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
By some miracle I did not get lost on my way to The Carpenter’s Boat Shop. The welcoming parishioners from the Second Congregational Church in Newcastle had recommended I stop for a visit, but I assumed it was a place I could easily look for on my phone – a place that would show up clearly on the map. I was wrong. I had listened to their driving directions too casually, and when I started down the route I was almost sure I’d get lost. I took the road down from the church towards the library that was “so small you’ll almost miss it.” I turned a few corners and finally found myself at the end of the pavement and in front of a weathered old row boat and hand-carved sign proclaiming I had arrived at “The Carpenter’s Boat Shop.”
The Carpenter’s Boat Shop is a non-profit organization. Every year they take on a small number of apprentices to live and work for the nine-month winter season. The apprentices aren’t paid, but room and board are provided during their stay. They learn how to make small wooden boats, including skiffs, pea pods, dories, and dinghies. If only 1.5 of those terms sound familiar, then you are in the same figurative boat as me. I know nothing about boats or sailing or woodwork. Were I to apprentice at the Boat Shop, I would be starting from scratch.
But that’s the idea. The Carpenter’s Boat Shop is meant to be a place of transition. The people at the church told me the Shop tries to find apprentices who are a bit lost in life, and trying to find their way. Reasons for being lost can range from starting retirement to recovering from addiction. And everybody learns how to do the same thing: build a boat.
Because it was summertime, there were no apprentices in residence when I visited. In fact, there seemed to be no one there at all. Occasionally I heard a sound from one of the buildings, but I never saw a person. No one came out to suspiciously say hello or ask what I was doing. I just parked the car and started to look around. A few of the structures were identified with subtle signs, but I still felt like maybe I wasn’t supposed to be there. I wasn’t sure I ought to be looking around.
I peaked into the office and saw papers scattered about. This felt especially intrusive and I left quickly. I took a few pictures of the main sign and the boat below it. I walked across the lawn and ducked into the showroom – finally a place I knew outsiders could be. The showroom was dark and I didn’t know how to turn on the lights. Luckily the sun was shinning through the large windows on the opposite side of the room, and I left the door propped open for a bit more light. The room had that old, cold, musty smell of a barn. The walls were stacked up with tools. Scattered about the center of the room were dozens of boats and wooden furniture pieces on display. They were beautiful. Shinning. Some of the boats hung from the ceiling, others were suspended with ropes tied to poles coming up from the floor. There were smooth adirondack chairs, and rockers with hand-woven seats.
Everything in the showroom was so new. Everything gave off the scent of freshly cut wood. There was nothing manufactured, only crafted. I walked along the boats, running my hands over the unblemished paint. I thought about the ways each one was a bit different than the last, and wondered how each apprentice chose the style they wanted to create. I speculated on which one I would purchase if I ever needed to buy a boat. I pondered which one I would make if I ever needed to build a boat.
I spent a quiet 20 minutes on the campus of The Carpenter’s Boat Shop. I mentally added it to the long list of things I could do with my life if I suddenly decided that what I had been doing was no longer acceptable. I could teach English in China. I could buy an RV and live as a campground host. And I could apply to be an apprentice at the Boat Shop.
It seems like a wonderful place to be found, provided you are lost.
In visiting various churches throughout the summer I was surprised by many things. Different traditions, different demographics, different scriptural interpretations. But nothing was more shocking or outlandish than the complete absence of Coffee Hour nationwide. For those of you who were not raised with such a tradition, Coffee Hour is the social time immediately following the service. Everyone goes to another part of the church (usually referred to as the Parish Hall) to enjoy a cup of coffee or tea with a selection of cookies and treats brought in by whatever group of parishioners had signed up to bring treats that week. Growing up, this was an absolutely crucial part of church to me. Coffee Hour is the time when I talked with the other people in the community. It was when little kids sold wrapping paper for their school fundraisers, and when everyone got to enjoy a store-bought cake decorated to celebrate whatever birthday or anniversary was just around the corner.
At my current church, Coffee Hour sometimes takes on a life of its own, featuring such feasts as chili cheese dogs or sushi or red beans and rice. But even the smallest Episcopal congregations I’ve visited in my life manage to put together a nice loaf of banana bread and a coffee percolator. But I went to churches all across the country and found nothing. The entire summer I went to exactly one Coffee Hour, and it was at the Second Congregational Church in Newcastle.
When every day involves a journey of 200 miles, it can be hard to find time for church. After my Saturday in Portland I knew I wanted to attend a Sunday service, but I was also in a hurry to get to Acadia National Park. I woke up early to pack up my campsite, and I started down the road. My plan was to drive until about 9:40AM, then start looking for church signs. Most churches have their main service between 10AM and 11:30AM, and I figured eventually I would see a sign for a service that started in 5-15 minutes. That’s where I would go to church.
It was 9:45AM when I saw a church with the main doors open to the street. There were bells ringing and an usher at the door. A small sign pointed to the parking lot. I figured it wouldn’t get any easier or more obvious than this, and I pulled into the lot. I threw a skirt on over my shorts, which had become my standard practice at unknown churches. I never know what kind of place I’m walking into and what the dress code will be, but I know most people won’t take issue with a young woman in a skirt, so long as it covers her knees.
Three different people greeted me as I walked in and took my seat. The building was sparsely decorated but full of small touches. There was an instrumental prelude, and an old man with a box of matches waddled up to light the candles at the front. I saw on the front of my program that I was visiting the Second Congregational Church in Newcastle, which is part of the United Church of Christ. A few gathering words were spoken, followed by a hymn. An older woman carried a notebook up to the front. She had short, brown hair and red-rimmed glasses. She performed a solo for the congregation, “His Eye is On the Sparrow.” She had a lovely voice, but it seemed strange to me because of my previous association with the song. I’d only ever heard Lauryn Hill sing it. In comparison to the emotional, gospel tone of Ms. Hill, the woman in the red-rimmed glasses seemed so rigid, so clear, so proper. I imagined my grandmother singing a cover of “Killing Me Softly” and smiled.
After the sermon there was a second solo, followed by the closing hymn. I went downstairs to attend my beloved coffee hour, and found the parish hall filled with brownies and blueberry muffins. I stuck up a conversation with a little old lady whose voice was high and delicate and reminded me of a famous actress, though I wasn’t sure which one exactly. Her eyes got wide when I told her about my journey, and she pulled another person into our conversation. A few seconds later she ducked away, and soon the gossip was spreading through the whole room and people kept coming up to me to hear my story.
And that’s when I experienced another first. I tend to get asked a lot of the same questions when I tell my story. But one of the first people I spoke with during Coffee Hour at Second Congregational managed to ask me a question I had never heard before:
“What can we do to help?”
I was so surprised I didn’t have an answer. I still didn’t have an answer a few minutes later when a completely different parishioner asked the same thing. Eventually I suggested that they take my card and contact me if they knew anyone I could stay with on my way back towards Seattle. They smiled when I explained that I hadn’t heard of their church at all before today, and that I simply stopped because they were starting the service when I happened to be driving by. I excused myself to go to the bathroom, and when I came back out I saw a pair of women loading up a collection of brownies, cookies, and muffins into some tin foil. They handed me Ziplock bags full of extra veggies as well as some cheese and crackers, insisting it was the least they could do.
I have met some wonderful people on my journey. I’ve been invited into the homes of complete strangers. I’ve had men I didn’t know stop to fix my tires. I’ve had families give me a chair to sit on and a beer to drink. I’ve experienced some fantastic examples of humanity on my trip. But I don’t know that I’ve ever felt quite so genuinely welcomed as I did at Second Congregational. And it all comes down to that one question: What can we do to help? We would all do well to make such a sentiment central to our lives, and I think churches have a duty to do so. It has been pointed out that the church is the only organization that exists primarily for the benefit of non-members. I have never felt the benefit of being a non-member so strongly as I did in that little basement parish hall in Maine – a place I only found because the timing was right.