Saturday, August 06, 2011

Maine afternoons

Up is down

On our last evening in Maine, I spent half an hour wandering the fields, looking down. I waved at the long grass -- still five or six inches, bent over as if combed, with tufts of fresh-cut blades scattered in clumps -- with a wooden stake borrowed from one of my cousin's gardens. My uncle had spent part of the afternoon mowing his lawn, then ducking through a short stand of trees into the neighbor's field to cut some of the grass in front of their guest cabin. And somewhere along the way, he had lost the ignition key to his John Deere riding mower, a farm version with a license plate and headlights that he's had for probably 20 years. There are photos of me sitting on it, reading Cars and Trucks and Things That Go while my mom cut my hair. I couldn't have been more than 10. But somewhere along his route that afternoon, my uncle John had knocked the key from the ignition. The tractor continued purring along, but when John went to turn it off back by his driveway, his hands came up empty, so he stalled it and decided he'd figure out the key problem later.

So while John, his daughter Kate and her boyfriend, Rich, were back in their yard, tending to her gardens, I took it upon myself to see if I could find the key. I didn't particularly feel like digging around in the gardens (and without knowing what I was doing, someone would've had to instruct my every move, which probably would've been annoying for them, too). So while Casey sat by the house and read, John put a James Taylor record on his turntable, pivoted his large speakers to face out the windows, and cranked the volume so they'd have music out in the yard. It carried over to me as I scanned the neighbor's field.

The afternoon soon melted into those August Maine days from my childhood. Crickets chirped up a soundtrack (one that -- not for the first time, but for the first time outside -- was augmented by the folk stylings of Mr. Taylor) as the sun sunk lower in the west and painted the pines in a golden tint. I thought of how I used to find the path down through the woods to the river dark and terrifying, especially in the late afternoon when the canopy turned the woods dark before dusk had even begun. But when I got older, I'd often take walks down that path by myself, then turn left, following the path along the river until the flora closed in, then turn left again, heading back up the hill, bushwhacking my way back toward the house, though not along any known path -- or even knowing where I was headed. I just knew that I'd eventually, at worst, hit the road not far from the driveway and be able to find my way back.

But it never came to that. No matter how far along the river I walked, once I turned to head in the direction of the house and open field, I always seemed to emerge at the top of a short but steep slope that led down into a small gravel pit at the end of a second -- but rarely used -- driveway. I guess more than a usable driveway, it was more a wider, longer path leading from the road that contained no rocks or trees and was big enough for a car to maneuver.

I thought of those days as I criss-crossed the field, head down, scanning the path of the tractor for the strand of red string my uncle said might be attached to the tractor's key. Nothing against my family, but some of my favorite moments in Maine always were -- and, for brief moments, sometimes still are -- those when I'm alone and unplugged. No phone (we can't get cell service at the house anyway), no TV (we rarely watch anything during visits there). We'll still use the internet, now that they have it -- on an unsecured network because there are no other houses within range, so anyone trying to access it would have to be in view of the house -- and music is always an option. But I don't always need music; I'm happy to stroll along with the soundtrack of the forest and fields.

So not only was my perambulation soothing to my soul and psyche, but it was fruitful in my search as well. The one last section I had to explore was a path John cut parallel to the stand of trees separating the neighbors' field from his. It was a simple down-and-back to the thicker forest, a lane as wide as two tractor widths. I followed it to the circular clearing at the end -- not unlike a dead-end street -- and eyed the indentations of the tires, noting the steep angle in one section formed by a subterranean rock. And then, just when I thought my quest was about to come up empty, I saw a flat, yellow plastic tag -- precisely the type of key fob you'd get for free from a car or tractor dealership. Attached to it was a small, slightly rusted key that certainly looked like it might start a tractor. I flipped the tag over in my hand and saw the name and address of the local John Deere dealer.

My quest complete, I returned to the gardens and asked John if he was sure the key had a red string attached, or if it might be a light yellow key ring from the John Deere dealer. His eyes lit up when I held it out, a look of relief that he'd not have to dig up the tractor's VIN (or some other ID) to have a new key made.

A few minutes later, the gardeners finished their work and we traipsed down to the river to wash up for dinner. The beauty of a Maine summer is the ability for four people to put on bathing suits, wade into the river and use the all-natural soap and shampoo my family keeps on the bank to rinse off after a sweaty afternoon. After washing up and briefly enjoying the flowing amber water, we were on our way back up the hill to change for dinner, everyone ready in half an hour. Such a satisfying way of life.

Friday, August 05, 2011

A perfect Maine day

Amazingly, even after beginning with a chocolate croissant breakfast, this day continued to get better. From the Village Bakery and Cafe to a farmers' market in Damariscotta where my cousin was manning a tent, we then headed down to Pemaquid Point, home of the best lighthouse in America. I didn't even spend that much time traipsing across the rocks, looking for different photo angles. We got some good early shots, then settled our backs against a properly slanted slab of granite and watched the waves crash along the coast. Later, after we'd moved further town toward the point, I noticed a seal poking his head up out of the surf. He bobbed there for about a minute -- before we could switch to our telephoto lenses -- then disappeared again into the depths, swimming off in search of lunch.

After our own lunch on the dock at Shaw's, we came back to the house for a leisurely afternoon (a nap and some reading) before getting dinner under way. For some, fresh lobsters boiled on the stove; for others, spaghetti with sauce and meatballs made from local sources -- meat bought down the street, basil, garlic and parsley from the garden in the yard and sauce made by my cousin from her tomatoes.

And perhaps the best part of it all? While this was all being prepared, we put on some of my uncle's records for background atmosphere, beginning with Darkness on the Edge of Town. It's rare enough that we listen to albums/CDs/mp3s in order as it is, but to hear Darkness; Crosby, Stills and Nash; Rumours and The Kinks on vinyl, with side breaks and crackling and popping -- yet still in wonderful stereo -- made for a perfect night. I can't think of a better setting to appreciate the opening chords of "Badlands," the Side 1 finale of "Racing in the Street," the splendid Side 2 opening of "The Promised Land" and the album finale of "Darkness on the Edge of Town" than a cool Maine summer night.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

In the land of rocks

These series of posts from Maine are simple, end-of-day spontaneous recollections. By "jotting" down these outlines, I hope to come back to revisit them for more detailed accounts, at least for some particular points of the trip. I figured if I manage to do this much each night, I'll be more apt to follow up in a few days.

Another day spent in places I've been before, but with new twists. With Casey's stomach as a guide (to put it in the most general terms), we started the day with an early lunch at Home Kitchen Cafe in Rockland. From there we drove out to the breakwater, which allowed access to the lighthouse in the harbor -- after a walk of nearly a mile along the huge granite blocks placed some 130 years ago in the harbor to provide safe passage -- and, well, harbor -- for ships.

Out at the lighthouse -- which was not open today -- other folks took a break on the benches and walked around the base, taking photos. On the east side, the carcass of a harbor seal lay rotting, parts of it already ripped away by carnivorous birds, but its torso mainly intact. Up on the deck, which looked out back across the length of the breakwater, one couple sat eating their lunch, taking the time to enjoy themselves out a the lighthouse before beginning the careful walk back. We spent maybe 15 or 20 minutes taking photos before beginning our return trek. And with that, I checked another lighthouse off my list.

Following the walk along the breakwater, the natural next step was to visit Owl's Head Light, a more remote beacon nestled into a woodsy cliff further east from the harbor. The walk along the gravel path was less than half a mile (and probably less than a quarter, one-way) and a much more leisurely experience all around.

We then returned to downtown Rockland, parking along Main St. -- just past Lobsterfest at Harbor Park -- and strolled the retail strip, window shopping, browsing in antiques shops and other stores. After asking more of our credit cards, we drove north along the coast to Rockport, an even smaller harborside community that was once the home to Andre, a rather famous harbor seal in these parts. I remember visiting Andre some 30 summers ago, hoping that when we went down to the water's edge in the harbor, he'd be "home" and pop his head up inside his enclosure (which was open and allowed him to come and go as he pleased). Not much has changed with Rockport Harbor, except my eating habits and the opening of Shepherd's Pie, which turned out to be an exquisite dining experience. After dinner, we took some time to walk around the park on the other side of the harbor, stopping by the statue of Andre and reading about the ruins of the limestone kilns still standing against the rocky wall.

And the best part about the day was that we barely faced any rain -- only a brief shower while we were on the road out at the beginning of our day. Back in Whitefield, my uncle said, they'd had some rain in the morning and more in the late afternoon -- evidence of which we saw on our way back, along a still-saturated Route 17.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Riverside discovery

Today was spent in Freeport, shopping. Nothing too exciting to write about there.

But when we returned to Whitefield, Casey and I took a walk down through the woods to the river. I hadn't been in a long time -- five, six years maybe -- when the stroll used to be a near-daily occurrence on my annual family trips. Fishing, swimming, tubing or (in late spring when the flow is still high enough) canoeing. I thought about taking a dip, but it was already six o'clock and I wanted to take a quick visit, then come back and pop open a beer and sit around chatting until dinner.

When we got there, we stepped down the bank to the riverbed, the two or three feet of rocks on the shore between the water and the 5-, 6-foot high "bluff." We watched toads hop into the tall grass and looked up and down the river as the afternoon light shone on the trees on the opposite bank. I scouted out a few flat stones and skipped them across the surface, trying to get the perfect trajectory and speed to skip one clear across (couldn't do it in the half-dozen throws today, and I'm not sure it's ever been done).

At one point while looking for a good, flat stone, I looked a little higher than my feet, at a spot on the little bluff maybe even with my thighs. What appeared to be a rather uniformly round rock, nestled under a slightly eroded overhang, caught my eye. I then noticed that one end of it was really flat, so I reached for it and immediately upon grasping it felt its weight. That's when I realized it was manmade, an iron weight of some sort. At its top -- the flat side was the bottom -- a hoop is attached, perhaps the last link in what had been a chain. It could very well be an old anchor, a weight to keep a canoe in place on the river. It may have been used for something else.

I took a few pictures and showed them to my uncle when we got back to the house. He was intrigued and told me of an iron ring hammered into a rock a little bit up the river. He wondered if the ring in the rock had once been part of a log dam or perhaps even a suspended footbridge. Perhaps this weight was related. He asked if it might have been uncovered by the erosion of the bank by the river. I was too unsure to answer yes, but not convinced either could be discounted, either. I told him I'd only moved it a few inches and stood it upright; otherwise, it was in nearly the same place I had found it. I'm sure he'll be looking for it the next time he's down there.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Times change

I know the way to Maine like the roads in my hometown. Not just the I-95 north part, but the exit to the midcoast, the stretch of gas stations in Brunswick, the turn toward Bath, the Taste of Maine restaurant afterward. And, finally, the left turn onto Route 218 and the last 11 miles to my aunt and uncle's house. I have an inner GPS, a homing signal that can lead me here each summer.

Only, doing it at night, in the fog, and I somehow missed the driveway -- yet I knew it right away. Whoops.

Tomorrow, I'll take stock of the place in the daylight.