A Bar at the End of the World

(back to regularly scheduled programming in the Maine series)
Road trips force upon the traveler a veritable phantasmagoria of sights, sounds, and smells. The more time you spend on the road, in and out of the car, the more songs the radio plays, the more towns and forests and roadkill and signs you see, the more farms and sea breezes and oil refineries you smell. It all combines to create these oddly specific yet implacable memories, and behind a brain that still moves a tick slower than it used to, it creates a cinematic effect soaked in through slack-key brain time. Behind the wheel of an old truck, you’re content to move slowly and deliberately, to stop often and cruise slowly, to listen to wind and tire noise and music and talk radio in somewhat equal doses.

And between country’s ubiquity as this nation’s most-broadcast genre and my recent preference for nostalgia real or imagined, I find myself listening to the comforting twang and harmonies of remembered artists’ new singles. There are a few songs which seem to turn into leitmotifs as the miles and months roll by, and a recent one is Kenny Chesney’s new power-single ‘Bar at the End of the World.’ It’s mostly a song about grabbing a few cold ones and getting in a boat somewhere Jimmy Buffet might frequent, but it’s more generally a song in that familiar Chattanooga voice about finding deliciously simple respite in a quiet nook somewhere far from civilization, and thus, worries.

It’s just the kind of simple song that the old me might’ve decried because it implied some lack of self-awareness or fraternizing with the same folk who used to call me crass names because I don’t eat meat and did have long hair in a city known colloquially as ‘Cowtown,’ but I’ve since let that go and embraced the in-betweens and dichotomies intrinsic in every aspect of life. Something about being a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll.
On my drive from Portland to Bar Harbor, the song played at least three or four times across the few stations I was able to pick up in the middle of the woods with a misbehaving antenna. That’s an average of about once every hour and a half of clock time. Which is just enough to render your brain slightly hypnotized by the excess of driving and coffee and the dearth of quality sleep.

After arriving in Bar Harbor and watching the sunset until well past dark, Hank and I returned to our cozy inn to warm our toes while I figured out where to go to dinner. I found a few promising-sounding spots and decided to walk, indulging in my prime Main Street location and the town’s general quaintness. The first restaurant I arrived at was totally dark, a crinkled 8 ½ x 11 sheet of paper printed with the words:

Riding the high from the drive and the sunset, I didn’t despair at all and instead chuckled a bit at how delightfully casual this town was. It’s called Bar Harbor and very much felt like it was the end of the world. In many ways, it is. Acadia National Park’s Cadillac Mountain is the first point in the United States to see sunlight most mornings of the year. Mount Desert Island is across a bridge from mainland Maine, itself the furthest Northeast state in this massive Union.

The streets were gloriously empty and quiet, the darkness total, the glow of lights all refreshingly dim and incandescent. A young couple strolled past with their giant dog and said hello, as if such infrequently-interrupted solitude were the comfortable norm and not some novelty. I slid a last-second “Howdy” in as I walked by. I decided to weave through the few illuminated blocks and go wherever the people were, if there were any.
And indeed, within minutes, I stumbled upon The Thirsty Whale, a blessed dive bar that stays open year-round but only serves as the local watering hole in the non-summer months. It was evident by the way eyeballs traced my entrance and the fact that several people inside were wearing T-shirts to my triple-layered flannel/vest/puffy jacket that I was the only non-native in the bar. I took a seat and wasn’t even dealt a menu for a while, a gracious gesture by the bartender who wanted me to feel a bit more like a regular who knew what I wanted without looking.

And, in a way, I did know. A local dark beer, a veggie burger, and sweet potato fries. A brief glance at the menu confirmed that such a meal was possible here, and I ordered it in haste and settled in with my beer to survey the dozen or so people who were inside. The space amplified their voices enough that it felt downright raucous amongst the two TVs showing March Madness games, and the building was as-expected for a place called The Thirsty Whale. That Kenny Chesney song slipped back into my brain, a symphony of ringing lead guitar and the type of place where the glasses are always full, there are signed dollar bills on the wall, the word ‘bar’ which applied to the town and establishment I found myself in, and the end of the world, which seemed an apropos descriptor for my whereabouts.

I’ve grown accustomed to the improbable happening with regularity, so it was no surprise when a dignified woman who could only be described as Meryl Streep’s more approachable sister walked through the front door wearing a rounded furry hat that all Americans identify as ‘Russian,’ the frigid gusty wind sweeping all of her features through the door as she entered. She was older but almost uncomfortably youthful and attractive underneath her years, not gaudy or faux in the slightest but genetically blessed in a way that no amount of resveratrol or sunscreen can imitate. She took a seat at the bar caddy corner from me while I dipped my fries in some sort of ketchup that was not Heinz 57. This alone tipped me off that this wasn’t the type of bar that Jimmy Buffet might frequent, but I couldn’t shake that anthemic chorus from the depths of my brain.

The giant mural of the Thirsty Whale behind me spouted and grinned. The happenings inside felt voraciously vivacious in light of the circumstances beyond the front door. Madeline, a friend and fellow writer with uncannily similar sensibilities had noticed a photo I shared of the Thirsty Whale and remarked “I think every bar in Maine is called the Thirsty Whale.” I’d had the same thought milliseconds prior, and responded with, “Probably true in Alaska, too.” Of course, I’d already been to two bars in Maine not called The Thirsty Whale, but something about this place exists in a constant counterfactual statement.

As this unfolded, the woman two seats away had ordered a Jack Daniels mixed with something or another which was served to her in a martini-esque glass and also requested that the Florida vs. Virginia basketball game be turned on the TV. I immediately pegged her as a Virginia type, though after a few more fries, I asked,

“Who are we pulling for?”
“Florida,” she said through a demure smirk. “I teach there now and it’s my alma mater.”
“Wow, that’s a heck of a reverse migration. From Florida to North Maine in the wintertime!”
“Oh, I’m from Chicago, I absolutely adore the snow.” As she spoke, she invoked a bygone era both in time and in her life, as though she ignored the advances of time on her body and the world around her. Her eyes twinkled as she looked vaguely towards something between my face and the television behind me. So here was the lone other tourist in Bar Harbor, who was here for several days, who was unsettling in her sensuality and tranquility.
“You don’t happen to take American Express, do you?” she asked the bartender.
“I’m afraid not.”
“Okay, well do you mind if I walk back to my hotel at halftime to get my other cards?”

I was tempted to pick up her tab, but finances slowly began to figure increasingly into my considerations as days passed and my insistence on experiencing everything possible made my blissful denial of money’s power in the world a less effective budgeting tool. Instead I sipped from the foamy head of my Maine-brewed stout beer and watched the interaction out of the tops of my eyes.

“So what are you doing here?” she asked with simultaneous laser focus on me and the game behind me.

“I’m on a road trip with my dog, Hank, just exploring wherever we need to from Texas to here and back again. I was in a couple of bad accidents last year and I decided to quit my jobs and figure out who I am and where I belong and what I should be doing.”
“Well, where’s Hank?”
I walked over to her side of the bar and flipped through a few photos of him on my phone, especially the one of him sampling Guinness in Portland the night prior. “Are dogs allowed here?” she asked the bartender.
“They are not unfortunately. I wish they were, personally!”

She was captivated by the details of my story but still managed to clap and keep running commentary on the game.

We exchanged a few more musings on dogs and traveling alone before she donned her Russia Hat and headed out to fetch her American Express. I was tempted to order another beer and sit at the bar until the conclusion of the game, but I was tired and suddenly stingy and felt that I’d be more satisfied if I dwelled in the mystery of Katherine from Florida via Chicago from the comfort of my incandescent room with Hank.

I returned to the inn and walked around with Hank in the crisp and quiet night. Next door was a warm-looking house that had clearly been on the Island about as long as any building. Globe lights were strung in the backyard, and the kitchen was full of people as was the backyard and back building. A Saturday night party warmly glowing and laughing in the snow of Bar Harbor, Maine, the icy crunch of deep snow beneath my feet, Hank’s collar jingling as he walked with his head extended forward in curious, tentative progress through the cold night. We headed back into the room and debated waking up at three thirty AM to catch the sunrise at Cadillac Mountain. The radiator clanged as it warmed the room, which clearly was not frequented in the wintertime. The bartender at the Thirsty Whale had dissuaded me from hiking steep mountains in these conditions and instead suggested exploring the coastline and flat trails of Acadia with Hank. I relish having my explorative solitude guided by the suggestions of strangers, so I set my alarm for sunrise and prepared for a day of uncertainty.