Sunday, September 6, 2009

What I Did On My Summer Vacation: An Open Letter to a Friend

Dear Herr Goethe,

We were in Maine for almost a month. We have been spending most of August up there for the past 22 summers and I go back as often as I can in between summer trips. So I am guessing you have been wondering what I did on my summer vacation? You may be sorry you asked.

We left home in late July as planned and drove to southern New Jersey in order to get a couple of hours down the road and thereby enabling us to get around New York City at a decent hour and avoiding the traffic heading down the shore. It turned out to be a very restless night and I was happy to be on the road again the next morning. To make matters worse, I was feeling under the weather when I got up - not a very auspicious beginning for a vacation that has been long in arriving. I began feeling better the farther north we drove - solid evidence of the restorative powers of a New England landscape - and I was fully recovered by the time we arrived at our hotel a stone’s throw from the Pemaquid Point Lighthouse. When we left New Harbor for Monhegan Island after a relaxing day on the fringes of Muscongus Bay, I was feeling my old self again.

We were counting the days until we would once again step off on the Monhegan Island wharf. We have been making the 12 mile off shore trips for eight summers now, and we are always itching to get back. And after a cold and very wet early summer, the islanders were on the threshold of some very delightful weather, the first of the summer by all reports, and we were there to enjoy it. You take your chances along the coast of Maine in the summer, and so we considered ourselves very fortunate. Early morning sea fog is frequent, but this is to be expected and it usually burned off by late morning. We could not have asked for better weather. It was a glorious week!

Each morning we enjoyed a quiet breakfast at the Monhegan House, the quaint and rustic hostelry which has been our home on each of our annual summer visits. Afterwards, we would take the path through the village to the wharf to meet the Laura B., the mail/packet boat from Port Clyde, off-loading supplies for the island while on-loading whatever was being sent to the mainland. This afforded a wonderful opportunity to chat with the captain and his mate while taking photographs of the comings and goings. When the Laura B. finally departed with its cargo and a few passengers around 9am, some days quickly disappearing into the morning fog, passengers would often follow the old tradition of throwing a small floral bouquet into the water. If it drifts ashore it means the traveler will eventually return to the island. There is also another tradition - island children will leap off the wharf into the cold water as a boat departs, a brave act that insures the safe passage of the boat and its crew and passengers (we would experience this when our own boat departed later in the week). The rest of our days on the island were spent hiking the various woodland and shoreline trails, eventually ending up on one of the headlands on the backside of the island. Monhegan is only 1½ miles long and less than a half mile at its widest, but there are over 17 miles of trails.

While we were out on the island I also had a delightful conversation with the unofficial island historian (she has been coming to Monhegan for the past 81 summers), and she filled me in on the island’s history far beyond anything I have read or heard during our previous visits. She knows the people who have lived on and visited the island for decades and she has cataloged every building on the island for the past two centuries and who lived and worked in each. Our innkeeper, whose family has been associated with the island since the early 1920s, has also been a wonderful source of information, anecdotes, and scuttlebutt in the years we have been coming to the island. One more reason for returning to the Monhegan House every summer.

Artists have been coming to Monhegan since the late 19thcentury - Robert Henri and members of the Ashcan School in NYC, George Bellows, Rockwell Kent, James Fitzgerald (a personal favorite of mine through his connection with John Steinbeck when Fitzgerald painted in Monterey in the 1930s and hung out on Cannery Row), Reuben Tam, Samuel P. R. Triscott (another favorite), and, of course, Jamie Wyeth who still has a cottage on the island. As you walk around the island you regularly encounter artists at work - up on Lighthouse Hill, down among the ancient fish houses along the harbor, or out on the headland towering nearly 200 feet above the rock-strewn surf below, the highest cliffs on the coast of Maine.

Although we hated to leave Monhegan, we spent the remainder of our summer sojourn at the lake cottage where we relaxed . . . just sitting by the lake, swimming and canoeing as the New England weather turned warm and dry. We were saddened to discover that our favorite little roadhouse/general store which I used to frequent for breakfast while listening to the locals solve the problems of the world over their morning cups of joe, is now shuttered, the latest victim of the rerouting of the main highway between Portland and the western Maine mountains. I figured it was only a question of time, but I am sad to see it gone; I have a lot of fond memories of the place.

In addition to our time relaxing by the lake, we also traveled down to Portland one day for an excursion through island-studded Casco Bay to visit Admiral Robert Peary’s summer home on Eagle Island situated 12 miles to the northeast of the city and some three miles below Harpswell Neck and the road to Brunswick and Bowdoin College which Peary - as well as Hawthorne, Longfellow and Jonathan Cilley - attended and where the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum is now located. This year marks the centennial of the Peary expedition to the North Pole and there is still a debate whether he actually reached the Pole as he claimed. We wandered through his cottage and cozy library/office and walked the nature trails he laid out across this small 17 acre forested island with its rocky shores and tidal pools.

And speaking of Portland – we have discovered over the years that it is a very liveable city. Granted, we do not know all of its neighborhoods, and like any American city these days, it has its mean streets. But those areas which we have explored - its busy downtown full of people and traffic; the Old Port which can be a bit touristy in the summer but still interesting with it many shops and watering holes amid a thriving waterfront; the Eastern and Western Promenades with stately Victorian homes and views of Casco Bay and the Fore River; Munjoy Hill and its blue collar homes and shops - beckon us back time and time again.

We spent Sally Ann’s birthday up in Rockland where we visited the Farnsworth Art Museum and the Wyeth Center (something we do almost every year). It looked to be a beautiful day, but it turned into a real scorcher with temperatures near 90 and quite humid. Not your typical Maine summer weather. So we enjoyed the cooler confines of the museum and its posthumous tribute to Andrew Wyeth which included some of his better known paintings along with some of his more recent work which I had not seen before. There was also a brand new Jamie Wyeth exhibit, "Seven Deadly Sin," which is a series of paintings - all painted in 2006 and 2007 - in which he depicts seagulls (a favorite subject for Jamie Wyeth, living as he does along the Maine coast) representing each of the sins normally attributed only to human beings. Wyeth sees gulls as often nasty and pugnacious - "they’re evil" - which they certainly can be. There is something inherently fascinating about Wyeth’s gulls. He once said that a gull’s eye can tell you more about the ocean than any seascape can hope to do. I think he is absolutely correct about this.

Our trip to Rockland also afforded us the chance to return to the nearby St. George peninsula which we try to visit each time we come to Maine for it is the heart of Wyeth country on the Midcoast [see my February 9, 2009 and June 14, 2009 posting]. Port Clyde, at the peninsula’s southern most point, is where N.C. Wyeth first brought his family to Maine in the earth 20th century and where the old family home "Eight Bells" is located at the end of Horse Point Road. From there you can see Teel Island and neighboring Blubber Butt (yes, that is what the small island is called) where Andrew first started painting his early Maine themes. Jamie Wyeth has his home and studio on Southern Island, at the entrance to Tenants Harbor just up the road. This entire peninsula smacks of Wyeth. On the southern horizon is Monhegan Island some 13 miles offshore. We had been there just a week earlier but now it seemed to be of a different time and place.

As the final day of our vacation approached I began to contemplate our departure and I made a unilateral executive decision. Instead of pulling up stakes on a Sunday morning as is the tradition, then spending 12 + hours on the highway on a busy summer weekend, I delayed our departure until Monday morning. True, I would have to burn another day of annual leave, but so what for such a worthy and noble cause - another full day to enjoy ourselves by the lake? There was another player on the stage in this final act of Summer Hiatus 2009. Hurricane Bill was churning northward and expected to brush along the Maine coast. The idea of driving home in the wind and rain was not one I cherished. We also recalled when Hurricane Bob swept through during August 1990. We were in a very remote cabin in far northern Maine at that time and our only outside connection was shortwave radio. So we were able to track the storm as it approached the coast . . . ironically enough, via BBC which was the only good station I could pick up . . . while listening to the reports of the coup attempt against Gorbachev. Of course, we did not have to worry about losing power or water since we had no running water or electricity. We had propane for gas lanterns and Ian and I had laid in plenty of water and wood for the stove on which we relied for heat and cooking. So we were golden. Later that night the storm hit with a vengeance but we were snug as bugs in a rug. So we decided to wait out Hurricane Bill and come home after it had blown by us. It turned out to a rather lackluster storm; some rain showers came though but not before we had a chance for another swim and a canoe ride across the lake.

Well, do you think I have rambled on long enough? As least now you might understand why we love it so and yearn to get back every chance we get. It is magical.

Mehr Licht!

NEXT WEEK: With the Suddenness of a Dream

1 comment:

  1. Hello sir. thank you very much for sharing your stories like this in such a interesting blog. I'll be back. greetings from Portugal.