By the time I realized I should have reserved a campsite at Acadia National Park, it was too late. The only campground at the park was already full. I considered getting a room at a hotel in Bar Harbor, the local tourist town. However after spending 15 minutes to get 6 blocks in Bar Harbor, I determined it was a bit too crowded for my current state. It was still early in the day and I decided I might as well start exploring the park. I had only budgeted the afternoon, evening, and perhaps a bit of the next morning for Acadia. If I wanted to make the journey up the Maine coast worthwhile, I was going to have to get sight-seeing fast.
Acadia National Park’s main feature is a long, looping road that goes through and around the park. For most of the time it is a one-way, two lane road. Signs everywhere tell you to stay on the right except to pass, and that the right lane can be used as a parking lane at any time. I loved it. Every frustration I normally have with tourists in National Parks disappeared. If ever you wanted to stop to gaze at an outstanding ocean vista or catch a glimpse at the local wildlife, you could park the car exactly where it was and get out. If you got stuck behind a slow vehicle, there was always room to pass. Certain pullouts and attractions were especially popular (such as Sand Beach), but parking was never really an issue. If the lot was full, you just parked out on the road. I realize it might seem silly to be waxing poetic about traffic patterns and unlimited parking, but after 70 days living out of a car, such things demand reverence.
At a particularly beautiful and less-crowded stop I decided to pull out my map. On the southwest corner of the island I saw a little patch of town called Northeast Harbor. I figured they’d probably have hotels there, and it would certainly be less packed than Bar Harbor. I took my time meandering on the one-way path and eventually turned off from the park and onto the regular road. The first thing I saw as I approached Northeast Harbor was a beautiful hotel. I looked it up on my phone and was turned off by the four dollar signs listed next to the hotel’s name. I didn’t need fancy, I just needed a room for the night. I started driving into town, only to find that there was no town to drive into. Northeast Harbor is almost exclusively residential. There is no main street, no business drag, almost no shops or stores of any kind. It’s just a neighborhood. I imagine they like it that way. It probably keeps tourists like me out.
I managed to locate the only other business in town. It was a slightly lower-priced hotel overlooking the marina. I checked into my room and started thinking about my plans. I still had a fair amount of daylight left, so I could easily circle the park before the sun set. But a thought had been spinning around in my mind: What if I woke up in time to see the sunrise tomorrow? This was the furthest east I’d ever been in the United States, and it was not far from the furthest east one can go without leaving the country. It had been on my bucket list to watch the sun rise over an eastern ocean for some time. I’d had other chances to do so, but none went entirely smoothly. Often I couldn’t see the sun because of clouds, or my view wasn’t the best, etc. But there were plenty of great views in Acadia, and a good chance at decent weather. This was it.
I looked at my map and tried to figure out a few good markers. My plan was to take another drive around the park, this time paying close attention to the clock. I would calculate the drive time from various spots and pick the best one to see the sunrise from. This was how I could ensure I woke up early enough to catch the event. I hopped back in my car, looked at the clock, and headed to the park.
In driving around Acadia there were several points at which I encountered entrance gates. After marking down the drive times to a few choice spots, it occurred to me that I should confirm the gates would be open in the early morning. I stopped at the next gate, handed over my entrance pass, and asked the ranger if they’d be open early enough for me to be inside the park at sunrise.
“Yep, the gates are open 24 hours. But you’re not going to want to come down this road, you’ll want to take 233 going east — “
“I’m not staying in Bar Harbor,” I interrupted. “I’m in Northeast Harbor.”
“Oh okay, then you’ll want to take 198 north to go west on 233 to get to the Cadillac Mountain entrance,” she continued without missing a beat, “You’ll see a park road on your map that seems like a short cut, but it’s closed right now, so you’re better off taking 198 to get to Cadillac Mountain.”
“And Cadillac Mountain, that’s where I want to be?” I asked, surprised to be getting directions to a place I hadn’t mentioned.
“Yep,” she said with confidence. “That’s the place to see the sunrise.”
With my plan now set and a bit of daylight left, I decided to drive up the mountain and check my travel time. From the top of Cadillac I could see in every direction, and I looked over ocean and lakes on all sides. By this point I knew it was time to get some dinner, and I made my way over to Bar Harbor.
I had thought for a long time that while I was in Maine I needed to have some lobster. I had no desire or intention to eat a whole lobster straight from the shell, but I’ve always been a fan of New England lobster rolls and thought I could find a good one in Bar Harbor. Unfortunately the more I looked, the more I heard David Foster Wallace’s voice in my head. “Consider the Lobster,” he instructed us in an essay of the same name. In the essay he doesn’t seem to come down cleanly on either side of the debate about boiling lobsters alive being a form of cruelty, but he certainly leaves you with a queasy feeling in your stomach. Still, I knew I had no intention of becoming a vegetarian, so where could I draw the line? I weighed the ethics against the experience, and made a compromise: I would have one last lobster roll while I was in Maine, just to say I did. After that, no more. I found a good place with an empty barstool in the back, and enjoyed what just might have been my very last taste of lobster.
I decided to walk off my dinner in the nearby park, and caught a fantastic sunset in the process. I decided to stay and watch the whole thing, knowing that I would be seeing the same sun rise the next morning. The park was full of people running around and taking pictures of this and that. The town was alive, and I imagine it stays that way for the entire season. I wondered what it was like to live in such a place. Or perhaps no one really lived there. Perhaps they were all over in Northeast Harbor with me.
I woke up promptly at 4:30AM and put on my cold weather gear. My car was foggy and everything was dark. I began the drive up 198 and passed by Upper Hadlock Pond, a little lake I had seen the day before. The first time I saw it the sun was setting on it and the whole thing was orange and red. The second time was later in the night, when it reflected the shine from the moon. This time it was just before dawn, and there was barely enough light to see the mist floating off the water. I would see the pond once more on my way back to the hotel, bathed in ordinary daylight. It was a lake of split-personalities. Every viewing was a whole different experience. Every pass told a new story.
I arrived at the top of Cadillac Mountain and I was not alone. There were at least 100 people who had decided to join me for the sunrise. I heard German and Chinese spoken. A few folks had British accents. I grabbed my blanket and found a nice spot near a rock that faced the east. The wind was blowing and I tried to get as low as I could, hoping to get under its path. All around me people had set up cameras and chairs. Some were regretting not wearing warmer clothes. A few were laughing. Many were silent, still holding on to that last bit of sleep.
The sky began to turn. Long before we saw the sun, the light had made every island and ripple in the water visible. Fuzzy pink and yellow lines ran straight across the entire horizon. The first bit of sun appeared as a dot, and the pace at which it grew larger and brighter was faster than you assume of the sun. I struggled with staring at it, knowing that it was bad for my already terrible eyes. I opted to switch off between seeing the sunrise itself, watching it through my camera, and watching it on the faces of everyone around me. It was absolutely beautiful. One for the bucket list.
As the sun grew into its full, round self, people begin to leave. When viewing the sunrise, eventually one must make the decision that it is no longer daybreak, it is simply day. I picked myself up off the cold stone and walked to my car. I saw a young couple making breakfast a few vehicles away from mine. He had a grill going and food was laid out on the tailgate. She sat on top of the truck canopy with a blanket over her legs. Both had a cup of coffee. It seemed like a beautiful way to start a day. I pulled some food out of my trunk and sat in my car, not wanting to disturb them while still joining them for breakfast.
Back at the hotel I packed up my things and then made the four hour drive up to Rangeley Lake State Park. My campsite at Rangeley had a small, short path that lead right out onto the lake, and that evening I watched the sunset over the water. As I watched it I thought about a quote I know, attributed to Into the Wild‘s Chris McCandless. While I realize things may not have worked out so well for Chris, I can’t help but think that his words sum up that day in Maine, and my whole trip:
“So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.” – Chris McCandless