Darkness, Light, and a Sunset in Maine

Maine is an otherworldly place, though it’s very much a place in this world. Indeed, driving a few hours north of Boston puts you in this northernmost continental state where the ocean freezes in the wintertime and wealthy Nor’Easterners flood its coastal hamlets in the summer. As I pulled out of Portland, the temperature was a promising thirty degrees with the sun shining and the winds a bit less bitter than the days prior. I charted a course towards Popham Beach State Park and then Acadia National Park via Maine’s own Highway 1, the Coastal Route that zigs and zags and weaves and traverses its way northeast along the coastline. I found it interesting, if not useful, that Maine and California both prominently feature Highway Ones, both of which seem to contain some sort of primary promise in their naming conventions.

That is about where the similarities end, though. In California, Highway 1 is a narcissistic and obvious endeavor—it is gaudy with its beauty, its multi-dozen-million-dollar houses, its traffic, and its cliché definition of beauty for those who must be instructed what is beautiful. In Maine, Route 1 is a stubborn, humble squiggle that curls over, under, and around the infinite inlets of this watery coast. The towns are old, pleasant, and consistent. They still function as Main Street Towns, safely insulated from becoming tourist attraction shells of their former selves by seasonality and the few scattered outposts that are extra-magnetic to Bostonites.

The first town I came to along Route 1 was Freeport, Maine, whose claim to fame is that it’s the founding home of L.L. Bean, the brand built on a region’s weather and its inhabitants’ necessities. I expected to see a quaintly enlarged version of an original L.L. Bean outpost, but instead I was greeted with something of a Northeastern, snowy version of an outlet mall wedged onto Freeport’s Main Street. L.L. Bean controlled four or five blocks on the west side of the street, while every storefront on the east side was occupied by surprisingly cosmopolitan brands who wanted to cash in on the open wallets of curious travelers. We made haste escaping Freeport, where things immediately returned to normal quietude and blessedly sparse traffic.

Maine is a robust state, whose inhabitants are glad for the stark beauty and the weather it dishes out. Subzero temperatures are a much better buffer than agéd stigma, thus these dreamy towns are immune to the same sort of gold rush frenzy now striking the Southern states that formerly had a reputation for being too backwards for Yankees and West Coasters. Aside from the brave spring breakers whose cold tolerance was bolstered by a lifetime in Boston or New Haven, Maine was unintimidatingly empty. In some sparse places, intrusion feels a bit provocative; in this one, you feel like another tree in the woods or another smiling cherub in a slicker and a stocking cap.

Nowhere was this truer than Popham Beach, where my three layers and beanie were no match for the outfits of the locals, of which, everyone else on the beach was. And there were a surprising dozen or so of them spread across the beach, many enjoying the penultimate weekend before dogs are no longer allowed on the beach for tourist season. Every one of them was either dressed like a fisherman on Deadliest Catch or strolling casually sans hat, appearing impervious to the stiff Atlantic wind that assaulted us relentlessly. Aside from that, it was a lovely day on the beach, dogs frolicking and deeply blue water crashing on the sandy shore while snow rested on the ground behind us and the rocky islands in front of us.

Hank made quick work out of befriending a dog named Belle, which was a perfect segue for me to befriend her owners, Mike and Susan. They were in the camp of locals dressed like diehard wintertime fishermen, both be-galoshed and wearing hooded jackets that appeared stiff in their weatherproof insulation. These outfits rendered them somewhat similar to the lobsters they looked like they were ready to catch and undoubtedly ate lots of—stiff movements and clunky limbs and silhouettes that appeared neckless. They were friendly and curious and we spoke a bit about my trip and the reason for being there.

This moment turned out to be a subtle turning point in the narrative. Since picking up the Land Cruiser and having a hilarious Saint Paddy’s Day that was blessedly free of self-awareness sabotaging my enjoyment, I now presented the trip as not just a salve for the pained brain clanging around in my head but also as a concerted effort to rediscover the simple joys that make me who I am and thusly make me worth spending any time around.

They both loved this, and when I mentioned that I was a writer, they first asked what kind, which is always a painful question to try to answer. After hacking my way through a response, they pieced together enough clues to ask, “Like Bill Bryson?”

“Kind of.”

To be fair, I actually alluded to him in my writing about Centralia last week. And if more people made that comparison more often, maybe I’d be getting somewhere with this whole driving-around-and-writing-about-whatever-strikes-my-fancy thing. Once we’d established some common ground about what it is that I do, Mike delved into my favorite type of travel talk. He began throwing suggestions for other places to go out at a dozen miles a minute. A lighthouse here, a black sand beach there, a town that has great lobster but only in the summertime, an old bridge, a fork you should stay left at, a roundabout you should exit at the first right. He was extremely exact about some street names and looked to Susan for help with the names of other towns. “You know, the one with the lighthouse?”
Somehow, she did know.

We hit the Coast Route towards Bar Harbor and I took some of Mike and Susan’s suggestions for detours along the way. Driving northward from the furthest north point I’d been in the Continental United States amplified the exotic, unfamiliarity. The thick woods thickened. The ice floes also thickened, until the harbors were frozen solid and I was forced to consider that the freezing point of saltwater hovers somewhere around 28.4 degrees. The depths of the blue ocean and the green trees and the white snow all deepened until the world felt like an oversaturated caricature of itself. I stopped often and made slow progress because everything was so deeply foreign that I wondered if I’d see anything else like it ever again. Sure enough, the next bridge or port town had some detail that augmented the last without rendering it irrelevant. It was a symphony of complementary elements that conspired to create a stunning sense of place in the way that only passing through a place by backroads can.

And then, I crossed the final bridge that placed me on Mount Desert Island and the sun began to set in earnest. Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park is the first point in the United States to see the sun most mornings of the year, which means that it’s geographically disadvantaged when it comes to sunsets. Maine seems to have missed the memo, though—the fact that the sun sets distantly behind the mainland only renders the colorful gradient in non-point-source panorama. I was racing the clock to check into our quaint inn before the office closed at seven PM while also racing to find a vantage point to soak in the sunset. I was a type of open-mouthed awed that I haven’t felt in a long time, and it was rejuvenating to feel so thoroughly gob smacked by something as simple and beautiful as the sunset.

The young lady at the counter was understanding of my rush and became flustered going through the paperwork because she so endorsed my mission. She was utterly sympathetic of my need to see the sunset, though it was clear that hurrying is not common on the Island. I was mostly curious about what sort of biography leads one to be working the desk at a small inn in Bar Harbor, Maine while there are two feet of snow on the ground and one of the most splendid sunsets ever witnessed happening outside. I didn’t have time to find out, though: the sun was setting whether I was present to watch it or not. I thanked her for the key and she finished telling me where my room was as I walked out the front door. She was younger than me and carried herself with a level of casualness that always intrigues me when I arrive in such radically new and remote places.

The sunset’s zenith was imminent, so I pointed the Cruiser towards the water and hoped I’d find an access point. Sure enough, the somnolent neighborhood street I was on ended at a public-access beach. And the three foot tall snowbank the plows had pushed to the end made a perfect ramp for scaling the knee-high boulders intended to prevent yahoos like me from driving onto the beach. So I backed up, engaged 4WD-Lo, and crawled up and over the snowbank and down onto the beach. It was preposterously perfect. Hank and I sat on the roof and stared at the sunset drooling then kicked around the rocky beach surface and felt the frigid water as sunset faded to black.

It was another moment in which I lost myself to senses and stresses, forgot that the temperature had dropped ten degrees in the last twenty minutes, didn’t care that there probably weren’t any restaurants open in Bar Harbor, had no traces of the vague and consuming pain that recently almost killed me. It was not escapism but the epitome of Joseph Campbell’s hypothesis on “following your bliss.” Less new-age gobbledygook and more an urgent encouragement to make sure you’re totally alive before trying to do anything else, this moment was as transformative as the time I sat on a park bench in New Orleans and realized I had to be a writer.