Notes from Maine: Each Day’s Journey

After driving for about 10 miles through a very pretty kind of nowhere in particular, the road curves around to the right and you suddenly become aware that you are entering a village. A blink-and-you-miss-it road turns left to the country club. Before you is the Commons, a medium-sized field with a gazebo (and frequently a craft fair or farmer’s market), rimmed on two sides with a lot of old wooden houses and a crab shack. It is balanced on the right by the Traffic Triangle, grassy and adorned by a stone statue of an as-yet-unidentified man.

If you follow the road to the left of the triangle you will drive through the middle of a grassy and beautifully white-stoned cemetery and eventually into Boothbay Harbor; but if you go to the right you will pass a Victorian house painted sky-blue and then come to another fork. Turning right you drive for a while through some very pretty woods with rises and dips and turns and only the occasional sign or driveway, until you abruptly descend a hill and spin onto the first bridge.

What you are crossing is the ocean, but it is so unlike the ocean you’re expecting that I’m surprised there isn’t another term for it. The charm of this part of Maine is that it’s all inlets and tree-lined coves, with much the effect of an irregular mountain lake. The surprise is that often when you get to the cove you find it isn’t actually; the water continues around the side of what you now realize is an island. And sometimes even when it is a cove it isn’t as solid as it appears. Derek and I once watched the outgoing tide flow from two directions straight into a scoop of land, without raising the water level on the shore or apparently redirecting anywhere.

In 1896 a woman called Sarah Orne Jewett wrote a book about this part of Maine and called it “The Country of the Pointed Firs.” It’s an extremely apt title, because it’s a phrase that often comes unconsciously to my mind and lips as I’m looking at these quiet wooded shorelines.

Anyway, you’re crossing the bridge. Like many here, it’s a low-lying man-made land bridge which means that as soon as you cross the water you’re going up another deceptively steep hill. It doesn’t look that big but I could barely get my bike up it. Not that that’s saying much, I suppose.

It’s a relatively long bridge, and halfway across are two small parking lots. On the left (south) is the official swimming hole, complete with floating platform, and a wooded spur for picnicking. I thought I would spend more time in the water, or at least on the water, but from the moment our first morning when I walked down to the dock to look at it, it has filled me with an icky dread. It’s murky green and at anything less than high tide you can see what that opacity is hiding: masses of bulbous, succulent seaweed of my least favorite kind. It chokes the shore and extends at least six feet from it. Nor are the shores themselves exactly accessible: rocky and jagged and raised – much better for jumping off of than for getting back up, and not good for either when the tide goes out and the water level drops 7 feet.

The right side of the bridge has its own claims to being picturesque. A half-dozen small boats are anchored here, and an old wooden fishing-boat has sunk. At high tide only its cabin and the top curve of its deck protrude forlornly; at lowest tide, you can see it snuggled into the sand, looking only momentarily abandoned.

You are now on Barters Island. The road dips and rises and winds a bit past a few white clapboard houses, but you’re almost there. In fact, as soon as you crest that big hill you can see, at the furthest point of visible road, the orange diamond “Draw Bridge” sign which signals the far side of the island, and pretty much the exact moment you lift over that last little hill and see the bridge, you need to be making a left into our drive.

I said earlier that you drive for “a while” through the woods, and we have certainly taken a detailed tour, but in actual fact the entire drive I have just described takes only 3-8 minutes, depending on how far under the speed limit the car in front of you is going. What can I say? I find that woods have a sort of eternal, time-blurring quality to them. Their sameness makes it hard to know how far you have gone, just as they, and the old farmhouses I pass, almost make me wonder how much history has really passed. Modernity will intrude – not all the houses are old, though most are, and the ones that aren’t are mostly respectful – but I’m often surprised by how little changed things must be since Ms. Jewett’s day.

And now you know how to get to our house when you visit.

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