Tuesday, June 29, 2010

#122 – MAINE

On Labor Day I found myself standing with Terri on a small, now rarely used old lookout platform across from where the Sunset Hill House had stood before, like so many old style summer hotels, it had been destroyed in a mysterious fire. Also behind us across the road were the cottages, will intact, that went with the Sunset. And down to our left the remains of that rakish old brown shingled building called the Pioneer, the late night dancing and necking and drinking place. From the lookout platform Terri and I were facing the mountains that here are in the exact configuration they are in when seen from the old family houses. Down below us was a scraggly brown-green rocky field, with barely noticeable circular indentations in the dry grass where a riding ring had once been, where my brother and I and Terri and most of the others in our gang had taken riding lessons from a weather-beaten and happy Englishwoman who kept horses nearby and
knew the ins and outs, knowing when to post, when to stand, of using English riding saddles, a confident woman who did not care about extraneous things like attitude and attire. This was as close as anything I had of sharing in a collective memory of youth.

And I was seeing something I had forgotten – how the sunlight already at Labor day came in long almost horizontal silver-sharp yellow winter rays – almost horizontal because we were that far north here. And although I was out to get the true story of what went on in the past, the light filled me with a feeling of nostalgia that nearly brought me to tears. I said to Terri, and it most have sounded like I was in awe, I said “No place on earth has light like this.” And then it seemed to me that I might as well have been saying that no place on earth compares to this place, which was something I heard so often in the past even from family people who hardly ever returned. No place on earth like the White Mountains. No other place that really counted. As if they could never see beyond or behind it. As if having had it once made up for their failures after they left. And I hoped I myself was beyond ever feeling smug about my connections here.

The next day, I was not quite ready to return to Vermont, as had been my plan. But I was not ready to stay either, so I decided to do a little exploring in a different direction. Terri had been talking about Portland, Maine and its art galleries and cultural life, which sounded strange to me, for my memories of Maine were from those winters in boarding school when I would travel, like an athlete with privileges, to take on and defeat other new England schools in the unlikely sport of debating, and Maine has seemed so barren and colorless and plain when rushing through it in those winters. Time now for another look.

I set out quite early, before Terri was up, cutting over to route 302 and following it through North Conway, which had been changed by outlet stores, and then by the Mount Washington Hotel, which, though in the old style, had been known to sometimes accept
Jews. Past the trail heads where a dozen of us, plus some limber parents, would start out on our happy teenage hikes that we called mountain climbing traversing the Presidential Range above the timber line and staying in the Appalachian Mountain Club huts, where we slept in separate boys and girls bunk bed dormitories. Our gang, my male friends and those girls I thought I would always remember, they were so pretty and flirtatious and open always remember, I thought, long after I had gone on, as I planned in adolescence, to bigger worlds,

In twenty minutes across the Maine border I came to a lake with a town on it called Naples, the town on a bay with a dock that was the harbor place for, and this felt like something from a dream, a full-scale working replica of a big old paddle wheel Mississippi River boat. When I was very young such appealing tourist things – dismissed by family as things to be avoided, dismissed as what they called tourist gags – these tourist things filled me with warmth, like the souvenir shops at the Flume and at Profile Lake beneath the Old Man of the Mountains – things other people had and that our people looked down on. Wooden hatchets, funny hats and balsam pine pillows with the words “for you I pine and balsam.”

Naples, Maine, and a Mississippi river boat. This was my world. Here in the uncharted, unsanctified territory outside the White Mountains. God I felt good.

Everything I had heard about Portland from Terri was true. It was the new world in the same way that Vermont was the world now of art and love and sex and rebellion and sex and adventure – guitars and anti-war protests and interesting low fat and spice-filled restaurants built over a civilization that had had tasteless New England boiled dinners and swept sex under the rug.

After the galleries and coffee shops, I drove out of town, stopping at a roadside food trailer to pick up a lobster roll, then sat on a cliff with my Walkman listening to Judy Collins, looking out at the endless ocean, the ocean that opened up the world as opposed to the mountains that, as much as I loved them, cut off the sky. And after the cliff I continued on up the coast, which looked on the map to now have a series of small, jagged spits of land, but the spits of land of land turned out to be the big, sturdy walls of timeless fjords.

Driving back towards New Hampshire I stop after sunset, but still in twilight, in Naples for a hamburger and fries at the outdoor part of a one of a series of restaurants on the water close to the Mississippi paddle wheeler. There is more than a hint of autumn in the air. But the lake and its shore are alive still with summer smells. Summer trees. Summer lake water. And fish are jumping at insects in this place which will soon be frozen over.

But the chill in the air is not enough yet to mean taking in outdoor tables. A crucial touch of summer lingers. The handfuls of people eating in the outdoors and laughing together are not, I realize, summer people. They are all, whether resident or itinerant, men and women who worked here in the summer. And this is the day after Labor Day, and all the summer people, the good and the bad, have gone away and now the people who belong can relax, which was what they are doing.

Except I am thinking we, not they – we can relax, as I imagine myself into a world as connected as this one.

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