Tuesday, August 9, 2011

I'm Really Looking Toward Portugal!

Back in late 2009, when I first launched this blogspot, I provided an explanation of its title. I was not referring to the actual sighting of the Portuguese coastline; it is simply an allusion to one standing on the coast of Maine and staring out to sea. At that latitude, if one could see beyond the curvature of the earth and across the vast distances of the Atlantic Ocean, one would be looking toward Portugal. I noted, too, that one actually would be looking toward the southern peninsula of the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. But I was hoping to look farther afield than that and “looking toward Nova Scotia” just did not have the ring to it.

Last week, my good friend Michael Stewart, with whom I have taken a number of road trips through the Mid-Atlantic states in recent months, stopped by the lake here in Maine to rest up on his drive from Maryland to Nova Scotia. New Gloucester is right on the way and a convenient half-way rest stop. Michael spent a day here, but I am not so sure how restful it was for we were up early the morning after his arrival and motoring down to Biddeford, about an hour south of here, to have breakfast at the newly restored Palace Diner (one of the better breakfasts I have had in recent memory) before driving up the coast through Saco, Old Orchard Beach, and Scarsborough photographing other old diners and pieces of roadside Americana from a bygone era before ending up in downtown Portland where we enjoyed lunch at Marcy’s Diner. Later that day we had dinner at Cole Farms, in Gray, and so the entire day was a meat and potatoes extravaganza!

Michael planned to leave the lake very early the next morning for the ten-hour drive to Halifax where his son Spencer studies architecture at Dalhousie University. Since Sally Ann was off on her own adventure in Scandinavia leaving me to fend for myself for a couple weeks, I decided to hitch a ride. Not long after dawn we were on our way through the rolling hills of the Androscoggin and Kennebec river valleys and the lacing of fog slowly began to burn off with the sun’s rise on a beautiful Maine morning. We arrived in Gardiner, on the banks of the Kennebec just south of the state capital of Augusta in time to be the first customers for breakfast at the A-1 Diner. Eggs, bacon, home fries, and plenty of strong black coffee and we were fueled for our journey up to Bangor and farther into Downeast Maine (up here, the father up north you drive, the farther down east you get).

Crossing the Penobscot River at Bangor, I was reminded of John Steinbeck passing this way with his dog Charley 51 years earlier and his attempts to navigate Bangor’s morning “rush hour.” In my book, it is not a rush hour if you can drive at the speed limit (or faster). We were soon through Bangor and Brewer, its sister city on the other side of the river, and pushing eastward on Route 9 - the Airline Highway. What seemed to be endless forests and marshlands stretch to the horizon at every compass point; where townships no longer have names and are known only by a series of initials and numbers. This is the real Great North Wood of Maine. I love this landscape, but for many, the only reason to drive the Airline is to get to the other end, at Calais (pronounced like that rough patch of skin on working hands), on the banks of the St. Croix river which also happens to be the international boundary separating the USA and Maine from Canada and the province of New Brunswick.

When I was growing up I was taught that the US-Canadian border, which stretches across North America from the Atlantic to the Pacific, is the longest undefended border in the world. Americans and Canadians share (for the most part) a common colonial and cultural heritage and speak (for the most part) the same language. I have been to Canada countless times, and back in the old days crossing the border was almost as easy as crossing the street (and in some places it means just that). I recall one instance when I was driving through northern Vermont and upon arriving in the next town I noticed that all the signs were in French. I had crossed the border and had not even realized it. I reported to the local Canadian customs office and was told that it happened all the time and then I was asked most politely to try not to do it again. Those days are gone forever, my friend!

Until fairly recently, the border crossing Calais was a short two-lane bridge spanning the St. Croix and separating the small downtowns of Calais and St. Stephen, New Brunswick, and the equally small US and Canadian customs stations. The bridge and the customs stations are still there, but both countries have opened new state-of-the-art border facilities on either side of a multi-lane bridge farther up river. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the more recent return of obligatory passport controls, nobody gets waived through the border checkpoints any more. At least not when one is entering the United States. That said, there was no wait to pass through Canadian customs and after a very few questions we were on our way. No so easy for the folks going the other way. Several long lines of vehicles were lined up waiting to clear US customs. The same was true when we later drove down St. Stephen’s main street. There seemed to be no traffic to speak of at the Canadian port of entry, yet cars waiting to enter the United States were backed up across the international bridge and all the way through downtown St. Stephen. Gone are the days, I guess, when Americans use to cross into Canada to get a better view of the July 4th fireworks over the river.

With Canadian money (now almost at parity with US currency) in our pockets, we set off on our trip across New Brunswick, skirting the Bay of Fundy and its amazing twenty to thirty foot tides, between the border and the provincial capital at St. Johns. From there it is trees and rolling farmland, and more trees. We pass Moncton and then more trees and rolling farmland, and more trees. The landscape changes very little as we continue into Nova Scotia. Correct. More trees and rolling farmland. We do pass through Oxford, Nova Scotia which is the province’s blueberry capital. Before long we climb into the clouds as we cross the Cobequid Pass and then descent into the coastal plain and eventually arrive in Halifax as the sun is setting.

Early the following morning Michael and I were joined by Spencer and his girlfriend Anna as we drove the forty kilometers to Peggy’s Cove in the hope that we might see one of the most photographed lighthouses in North America before the tour coaches began to arrive. The fog was thick upon our arrival, but we managed to have the place pretty much to ourselves. Despite the fog I stood on the rocks and looked eastward toward Portugal. Nothing in between us here. I recall Henry Beston: “the dark and desolate North Atlantic and a thousand miles of whitecaps and slavering foam.” Well, it’s a bit further than a thousand miles before one arrives in Lisbon. But I was really looking toward Portugal! It was worth the ride.
Despite the beauty of the coastline and the quaint fishing village at Peggy’s Cove, a visit to this spot recalls one of the worst airline tragedies in Canadian history. On September 2, 1999, just a few miles off shore and not that far from the Halifax airport, Swiss Air Flight 111 crashed into the dark Atlantic killing all 229 passengers and crew on board. The brave citizens of Peggy’s Cove and nearby Whaleback assisted in the futile search for survivors. A few kilometers down the road from the lighthouse is a stark memorial to the victims of the tragedy.

We returned to a mostly sunny day in Halifax and wandered the city and its waterfront. One of the highlights was a visit to Alexandra’s Pizza, near the Dalhousie campus, which has been voted as having Halifax’s best poutine for several years in a row. Needless to say, I had to sample the fare and it rates pretty high in my book as does their Donair kebab. That’s good eating, folks!

The next day, Michael, Spencer and I set off for the long return trip across the Canadian Maritimes, taking note at Stewiacke, Nova Scotia that we crossed the 45th parallel marking the half way point between the North Pole and the Equator. It was a rainy day until we approached the US border and the sun popped out. We sat in long, very slow moving lines as we finally cleared US customs and followed US Route One to Perry, Maine were we recrossed the 45th parallel. We stopped in Eastport, which is the eastern most city in the United States. From there we could look at the foggy reaches of Campobello Island (in Canada) and Lubec, Maine, which is the easternmost “town” in the USA. Near there is West Quoddy Head, which is the easternmost point of land in the United States. And yes, West Quoddy Head is the farthest east you can go. That is because East Quoddy Head is on Campobello Island, in Canada. You would think that this area would be the first place in the US to greet the morning sun. Not so. That honor is reserved for the summit of Mount Katahdin which is located in northern Maine some 150 miles to the northwest. At an elevation of 5,267 feet, it catches the sun’s first rays of the morning. But you get the idea.

Our return trip took us through the barrens surrounding Machais, Maine’s blueberry capital, and then we headed back north to the Airline Highway and on into Bangor. After a long day’s drive we were back at Sabbathday Lake by the time the sun set. So Steve, what did you do this weekend? Looking toward Portugal. Really!

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