same coffee shop. The barista enthusiastically told me that he was at their roastery location and would be glad to see me. So I hopped into the FJ and headed towards his shop, where I walked in with a smirky casualness. His face ran through about six expressions in a second, first routine hospitality then recognition then remembering where he was then remembering that I was from somewhere else then wondering why I was there then wondering if he was sure that he knew me then getting extremely excited. He stepped from behind the counter and shunned my mafia-style handshake-hug in favor of a full on bear squeeze.
I brought him up to speed—I’d sold my Volkswagen in Charlotte, driven a rented yellow Kia Soul to Manhattan then to Western Massachusetts then picked up the Land Cruiser that was now looming outside the window. In simplest terms, I am searching for moments like the one I was having with him, poking at people’s stories and surprising them with the basic effort of showing up. And while my life rarely operates on simplest terms, in this moment, Luke read between the lines like a seasoned consumer of literature and made me a coffee as we caught up.
I told him that I understood why he was here, even if I never asked all the reasons before or after he moved. When you listen closely and share deeply, the obvious questions are usually rendered obsolete. We spoke while he worked and enjoyed some extended, understanding pauses. A sharp young man walked in with a crew cut and fewer layers than most people. He took a seat near me at the small counter and overheard Luke and I discussing towns on the Northern Maine coast, which is paradoxically referred to as ‘Downeast.’ He asked if I was from there and offered up that he was in the Coast Guard.
“I definitely agree with him, Popham is great. Then there’s a place called Machias Island that you can take a ferry to and go see puffins.” I was gripped and quickly Googled this. Puffins are a certain type of universally-known, frigidly exotic seabird. Hearing that they roosted in the state I was in drove home just how different things had become as I drove north into the darkness the night before.
“It looks like the ferry only runs every eleven days this time of year,” I remarked. I quickly calculated what it might be like to spend eleven days on an island dozens of miles off the coast of Maine a few days after a massive blizzard. The faint dotted line where the road ended and the ferry route began stretched an impossible distance to the tiny island, where a single road continued from the port, meandered for a moment, then disappeared.
“Of course, you really need to go to Acadia. If you’re all the way up here, that’s just about the best spot.” The large green swath on Mount Desert Island loomed far north. It was further than driving from Austin to Fort Worth, straight north from what was already the furthest north I’d ever been on the Atlantic Coast. My pulse quickened. I’d seen the occasional photo of Acadia on the National Parks Service’s Instagram feed; beyond that, I knew nothing of this region. I frantically searched for an open inn that I could afford and that would welcome Hank. Meanwhile I strove to remain engaged with Luke and the Coast Guard gentleman who both continued to throw names of towns and beaches my way, all with names that I couldn’t discern how to spell or keep separate in my mind.
I found a place located in Bar Harbor, an Inn from a bygone era that was open year-round and accepted pets for a fee, and booked it on my phone while mapping out a route to Popham Beach State Park then Bar Harbor via scenic state highways and byways. There was a shocking amount of water infiltrating the map. Without even trying, it looked as if I’d cross at least twenty bridges in the next four or five hours. In a matter of minutes, I’d taken an old acquaintanceship to the next level, filled my thermos with one coffee too many, chatted with an active duty Maine Coast Guard, and picked a point on a map well over two hundred miles north, and signed up for the least amount of certainty I’ve experienced in quite a while. And that’s saying something.
Best of all, I felt better after staying up til two A.M., drinking a few beers and driving all day than I’d felt in months. The fewer chemicals and inane routines poisoning my brain, the easier it becomes to get out of bed and get excited about things like the way snow stacks itself atop handrails and errant bricks in one of the nation’s oldest and northernmost port towns.