Monday, May 26, 2008

Acadian drifting

Acadia is the first national park east of the Mississippi River and is the only national park in the Northeast. There are dozens of places under the National Park Service's jurisdiction, but they're all National Historic Sites, National Historical Parks, and National Seashores, Recreation Areas, Monuments and the like. If you're looking for a vast, protected, wild and remote park along the lines of Yellowstone, Yosemite, Big Bend or Great Smoky Mountains, Acadia is it in the Northeast. (The NPS includes Virginia in the Northeast Region, but when most people say "northeast," they're not thinking of anything south of Maryland -- if that. Personally, I'd put Virginia in the mid-Atlantic region.)

It's also probably the first national park I visited. Somewhere along the way, on one of those childhood Augusts in Maine, Mom and Dad decided to make the long drive there and back in a day. They probably still have a picture of my sister and me along that rocky coast. I remember the stop at Thunder Hole, too, which, in my mind, was active that day. Johnny, despite his 30-something years living in Maine, doesn't think he's ever seen it crashing and frothing the way it does at its peak.

My last visit there was four or five years ago, when my sister, our cousin Christine and I drove up there and hiked the 3-mile trail around Jordan Pond. We also took the short but steep path up The Bubbles, which took our breath away on the climb -- as I was on all fours, reaching for a handhold on a rock on a particularly vertical part of the path, I wondered if I was really in such terrible physical shape -- and then again at the top. While Casey and I repeated the Jordan Pond hike, I wasn't about to force her up there (and I wasn't so excited about it myself), so we continued around the pond, covering the 3.2 miles in about 90 minutes.

We skipped the drive up Cadillac Mountain to see if Thunder Hold was active, but it was anything but. The sea was quite calm and a dozen people stood along the rail looking down into the hole, perhaps wondering what it was they were supposed to be seeing. We continued around the park loop road and made our way to Bass Harbor.

I've seen dozens of pictures of the Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse and always wanted to see it for myself. It didn't disappoint -- a small, sturdy sentinel set in a remote point at the southernmost point of Mt. Desert Island. I only disappointed myself, not noticing the path at the eastern end of the parking lot that would've taken us to the east side of the light to get the view that is seen in many of the photos of the point that have been published. It reminded me of the Cape Meares Lighthouse in Oregon, which Matt, Dave and I visited on a quiet, calm August evening several years ago -- before any of us were married or even knew our current wives (at least that way, since Dave had known Mandy, but hadn't dated her yet). It would've been another quiet seaside visit to a remote outpost were it not for the obnoxious teens who were blatantly ignoring the signs about keeping off the grass and screaming and laughing as if it were their backyard. (And if, by chance, one of them is the spawn of the current inhabitants of the living quarters, then damn, I'm jealous.)

Bass Harbor Light became the beginning of a lighthouse odyssey I did not foresee becoming a chapter of this trip. I figured we'd get to Bass Harbor, Pemaquid and Portland Head. But in researching Portland Head (myself) and lobster rolls (Casey), we discovered three others that we incorporated into the trip. The final tally after five mornings in Maine was six lighthouses: one each on Monday and Tuesday, three on Thursday and another on Friday. (Not counting the one in the lobby of Portland's Eastland Park Hotel and the two or three others we saw scattered around Portland. Or the Lighthouse Depot in Wells.)

That evening, we walked into town, exploring Bar Harbor beyond the Thirsty Whale. We sampled the Bar Harbor Brewing Co.'s concoctions (not to be confused with the larger Atlantic Brewing Co., also on Mt. Desert Island) and added it to our itinerary for the next morning, when we'd be stopping at a few stores to pick up some things we didn't want to lug around with us the rest of the night. We got ice cream and explored Geddy's kitsch (buying a few license plates and reigniting the collecting bug in me; I'm now scouring eBay for any plates depicting lighthouses) in the basement shop before going upstairs to eat at the bar. Fabulous pizzas -- ricotta, pesto, onion and garlic for me; clam pizza (actually better than Frank Pepe's in New Haven) for Casey -- and a bathroom designation to remember.

We adored Bar Harbor. A town compact enough to be traversable without wearing yourself out, it still provides plenty of variety in shops, restaurants and bars. There was lodging aplenty, and I'd go back every May if I could, beating the crowds and enjoying the idyllic town on the cusp of the high season, rather than in the midst of it. We were also early enough -- or coastal enough -- to not even think of the black flies. If there were any, they didn't find us. From what the bartenders told us, mid-June is when the pace starts to pick up, and the Fourth of July is the true start of their summer season. New Jersey's tourist season runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day; Maine's starts around the Fourth and -- my guess is -- finishes up around Columbus Day, after the leaf peepers have departed to chase the color south.

Mt. Desert Island isn't far from the Maineland (get it?), and if not for the name, you might not even notice it is an island. Yet with Bar Harbor as its hub -- capital, county seat, etc. -- the protected wilderness at its center and some of the far reaches, and the scenic coast encompassing it all, it reminded me a bit of Nantucket. MDI is far enough up there (nine hours from NYC, after all) to be as remote as the island two hours by ferry (well, car ferry) off of Cape Cod. And I love Nantucket. If I had the money for my own plane, I'd park it at Teterboro and jet up to MDI once a month, using it as a vacation getaway the way the Rockefellers, Astors and the like did in the 1800s.

Or so I like to think.

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