So lesson learned: If you’re going to pretend to be a travel photo journalist, bring something to write on in addition to your camera.
I left my home in Southeastern Indiana for my trip to coastal Maine without so much as a pen, pad of paper, or laptop. So what follows is based on a few notes on my smart phone, recollection, or pure imagination. I’ll let you sort out fact from fiction.
Day 1 – Batesville, Indiana to Amherst, New York – 476 miles/770 km
I pulled out of my drive at the gentlemanly hour of 9:30 AM on Saturday and headed northeast through the rolling cornfields of central Ohio towards Pittsburgh. I wanted to head north on Interstate 79 to Erie to “color in” another stretch of highway on my travel map (I have this tattered map of the US that has all of the routes that I’ve traveled highlighted in orange). A few hours later, I was at I-79’s northern terminus in Erie, Pennsylvania. Another section turned orange.
From Erie, I continued into western New York with the intent of spending the night near Niagara Falls. I landed in a hotel in Amherst, New York, just northeast of Buffalo.
Day 2 – Niagara Falls, Ontario to Brattleboro, Vermont – 374 miles/603 km
The first time that I saw the falls was in 1972 on a family vacation from Chicago to the Maritime Provinces of Canada. Standing just feet from the precipice of the Canadian Horseshoe Falls as 14-year-old leaves a lasting impression of the power and size of the falls.
I opted to drive Niagara Falls Boulevard (US Route 62) from Amherst to the Rainbow Bridge that would take me across the river to the Canadian side. All along the way, the route was dotted with tacky gift shops peddling Niagara kitsch, restaurants advertising fresh seafood, and old, seedy, run down motor lodges and motels from the 1950’s and ‘60’s.
Once I parked on the Canadian side ($20!), I walked through the immaculately groomed riverfront park to the Table Rock lookout at the edge of Horseshoe Falls. It was still as impressive as I remembered it—the huge volume of water just cascading over the cliff.
Looking below, one of the “Maids of the Mist” boats was approaching the bottom of the falls, its passengers all decked out in the same blue rain ponchos, getting soaked by the spray. And the rain.
Yes, it was raining during my visit to the falls. Initially not much at all—I got wetter from the mist from the falls than from the rain. But halfway through my walk along the river, the skies opened up and it poured. My tiny travel umbrella kept my head and the top of my camera backpack dry; everything else got soaked through.
I opted to head back to the US rather than wander in the rain. At the border crossing, the agent was very serious and all business, but asked questions that were rather funny, at least to me.
“Where do you live?”
“How long have you been in Canada?”
“About 3 hours. I just came to see the falls.”
“You drove all the way from Indiana just to spend a couple of hours to see the falls?” Like he knew about my history of crazy road trips.
“No. I’m on vacation heading to Maine and just stopped by.”
I know. He’s just doing his job. But I’m sure that I’m not the only one who ever made a day trip from New York into Ontario just to see the falls.
The weather app on my smart phone showed that I’d be in rain as I headed east, so I just made the best of it as I drove I-90 from Niagara Falls to Albany. Rather than follow my GPS-recommended route through Massachusetts, I opted to get off the interstate and take a short cut across Vermont and New Hampshire on the back roads.
I drove through the famous Revolutionary War town of Bennington, Vermont, catching a glimpse of some of the historical buildings and monuments through my windshield wipers as the rain continued.
Later in the evening, the skies lit up with bolts of lightning traversing from one cloud to another or to the ground. By the time I checked into my hotel in Brattleboro, the storm was pretty intense. Power was out in the next town up the road, so it was good that I stopped and called it a night.
Day 3 – Brattleboro, Vermont to Bangor, Maine – 311 miles/501 km
My route from Brattleboro took me through scenic southern New Hampshire. As I was driving along, minding my own business on this two-lane country road, a chocolate Labrador retriever dashed onto the highway just in front of me while his owner desperately tried to call him back out of my car’s path.
Let’s just say that my BMW’s brakes were put to the test, and I went from 55 mph to zero really, really fast. The atlas on my passenger seat shot to the floor, and I missed hitting the dog by about 10 feet (3 m). I hope the owner puts the dog on a lead when walking him alongside a busy highway in the future.
After that little excitement, I made a beeline for the Maine coastal town of Ogunquit for some relaxation and lunch.
Ogunquit is a quaint little resort town filled with restaurants, shops, and resort hotels (that are all much classier than the tourist traps near Niagara Falls).
He recommended Barnacle Billy’s as a good place to grab lunch, but it was about a mile walk from the parking lot along Marginal Way.
Marginal Way is a foot path along the rocky coast that gives wonderful views of the ocean, rocks, beach, and some of the better resorts. It was well worth the leisurely hike.
Barnacle Billy’s sits on a pier overlooking a little harbor on an inlet, and I ordered my first-ever lobster roll: fresh lobster perfectly cooked, mayonnaise, and celery in a grilled hot dog style bun. Very tasty but also quite expensive—most restaurants serving lobster rolls charged $15-$17. Not a cheap lunch.
Because this was another one of my make-it-up as I go vacations, I didn’t find any lodging in Ogunquit, so I headed north for the evening. Besides, I wanted to get as close to Acadia National Park as I could so I could spend the full day there the next day.
On my way to Bangor, I stopped to photograph the Portland Head Lighthouse outside of Portland.
Day 4 – Acadia National Park
Acadia has a loop road that runs along the coast and then cuts through the center of the island to Cadillac Mountain. I spent a leisurely day of driving the twisting and turning one-way road, stopping at nearly every scenic overlook. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and sitting on a granite boulder soaking up sunshine was the order of the day.
The town was packed with tourists, but by dumb luck I found an open parking space right near the park in the center of town. I took advantage of the time while waiting for my meal to churn out two dozen postcards, and after the meal, walked the five blocks to the post office to mail them.
In late afternoon, I took a little drive north before returning to my hotel in Bangor for a second night.
Day 5 – Bangor to Freeport – 121 miles/195 km
I returned to the coast and took US 1 all the way to Freeport, the home of L.L. Bean. Now I’m not much of a flannel kind of guy, but it was still interesting to check out the store.
Along the way, I took a little detour down Maine Route 131 to in search of some real working lobster towns away from the tourist traps. I found that in Tenants Harbor and Port Clyde. Both had restaurants at the head of the pier—you can’t get any fresher seafood than that.
On the way back to US 1, I was driving along the highway and saw what appeared to be some paper money blowing across the road. Not far from that, there was a small brown object lying in the middle of the lane.
I pulled over and, sure enough, it was a dollar bill that I saw, and the brown object was a wallet of a 21-year old kid. I tried looking up his phone number on my smart phone, but it was unlisted. His address was on his driver’s license, of course, and it wasn’t that far from where I was. About half a mile behind me, there was a post office. I debated whether to mail the wallet back to him or just drive it to his house. I opted to deliver it in person.
The young man wasn’t home, but his mom was, so I left the wallet with her. She was very appreciative and called me “one in a million” for taking the time to return the wallet. I explained that I had lost my wallet many years ago, and it was eventually returned by someone via the mail.
She asked for my contact information so her son could thank me, and because she was so persistent, I gave her my email address and left shortly afterward.
That evening, I asked the hotel receptionist for a good place to get a quintessential Maine meal, and she recommended a place on the waterfront. It had indoor and outdoor seating, and you ordered your meal from a window and waited for your order number to be called. Very informal.
I ordered another lobster roll just to check out if it was any better or worse than my first. It was better—a little less mayonnaise allowed the real lobster taste come through. I also had a cup of clam chowder that was quite good as well.
Day 6 – Freeport, Maine to Owego, New York – 431 miles/694 km
With hurricane Irene beginning to work its way up the coast, I decided that it would be best to start working my way west before the roads and hotels got clogged with people trying to escape the storm’s path.
My sister was thinking about vacationing at a resort in Lake George, New York, so I figured I’d check it out for her while I was in the neighborhood. Very nice place, but I didn’t spend a long time there as it was raining once again (not from Irene—just a normal cold front passing through).
Day 7 – Owego, New York to Batesville, Indiana – 682 miles/1.097 km
This was my longest and final day of driving, with a two hour stop in the Pittsburgh area to see a friend for a drink after he got off work. I thought about stopping for the night, but I was so close to home that I just kept going—I arrived shortly after midnight and pretty much went straight to bed.
When it was all said and done, I drove 3,011 miles, averaged 51.6 mph, and got 30.3 mpg.
Travel Dates: 20-25 August 2011
Total Distance: 3,011 miles
Average Speed: 51.6 miles per hour
Gas Mileage: 30.3 miles per gallon
* * *
Most don’t understand my penchant for driving everywhere, but I often find the journey to be more interesting than the destination. When you drive, you can observe things about the country and the people that you just can’t get from 35,000 feet in an airplane.
Normally, I take my make-it-up-as-I-go vacations in the shoulder season: September/October or April/May. This trip in August reminded me why I do that. It was more difficult to find lodging, parking, and places to eat with all of the end-of-summer vacationers.
On this trip, I came away with a sense of loss. Loss of pride, loss of culture, loss of trust, and loss of inspiration.
* * *
The contrast between the New York and Ontario side of Niagara Falls was stark. The park along the river on the Canadian side was immaculately groomed and maintained, and there was barely any litter around despite the high volume of visitors. The gleaming city skyline behind the park only enhanced the squeaky clean image.
On the US side, the city appeared older and much less appealing. Tired motels with faded signs that probably read “Vacancy” for decades, tacky gift shops posing as tourist information centers hawking T-shirts and souvenirs, and small restaurants that would be classified as dives on the popular television program “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives” all dotted the highway leading to the falls. The contrast was noteworthy.
Granted, I didn’t drive beyond the beautiful façade and deeper into the Canadian side, so I may have encountered similar tacky tourist shops and run down motels as I did on the New York side as I drove to the falls. Even if I did, I have a hunch that they would be in better repair than their counterparts.
I also know that the Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side are the main draw for tourists; the American Falls, while impressive, are less appealing. That, of course, means that most of the tourist dollars land on the Canadian side, and that makes it a lot easier to present a picture-perfect image.
Still, I think that we can do better by taking pride in what we do have on our side of the falls.
* * *
When I arrived in Maine, I was greeted by a gentleman with a thick Maine accent. I smiled the instant I heard it, as it’s something that I remembered from earlier visits to Maine 25 or 30 years ago. For some reason, I’ve always been interested in regional language differences, so hearing his accent made me excited to be back.
The unfortunate thing was that he and one other person were the only two people that I heard with that unique speech pattern. Everyone else I encountered in Maine had little if any accent.
Our society is becoming more and more mobile and, as a result, more and more homogeneous, and some of these regional differences are beginning to fade away. That, to me, is a tragedy.
One of the chief reasons that I–or, I suspect, anyone–travels is to experience something new and different. We’ve already got ubiquitous Walmarts, CVS pharmacies, and McDonald’s across the country, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find something unique, with true local flair.
* * *
When I found that young man’s wallet in the middle of the road (see the story in the next post), I knew that the right thing to do was to return it. But the sad thing was that I worried about possible repercussions for me. (Perhaps spending two nights in author Stephen King’s hometown of Bangor made me more paranoid than necessary.)
If you’ve read my other post about this trip, you already know that I opted to drop the wallet off at his house instead of mailing it to him anonymously. (I figured it would be better to get it to him faster so that he may not have to make all those calls to cancel credit cards and get a new driver’s license.)
When his mom insisted on getting my contact info so he could thank me, that’s when the worries began to kick in. Knowing my name, will they accuse me of taking money out of the wallet? Or using his credit cards? Or worse? I even wondered if something happened to the man and I would be accused of being involved somehow.
I know that I’m overreacting and that my imagination ran amok as I drove alone down the highway, but it’s a shame that things in our society have come to the point where those kinds of thoughts even enter the realm of possibility, and that you can’t even do a simple good deed without having to think through the possible repercussions.
* * *
So many of the touristy sights really didn’t inspire me to get out my camera and photograph them. Seedy. Tacky. Ugly. What’s the point? But it was too late in the trip that I realized that, if I really want to tell stories with my photography, I need to capture the good with the bad, the beautiful and the uninspired. If I don’t, I’m only telling one side of the story.
I also began this trip with hopes that I’d have a major epiphany on what to do with my life now that I’ve been given a second chance after my little run-in with prostate cancer earlier this year. I was in some very beautiful locations that were perfect for reflection, yet I wasn’t inspired to cure cancer or solve world hunger. I was simply content to watch the sailboat skim along the deep blue waters without thinking a thought.
And perhaps that’s all that I needed—a simple purging of the mind to allow me to come back and become inspired, to find a sense of direction.
* * *
So those are the introspections from this trip. Perhaps a bit on the cynical side, but not really. They’re just recognition of our current reality. I’ll continue to travel, explore, and experience.
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