As soon as we crossed the border into Kittery, Maine, the sunlight was different. It felt whiter and flatter, blanching the squat buildings and casting cartoonish shadows of pine trees across the asphalt road. It reminded me of the light you see in the desert, only here we were surrounded by woods and coast, and everything looked like a memory of a summer camp I'd never been to.
I had never been to Maine and was yearning for some time near the ocean, so we planned a road trip up the coast to Acadia National Park. Out in California, I had driven up the Pacific Coast Highway many times. Maine also has a scenic route along the coast, but its route has a much more intimate charm, gently shuttling you through little towns built on the lowest of little hills. Like a passenger on a Disneyland ride, I gazed at the rows of shops that decorate sidewalks crowded with families and older couples in golf polos.
Feeling that first rush of vacation energy, we pulled off the road to see Old Orchard Beach. It was early October, late in the afternoon, and the long, long stretch of sand was virtually empty. Older people walked large, healthy dogs, who pulled at their leashes, eager to snap at seagulls. The wind was cold and constant, and the sand chilly underfoot. Clouds muted the colors of the houses built along the shore, behind a partition of grasses, and made things seem drab and sad, just a little. I picked up seashells and pondered whether I could tell they were Maine seashells.
Looking for a bathroom in town, every business we passed was closed. The public restrooms I finally found were across the street from a closed amusement park, its lights dark and its tilt-a-whirls stiff and still. I wondered briefly if the whole trip would be haunted by a sense of having come just after everyone else had left.
Portland was different. We'd hardly set our bags down when it was time to meet up with an acquaintance who lived there and was going to take us out for a drink. I'd been dreaming of visiting Eventide for oysters and cocktails, but it turns out I hadn't been dreaming nearly large enough. We commenced, before the now early dusk had even hit, a six-hour eating and drinking tour of this city whose reputation as a "foodie destination" had always struck me as probably a consolation prize. Was I ever wrong.
It began to drizzle, but we made it in dry to Eventide Oyster Co., where our friend knew the hostess, and I (a little uncomfortable around strangers) ordered the knockout Celery Gimlet—"practically health food," and practically all gin. We sat at the bar, near the huge chunk of granite (local, of course) on top of which was a mountain of crushed ice and a flotilla of beautiful bivalves, many of which we devoured. They were as incredible an oyster as I've ever had. The bartender gave us oyster shooters, and I wondered if she couldn't see how tipsy I was already, when I noticed one item on the cocktail menu, a rum drink called The Walking Dead, which was limited to 2 per human per visit.
We were all getting hungry though — it was time to move to Terlingua. Our friend drove us to this small, just-opened restaurant "at the edge of gentrification" where he knew the couple who owned the place (in my buzzed note-making, I later record them as "Pilly?" and "Gorgeous wife Meg"). Raindrops on his car's windows made the city lights twinkle. Asking about the gentrification, our friend told us that people who don't need to go into offices were buying up luxury condos in Portland, far from wherever the source of their income was. We heard later that many of the staff keeping Portland's foodies stuffed could not afford, on their server / bartender incomes, to live in the city themselves.
What's wonderful about Terlingua is that it feels confident enough to play by its own preferences. The food—high-end BBQ and Latin—is fine dining, but there's football on TV. A WASPY family headed by a Richard Gere lookalike takes up one of the limited numbers of tables, but we sit at the bar near casually dressed locals. The jolly, well-tattooed bartender is famous for his drinks, and here, too, there is a beverage on the menu limited to 2 per customer. Were they crazier here in Maine, or more sane? Eating messily and drinking more (I think I had a beer?) fully cleared the social air between us all, and the exceptional tongue-and-cheek tacos, pickled eggs, and brisket served with watermelon kept us moaning and gushing volubly.
Friend wanted to go to a third location. I began to worry about him driving and let him, however unwisely, reassure me that he was basically a high-functioning alcoholic who had plenty of blood left to spare before he was too drunk to be behind the wheel. That's how we found ourselves at Novare Res Bier Cafe, where I am pretty sure we all had beers. It was only mildly cold and the backyard had enough dry seats that we sat outside; again, I imagined what it would be like in the intended weather--a sunny summer day--but the fresh, wet, coastal air was wonderful all the same.
And that was only our first night.
Maine in early October is littered with apples. Literally.
Gorgeous red fruits dot the skyline, decorating the trees along the small winding roads, even as they hew close to the shore. They look like confetti, or drip-paint splatters in the grass or on swaths of asphalt. They’re along the rural roads and inside the city parks. The whole state begins to feel lousy with metaphor: temptation, wisdom, innocence, corruption, the ripeness of harvest and the coming season of decay. It’s a Snow-White, Adam-and-Eve kind of world.
And the apple also comes to feel symbolic, for me, of how local Maine is. Of how everything there is from there. How they keep to their own. (As in Stephen King’s Storm of The Century, set on a tiny Maine island: “Island people know how to keep secrets.”)
Since in many ways we came to Maine to eat, even though I did not have many apples, every bite I took, from the humblest pub to the fanciest, Michelin-rated restaurant, was vouched for as being local and sustainable.
After Portland, we continued our drive along the coast, and when the road wound straight through the heart of Wiscasset, we pulled over in front of some darling storefronts and dashed across the Route 1 traffic to eat a lobster roll at Red's Eats. Actually, we didn’t have to dash: drivers slowed for pedestrians to cross. As the little shack siting picturesquely in a grassy knoll at the end of a small two-lane bridge too, traffic in both directions was slowed to a near standstill by we tourists’ inefficient, unregulated comings and goings.
Anyway, Red’s Eats was my first real Maine lobster roll. I’d had one pretty great one on Martha’s Vineyard, but this was like meeting a whole new category of food. The silky butter, the delicate chew of the tender, fresh-briny meat, the flake of the toasted bun. Everyone has been eating them since forever, besides me. In Brooklyn you can get apparently “real” Maine lobster rolls, and I was always flabbergasted that any business model that charged you $14 and up for a three-ingredient sandwich could stay in business.
I am the late-in-life convert.
The rain caught up with us that night. Since it was October, it was bound to. A few weeks prior, the forecast had been a little parade of yellow suns, but at some moment when I wasn’t paying attention, they were scared away by a fleet of angry gray clouds.
The schedules, the activities, everything you find, is set up for summer visitors. I’d hoped we would hike, but was now flipping through the local tourist mags looking for museums to visit. Worst come to worst, we were staying at the beautiful Whitehall Hotel in Camden, where the young Edna St. Vincent Millay performed her first great poem. (It’s fancy enough that a Bush was married there, but we were the beneficiaries of off-season rates.) We watched the rain pour down, missing the sheltered rocking chairs but dousing the outdoor fire pits, and searched for dinner plans.
The restaurant hours on Yelp were only valid through September, and in October you could barely get a meal after 8:30. In fact, as we discovered another night, walking up to peer through a dark window at a stack of wooden chairs, Vinland, the restaurant famous for being so orthodox about local sourcing that they didn’t use pepper, was closed entirely for the season.
While we search, the lights go out. The hotel is in quiet turmoil for a while, as staff rush to set up candles everywhere. We drive into town and find our first choice restaurant shuttered, but eat very well nonetheless at our second choice, a basement-level restaurant without any pretenses to trendy design. It reminds me of how restaurants looked when I was growing up. The food is local, the wine excellent.
Though the lights came back on at Whitehall, we didn’t get to hang out and enjoy its charms because we had a reservation at a very fancy and enticing restaurant in the area. Primo is in a beautiful old house attached to a farm by the coast and helmed by Melissa Kelly, a James Beard award-winning chef. While we eat an hors d’oeuvre—a duo of foie gras—I nervously bring up the possibility of moving in together with my partner. I know I need to move, to cut down my living expenses, and while I’m not sure I feel ready “to move in,” I can see it on the near horizon, and I don’t want to move twice.
On the porch of Primo, tomato plants are hanging upside down, little red jewels still ripening on the dead brown branches which wave like flags in the wind. I wanted so badly to explore the farm, but it is already dark, so dark that we need to use the light of our phones to get from the parking lot to the porch.
We are among the youngest eating in the parlor rooms of this house. I think the waiter likes us, a couple not yet old or wealthy enough to take this all for granted. I feel a little like a kid playing a grown-up.
My boyfriend is punctual and practical—he is never late. He was annoyed on the way to the restaurant when we took a wrong turn, worried about getting lost, worried about missing our reservation. I suspect he has been ready to move in and has been waiting for me.
Our next stop is Vinalhaven Island, the only island that has year-round residents, we’re told. After the rains, the water is rough, but we’re assured by the ferry operator that they’re still running boats across. Our car is directed to the very front of the flat-open ferry, nominally kept from plunging forward into the sea by a chain pulled across the front. We rock like a pendulum, water spraying in arcs from left to right over the windshield. No, that’s not quite right. The water smashes into the windshield on the left side. I shriek, and open the right window a little for fresh air. I’m quickly turning green and take a dramamine, a little too late. He films and photographs the gorgeous moodiness for us both, as I lay with the seat reclined all the way back, until we approach the islands and the water calms. I look up to see a fairytale world, little blobs of forest sprinkled about, with water lapping at their sides, toy houses on their hills.
The island seems desolately beautiful. Water somehow rushes beneath the motel. I have been looking forward to meeting the proprietor, a published writer whose website and emails have the rambling, unabashed quality of A Real Character. When we meet him, he does not seem interested in charming us, however. His nose is bulbous and red. I shy of trying to talk to him about writing.
From the window we can see the water rushing out from underneath us and the seagulls and the houses around the coastline. We cross the street to The Harbor Gawker and eat phenomenal fish soup for lunch, oily and rich and flavorful. We are nearly alone in the place at our little red-checkered table, but there is an older man in a knit cap and work jacket hunched in large silence over his meal. The light coming through window glows where it hits him, and I struggle between the beatific feeling and wanting not to romanticize him.
We hike, a little late in the afternoon to do very much, but enough to get a feel for the island, its fairy-white mushrooms and mosses, and work our bodies and lungs.
The much-hyped restaurant SALT is closed for the season, but we can go to Haven, which is also heralded as having sophisticated and local food. We’re the later seating, but we turn out to be the last seated at all, along with one other couple. I’m at first embarrassed but then—what, relieved?—when the young waitress doesn’t seem to know anything about the food on the menu. They even microwave our dessert brownie, but everything is good. Full of goodness.
We decide to check out the bar down the street and can immediately tell we're the only tourists there. I might have heard a record scratch to a halt when we stepped in. But, being the only visitors instead of a part of a stampede of outsiders, we actually got to meet the locals: two twenty-somethings approached us and joined their beers to ours at a little round high-top table by the wall. They told us about island life, about “summer people,” about the guys who graduate high school and go straight into lobstering, making six figures in a summer’s work, then spending the winter high on prescription pills.
The next day for lunch we had the island’s best lobster rolls, as advised, from a truck on the water called Greet’s Eats. The cold wind was strong off the water and we hunched in tight at the lone picnic table, our Coke cans pinning down our napkins, as if they could shelter us. Young, big men in big boots whose young, big pickup trucks filled the lot got the last couple rolls after we did, and the truck was done for the day. The Harbor Gawker would close for the season a few days later. We took the ferry back to the mainland and got on the road going north, even though our route was to take us on what we already knew was a futile quest to eat at Aragosta, a restaurant that our friends had gushed about. We'd booked a night at the Inn on the Harbor in Stonington, population a-thousand-ish, just to eat there, before checking to see how late into the fall it would be operating.
It’s no small detour, because Maine, I learned, having never zoomed in on Google Maps prior to planning this trip, has a coastline reminiscent of the fat floating on the surface of your soup or coffee: large uneven floats that break up into tiny archipelagos, petering off into the void. The coast literally looks like something crumbling off into the sea, bit by bit. To reach Stonington, we drove north along the coast, only to make a hairpin turn in order to drive south down a peninsula of land, at the end of which we drove over a narrow, low-to-the-sea-level bridge to reach Little Deer Isle, which we crossed in a matter of minutes and took a road—functionally a bridge, but instead of being built over water, it looked like a giant had just taken their hands and smushed some earth together enough to make a ridge high enough to pour asphalt over—to Deer Isle, At the far southern end of Deer Isle, facing bravely out to the whole Atlantic, is Stonington.
Our room at the Inn on the Harbor was remarkable in two ways: it had a large working fireplace, and it had a large picture window facing the harbor, essentially at sea level. We enjoyed it for a few minutes before it got dark—incredibly, richly dark, a plush black night that filled in all the space.
The morning promised a bright day without rain, and I was sad to leave the precious specificity of our little perch, sitting gently upon the lip of one small beautiful mouth that gaped gently out the world. I could have spent days there, sitting out on the deck, its creaky wooden planks grayed by the weather, watching the sea and the squinting at the islands and following seagulls and windjammers as they did what they did.
But we were almost at our final destination: Acadia National Park. To get there we drove back across Deer Isle and across the strip of land connecting it to Little Deer Isle and over the bridge to the mainland, to make yet another hairpin drive and complete the giant “M” we were tracing.
Trees flashed past and the sun burst through them in rapid fire, like the world was a spinning zoetrope. Spills of apples, apples, apples, which weeks or months ago had ripened red, went unpicked, and had dropped to the ground.
Acadia was everything that a road-trip destination should be: grander than the whole journey there. We saw eagles and sunsets; we stargazed on top of a mountain; we took selfies filled with golden light, deep green pines, and vast blue oceans in the frame. We ate chowder at little pubs to take the chill from our bones after walking around the waterfront. When our casual dinner choice was no longer seating people at 8:30, we would up eating spectacular high-end Latin food at Havana, as pleasing and soul-warming a surprise as the inside of an empanada.
Here’s the thing about the rain, the closed restaurants, the hyper-local menus at the seasonal restaurants: it makes a place a place. Just as Walter Benjamin posited that mass production killed the “aura” of an original work, capitalism and globalization and consumerism have conspired to override the innate nature, the cultural instincts, of a place, in the name of financial success. Being open year-round, offering pepper at the table, these are typical concessions to the visitor and her money. We looked everything up on Yelp before we went.
In the end, I’m glad we were thwarted and disappointed. What’s okay about being late is kind of a buddhist-style redemption, that wherever you go, there you are. I think I saw it once on a magnet: You can’t be late for your own life.