Thursday, May 29, 2008

Lighthouse blitz: Three in a day

If you want to see several lighthouses in one manageable afternoon excursion, South Portland and Cape Elizabeth, Maine, is a good place to start. (Monmouth County, New Jersey, is as well, but I've already done that one.)

After catching a glimpse of Mt. Washington from the seventh-floor elevator lobby at our hotel, we drove down to Portland Head Light, perched along the rocky shore at Fort Williams Park. The location reminded me of Sandy Hook, with the lighthouse nestled in among the crumbling ruins of the former gunneries and batteries of an early-century military installation. With so many recreational options within the rather compact park -- vast lawns for frolicking, sunning or kiting; an inlet for mild water play; the lighthouse for nautical interest; the fort remains for military buffs -- there wasn't one part that was overly crowded. We encountered more people at the lighthouse than any other part of the park, but I suppose that's to be expected. It wasn't crowded in any sense, either.

Most intriguing was the hulking frame of Goddard Mansion, an 1858 estate built on a hill overlooking the sea and the lighthouse. Trees now shield the remains from a wide-open view of the horizon, but it's hard to miss the site upon entering the park. All that remains is the stone shell of the building, the windows and doors merely open frames (with those at ground level fenced off to prevent entry). It's a stark contrast to what it once was more than a hundred years ago.

History of the mansion (beyond what is written on that plaque at the site) seems scattered and limited, but until 1981, there was more there. On March 11 of that year, the Cape Fire Dept. burned the interior, presumably to remove the dangers inherent in a neglected, crumbling 123-year-old structure. Stripped as it is, it looks smaller, not quite a "mansion," but the potential is certainly there. Or was.

We cruised northward again, back toward Portland (into South Portland) and found the Breakwater Lighthouse, or Bug Light. It sits closer to downtown Portland than the others, a last warning for ships rounding the point on their way into the harbor. Despite the modest park and vast parking lot, it was still a rather quiet, serene spot. No ships came through and the folks who were on hand sat quietly in their cars or along the waterfront. I found that throughout the day -- despite not going anywhere remote or being truly alone, these ventures were generally peaceful, solitary explorations for us. Perhaps a post-Memorial Day Thursday isn't such a hot time for tourists in southern Maine.

The final stop -- and the point at which I realized I was probably getting a bit of a pinkish hue on my arms, neck and the tops of my flip-flopped adorned feet -- was the Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse, propped up at the end of a long jetty resting atop the Spring Point Ledge, which claimed many a ship in the 19th Century. The jetty -- or breakwater -- wasn't always there. It was added in 1951 (so says an online history).

Not knowing when I'd have this chance again, I had to make the trek out to the light itself. Had I known I'd be crossing the rocky equivalent of nearly three football fields -- with large gaps between the hunks of granite and a stiff wind blowing across the water -- when I got dressed in the morning, I would've worn socks and sneakers instead of flip-flops. As a result, I spent the trip out there focused on my footing and refusing to look to either side, or even back to Casey. "You had the car keys," she pointed out later, "so I'm glad you didn't fall in."

At the end, I felt alone, abandoned, marooned. Sure, the hopscotch path of rocks connected me to the mainland, but when I stepped beneath the lighthouse's overhang and behind it, I had nothing but Casco Bay in front of me and the black base of the light behind me. The route I had just traversed was no longer visible and, because of my focus, not too fresh in my mind. By putting blinders on to watch my footing, I didn't take in my surroundings, so in a way it was as if I'd transported myself to the light without making the long, windy walk. My nerves got the best of me, though, when I tried to complete the circuit around the base and I chickened out when I came upon the largest gap I'd encountered on the breakwater. With my camera around my neck and the backpack slung over my shoulders, I didn't feel confidence in my balance should I attempt the short leap -- in flip-flops, with the swirling wind. I managed to get far enough around to see the speck of Casey sitting on the shore, so I visually completed the circuit, but I was OK with the fact that I didn't make it those last 10 feet to make the imaginary red line of my route meet in a lasso around the light.

Before returning across the breakwater, I put my camera back in its bag and bounded like Q-bert back across the granite. Casey and I got back in the car and returned to Portland, taking a quick walk around the neighborhood and taking showers before heading off for drinks and dinner (chauffeured, again, by the hotel).

We, of course, made it back to our room in time for the season finale of Lost. Well worth it, too.

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