Down the Atlantic Coast: Maine

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So many writers come up with historic, geographic or cultural quests. Follow the trail taken by Lewis and Clark, visit all the sites associated with Henry David Thoreau, climb all the mountains in the Presidential range, drive Route 1 from Fort Kent, ME to Key West, walk the Applachian trail. I read one book where the writer visited the homes of famous people, collected and propagated seeds from the properties. His collection of trees was finally taken over by a non profit.

My best friend JP from Bristol, Pa set a goal to visit all the Bristols in the country; he also drank at 68 craft breweries, the year he turned 68. I believe he is currently visiting all the Presidential Libraries. To-date JP hasn’t written a book.

Last week I re-read “The Coast: a journey down the Atlantic Shore” by Joseph Thorndike. He lived on Cape Cod and decided to walk around the shore of the Cape. But he failed, there were too many harbors, marshes and other breaks. He scaled back and retraced Thoreau’s trek along Great Beach in 1849. (I did read the journal of a guy who successfully navigated the coastline of Manhattan.) Then Thorndike decided to travel down the Atlantic Coast, ME to the Keys.

Although I don’t think I’m going to follow Thorndike on the coastal tour or write a book, I thought it would be interesting to develop a wish list of places to visit along the coast and to recall those that are part of my experience. “Way down east,” Quoddy Head Light and Campobello Island (FDRs summer home) would be a places I would like to visit.

We’ve only gone as far as Arcadia National Park and Bar Harbor. Our first trip was in the 1970s and my strongest memory is horseback riding on one of the carriage roads built by Rockafeller. When he donated the land for a park he stipulated: no cars for so many years. The Park service has continued the policy. On our last trip we decided to take a carriage ride. Our driver mentioned that David Rockafeller still sometimes seen riding in  a carriage. A little later, as if on cue,  the driver announced, “And here’s David Rockefeller’s carriage. A guy riding on the back hopped off to steady the horses as the carriages passed; I quickly snapped a photograph of David, in his 90s, the last of his, the second generation.

Like Newport and Palm Beach, Bar Harbor was founded as a summer resort for the wealthy. We have never been impressed with the town. We stopped and walked around several years ago but found few shops and no restaurants that interested us. That trip we were staying on the southern part of Mount Desert Island called Southwest Harbor (Bar Harbor in in the northern end of the Island.) it’s a quieter town, close to the Park, without the fading pretension of Bar Harbor.

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We have special memories of the peninsula just south, Blue Hill. In the early 1970s after reading Helen and Scott Nearing’s “The Maple Sugar Book” and “Living the Good Life” I wrote them asking if we could visit. Scott had been an Economics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, fired for socialist beliefs. In the 1930s  Helen (a musician) and Scott bought land in Vermont to homestead. Maple sugar was their cash crop.  When the ski industry exploded in the 60s they moved to Harborside on the Blue Hill peninsula. The Pagliones, my father, Diane and I drove up to visit them in the early 1970s. They had become gurus of the “back to the earth movement.”  There were many  visitors; few had written ahead.

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In the early 70s, the Nearings were building a new stone house, gardening (vegetarians), raising blueberries as a small cash crop, and becoming an attraction in seashore Maine. The property next to theirs was being farmed by a young Eliot Coleman who would became a leading spokesman for the organic food movement. As we gathered seaweed for fertilizer and cut firewood, Scott encouraged us to visit Coleman. Visitors to the Nearings were sort of welcomed (don’t think Helen liked it a lot) but they were put to work. Some stayed for days; others bought nearby property. When we left we stopped to see Coleman’s organic farm.

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             Nearing House.

About 7 years ago, my son-in-law’s band, Cabin Dogs,  was invited to play at the Blue Hill Festival. They camped; Diane and I stayed in a B and B for several days. The Nearings were both dead (Scott was in his 90s when we visited) but their property and buildings they constructed with volunteer help were now The New Life Center. We walked around but the staff were all at the Festival. We did talk to them there. Such fond memories.

We also stopped next door and as we toured “Four Seasons” (Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch’s farm), Eliot came out of the farmhouse. Much to Diane’s chagrin, I approached Eliot and told him about our visit in the 1970s when he was just getting started. I don’t think he was impressed but I was so pleased to renew with a place and individual that had influenced my life beliefs. At home I ordered a Coleman organic gardening book. I also discovered a book, “Living Next to the Good Life” by Jean Hay Bright. She and her husband had visited like us but ended up buying a piece of land from Helen and Scott. Her account of them is pretty critical at times.

We had other associations with Blue Hill.

“One early fall morning in 1949, E.B. White walked into the barn of his farm in Maine and saw a spider web. That in itself was nothing new, but this web, with its elaborate loops and whorls that glistened with early morning dew, caught his attention. Weeks passed until one cold October evening when he noticed that the spider was spinning what turned out to be an egg sac. White never saw the spider again and, so, when he had to return later that fall to New York City to his job as a regular contributor to The New Yorker magazine, White took out a razor blade and cut the silken egg sac out of the web. He put the sac in an empty candy box, punched some holes in it, and absent-mindedly put the box atop his bedroom bureau in New York.”

Michael Sims, the author of “The Story of Charlotte’s Web” reveals how that spider became the inspiration for a delightful children’s book. (See NPRs Maureen Corrigan’s, “How E.B. White spun Charlotte’s Web.”) For years White had a house, lived and wrote, in Brooklin, on Blue Hill Bay. It’s written that White didn’t like visitors.

As we drove around we stumbled on a local historical society; it was opened; staffed by a friendly local. We spent quite a bit of time looking at artifacts and talking with our guide when Diane noticed a sign, “Condon’s Garage.”  Our new friend quickly informed us that it was the real sign and Bookesville was just down the road. We were off to check it out.

One of our favorite children’s authors, Robert McCloskey summered on an island off Blue Hill. Several of his books are set in Maine. In “One Morning in Maine” father and daughter, Sal, arrive by boat at Buck’s Harbor to go to Condon’s Garage. Sal who has   lost a tooth in the morning enjoys a treat from a small store in the village before returning to their boat and home. Amazing seeing the source of McClosket’s drawings.

McCloskey’s wife  and eldest daughter are models for the classic story “Blueberries for Sal.” And “A Time of Wonder” is another book set in Maine. McCloskey is most famous, however,  for Caldicott winner, “Make Way for Ducklings” set in the Boston Public Gardens.   Several years ago we bought Vivienne a Boston street artist’s drawing of the ducklings.

We did goto the Blue Hill festival.  The Cabin Dogs were the last band to play.  They got the crowd up and moving. A great evening.

Furthur down the coast is Searsport.  In the early 80s we rented a older,  in need of repair house, across railroad tracks on a small spit of land overlooking Penobscot Bay. I recall raising a flag with Jen most mornings, walks, touring the local seaport museum, and drives exploring the rocky coast and other towns.

My real introduction to the Maine Coast came in 1974 when I did a week of photography  at the Maine Photographic Workshops.  They has been just established in Rockport by David Lyman.  The workshop I attended was a bit of Outward Bound.  We were given a sheet of plastic and showed how to construct a shelter in the wild.  Sure!  Our photography instructor was, Bill  Curtsinger, a contract photographer with National Geographic.  About 12 of us sailed with Bill  and a ship’s Captain to an island where we established camp. Food was provided.  The first night I tried to sleep under my plastic and a rock outcrop.  It was very uncomfortable.  The second and subsequent nights I slept on the sailboat after making friends with the Captain over a bottle of Hennessey’s Cognac.

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For a week, Bill opened our eyes (certainly mine)  to composition and light.  Using ektagraphic slide film (we could develop this at labs in Rockport) we shot sunrise and sunset (bracketing), passing sail boats, shore lines, and each other.  But most images were nature — rock formations, individual stones, trees, plants, sea shells, life in tidal pools, barnacles and birds.  We used telephoto and wide angel lenses.  I recall Bruce had an 18mm lens he shared.  For geographic photographers, film was cheap. Shoot, shoot and shoot more.  Bill wasn’t much older than me, in his late twenties.  His speciality was underwater photography.   Over meals and evening campfires we talked photography.  Bill’s  comment that he would only have so many shoots in his career has always stuck with me.

After 5 days on the island, we returned to Rockport, rooms to sleep and eat in and  labs to develop our film.  The last day we sat around a slide projector, sharing and critiquing our work.  It was quite an experience, so I returned to the Maine Photographic Workshops the following summer.

In 1975, I took two workshops.   The first was with National Geographic staff photographer, Bruce Dale.  The difference between staff and contract photographers is that staff photographers are paid a flat salary for all their work.  Contract photographers retain rights to photographs not used by the magazine and are paid based on what is used.   Interestingly according to Curtsinger/Dale photographers at Geographic headquarters got the basement; writers were upstairs.  Bruce looked at my portfolio and said I needed to learn to photograph people.  So I did.  I spent several days  in Rockland on the street, photographing people.

My next workshop with Ernst Haas presented different challenges.  The first full day, we sat in a studio and discussed color.  Haas said there should be a nail at the shutter — push when you know it is  a  photo you really need to take.    So different from the National Geographic philosophy, shoot, shoot, shoot.  One morning, with Haas we went early morning to a typical rural Maine fair.  Carnival attractions, live stock, and people filled our frames.  Focus, light and color.  Forty years later the Maine Photographic Workshops offer college credit, video, digital, and  a colorful catalog of  courses.  I suspect I experienced its most exciting years.

At least one year we took a sail out of Rockland.  Only a day trip but I’m adding to my new to-do list a Maine Windjammer cruise.  On day trips along the coast, we passed through or visited Friendship, Damariscotta,  Wiscasset, and other coastal towns.  I  always  liked those with fishing or lobstering fleets.

Portland.  Spent several overnights there, on our way north or as a destination.  The harbor area is gentrified — quaint shops and restaurants.  On our last visit, a few years ago,  I made reservations at Hugo’s.  As  we later learned Hugo’s was the first restaurant on Portland’s foodie map but now next door was the innovative and  hip, Eventide  Oyster Company. Unfortunately, we were stuck with our Hugo reservation and a price fixe menu; no openings at Eventide.  The next night we ate at Street and Company — a known favorite.  We’ve only been in Portland for two night visits.  Not enough  time to explore more than the historic harbor.  We need to revisit.

We’ve driven Route 1 south of Boston to Portland many times.  My first encounter with lobster  was at a  roadside stand — I don’t think I ever had it before that.  Crabs maybe; not lobster.  Delicious — fresh lobster, corn and baked potato — I was captured. But south of Portland, there was too much traffic, too much Route 1 landscape despite a touch of Maine.  We need to do more exploring  along the Maine coast and hopefully will visit friends who have a summer house on Matinicus island.

For now I’ll blog down coastal Massachusetts.

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