Some cities on my route I approach with no connection. I’m not staying with anyone, I don’t know anyone, no one has given me any recommendations. This was the case with Portland, Maine. I snagged the last open campsite at a campground just north of the city, and drove into town the next morning. With no real humans to turn to for advice, I was forced to rely on the top attractions listed on Trip Advisor.
The first stop on my list was the Maine Jewish Museum, which is inside the Etz Chaim Synagogue. I parked a block away, walked up to the door, and found it to be locked. This is when it occurred to me that I’d shown up on the sabbath, and of course it wouldn’t be open. I often lose track of the days of the week when I travel, because for me there is no such thing as a weekend. However I’ve come to realize that my sudden abandonment of the regular workweek hasn’t effected the rest of the world, and I should try to stay aware if I’d like to do such things as visit a religious institution or book a hotel room last minute on a Saturday night.
I moved on to the next spot on my list, the Victoria Mansion. This large and beautiful building was built in the 1860s and is 97% original. Please take a moment to consider the likelihood of a 150-year-old, fully-furnished building being 97% original. The man who first commissioned the home was a wealthy hotelier from New Orleans. Construction was complete right at the start of the civil war, and the family ended up stuck in the South for several years, unable to see their new home. Even after that, the Portland mansion was only a vacation home, and the docent explained that if the family was going to be in Portland for less than a week, they wouldn’t bother to open up the house and hire servants. They’d just get a hotel room. When the hotelier’s widow decided to get rid of the home many years later, it was sold completely intact, right down to the silverware. The new family continued to use fine china bearing someone else’s monogram for many years, which is why all those pieces were still there when the building was turned into a museum.
After the mansion tour I opted to grab some lunch at the Flatbread Company, which was highly recommended by the type of people who write restaurant reviews online. I sat at the bar and an attractive blond bartender with slightly shaggy hair asked me if I’d been there before. I told him I hadn’t, and he explained that they used all local ingredients, everything was farm-fresh and in-season, and that if I turned around I could see that all meals are cooked in plain view in their open, brick-oven kitchen “so you can see nothing weird is going on with your food.” After he explained the Farmer’s Market Salad and the special Shepard’s Pie Flatbread Pizza I started to wonder how much Portland, Maine had in common with Portland, Oregon.
After eating way too much food, I parked the car along the Eastern Promenade and began to walk. I walked down to the beach to see the boats and the children. I walked past the canoe rentals and onto the bike path. After about 45 minutes I walked past the foul-smelling water treatment plant and began to wonder if I should have turned around already. I got to the far end of the promenade and my endurance was rewarded with a shady, wooded return path on the upper side of the park to get me back near my car.
Full of food and tired of walking, I laid down in the shade and took a nap of indeterminate length. I was reminded of my solo travels in Europe, which seemed to always involve me getting tired and falling asleep in the sunshine on the grassy knoll of a public park. After my nap I returned to the city for some highly recommended gelato and a walk down Commercial Street. Back at my campsite and tired from my day of walking, I opted to skip the campfire and go to bed at sundown.
So that was Portland. There was certainly something poetic about being there, a place I always considered to be the very last bit of civilization before the country dropped off into the northeastern ocean. Nothing too insightful happened in Portland, but that may be because I wasn’t helped by humans. Instead I was directed by the Internet. There is a huge dip in quality when you allow the faceless, nameless masses to put in their two cents. You miss the sense of purpose that you get from a real person offering advice. The fact is, even if it’s just a recommendation from a waitress you met in New Mexico when you stopped for a piece of pie, every suggestion offered by a single, living, breathing human will ultimately be more fulfilling than anything Yelp can ever provide.