Crazy for Maine
I began celebrating my successful journey officially when the first rocket exploded into a burst of glimmering sparks radiating from the center like the pedals of a flaming mum. I was unaccustomed to any sort of pageantry upon reaching my numerous bicycle touring milestones so I allowed myself to believe those Fourth of July pyrotechnics were launched in my honor. The fantasy was reinforced by congratulatory slaps on the back, hugs, and handshakes from my new surrogate family. I had only been their guest a few days. I took notice that any reservations about my visit had vanished from their minds as everyone felt comfortable enough to playfully tease one another in front of me, often dragging me into the game. While on tour it is normal for me to go weeks at a time without seeing the same faces two days in a row. As humans are social creatures, I found it a nice change of pace to hang my helmet on the same hook for a while and enjoy more intimate interactions with some fellow vacationers.
I was a bit surprised when my new friends included me in every island activity. Gene, Carl and I hiked to the top of Mansel Mountain stepping over wild blueberries and often jumping from one lichen covered rock to another. The view of Long Pond to the east and Southwest Harbor to the south were breathtaking, so I heard. Our visibility from the top was measured in feet, not miles, as the summit was shrouded in fog and drizzling rain. The rainbow assortment of local lichen were thrilled about the moisture and the dew covered berries were plentiful and delicately delicious. The only snafu besides the lack of visible horizons was Carl's new dog in the beginning stages of leash training. Gene and Carl grudgingly took their turns holding the lead while the young dog tried his best to wrap their ankles with it as they simultaneously negotiated wet roots and slimy sod below treeline. The wilderness tranquility was shattered once or twice with loud proclamations to various gods and religious saviors. It was generally impossible to avoid treading on lichen as every rock was covered to a point that it was often impossible to see the actual stone surface. I assumed the lichen were fairly durable because I saw little evidence of damage on a grand scale even though we were hiking a popular trail. We limited our footfalls to the trail itself and resisted the temptation to investigate every shade of colored vegetation up close. I was a bit ashamed at my lack of attention to those colorful orgnaisms during past hikes before I realized the wealth of moisture and lack of sunshine were probably responsible for the enhanced saturation and hue visible to the human eye.
Excursions on my own were generally fueled by my wildlife viewing passion. A long list of avian residents were observed including several species not found in the deep south even during migration. Many of the birds nesting on Mt. Desert Island may be seen on the Gulf Coast only during short refueling breaks as they head to areas beyond the Gulf of Mexico. On a grander scale, whale watching was a big deal near the island and several outfits ran boat tours from Bar Harbor servicing tourists interested in marine life and oceanic bird watching. I never ventured from dry land in Maine - one of the few regrets of the trip. Spending money when on a fixed income of zero dollars becomes an issue of priorities. The amount spent on a half day boat tour would fuel my bicycle travels an extra week. In hindsight I now have access to knowledge I did not have at the time regarding the future of my tour and subsequent financial endurance. Given that knowledge...I should have taken the boat ride. Mt. Desert Island hangs down from the Mainland roughly twenty miles into open water, so views of ocean wildlife from dry land were not hard to come by. Viewing locations were scarce though, as the island mirrored the rest of Maine with road placement well back from the shoreline and often behind a wall of mature trees. One of the advantages a bicycle tourist has over a motor vehicle when searching out wild fauna is the capability to stop almost anywhere along the road to glass an area, or the bicycle may be stashed in woods or weeds to have a go on foot miles from the nearest car park. When enjoying a dayride without heavy luggage dripping from the bike it is easy to just hoist the thing upon a shoulder and carry it cross-country forever, assuming the terrain is not overly technical, allowing me to reach pristine areas where shy and more reclusive creatures roam far away from humans and the habituated hordes of animals that follow us everywhere.
The interior of the island was made accessible by nearly fifty miles of what locals call carriage roads - a fancy name given to gravel roads built in the early 1900's under the direction of John D. Rockefeller Jr and his family. Those roads were wide and very well thought out and constructed. They often hugged the edges of cliffs and crossed streams on massive stonework walls and bridges. The surfaces were well maintained, graded, and nearly as hard as concrete. The best thing about them was the lack of automotive traffic. I would have enjoyed spending more time exploring the carriage roads but my relatively narrow tires were not fond of the tiny sharp rocks on the surfaces. Most of my experiences involved crossing under the stone arched bridges designed to keep carriage road users well away from motor vehicles.
Paved automotive roads circumnavigating and crossing Mt. Desert Island were mostly adequate for cycling purposes. I avoided the eastern half near Bar Harbor due to expense, distance from the house, and larger traffic volumes. Southwest Harbor was a fine little town and served my purposes when civilized amusement or supply gathering was desired. I was happy to find a well stocked library at the center of town as I needed to do some research into areas under consideration for future travel, and to discover a diagnosis and a cure of whatever was failing inside of my head.
Top priority of course was my health. I suspected one of the many combat related syndromes was steadily creeping up on me. I knew very little about those afflictions other than some antiquated nomenclature. To get started I looked up "battle fatigue" now known as PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I was on the correct trail, as PTSD is an affliction taken home from wars and other life threatening undertakings. What actually happens on the battlefield is called Combat Stress Reaction or CSR. CSR is what happens first, usually at the front lines of combat and, if left untreated, may develop into the much more serious PTSD. Like a snowball rolling downhill, CSR symptoms tend to make the reaction to intense stress worse, therefore it takes less external stress from each new incident to compound the existing symptoms, and the intensification of the symptoms make the reaction worse. In other words, a viscous circle. The list of possible symptoms was long. The symptoms I was experiencing, some more than others, are marked below with bold text:
Fatigue, Shaking, Tremors, Sweating, Nausea, Vomiting, Loss of appetite, Headache, Backache, Frequent urination, Palpitations, Urinary incontinence, Dizziness, Hyperventilation, Insomnia, Nightmares, Excessive sleeping, Hypervigilance, Increased sense of threat, Irritability, Anxiety, Depression, Substance abuse, Disruptive behavior, Mistrust, Loss of beliefs, Reduced reaction times, Indecision, Disconnection with surroundings, Inability to prioritize, Slowed thought, Lack of concentration, Excessive attention to minor issues, Excessive time spent on familiar tasks, Loss of initiative, Difficulty starting routine activities.
Well, I knew something was eating me. There was intense stress my first day in Maine, then along came the symptoms immediately thereafter. The stress continued to a lesser extent and was magnified by CSR. Anxiety and irritability were the most noticeable of the bunch, the rest came and went on their own schedules. I felt better after reading about the condition because I then had understanding. The next step was to find a cure.
The fix was pretty simple. First, and most important on the list was labeled: Removal from battle environment. Other treatment included psychotropic medication, counseling, food and rest. Since I had not been witnessing any of my friends being blown to bits during war I felt it safe to assume my level of stress was on the low end of the spectrum and would likely not require counseling or psychotropic drugs. The remainder of the cure would be easy. I was already eating a relatively healthy diet and I could clean it up a bit more. Nothing was wrong with my appetite yet. I intended to take many more rest days anyway, since the mission had been accomplished. The first thing on the list was just common sense - get the Hell out of there! With knowledge came the power to make an intelligent decision about where to ride next. I set the medical books aside and moved to the travel section.
Options to cycle out of Maine were limited to just two choices for me: My first option involved riding back up to Highway 1 and hooking a right to continue to new horizons up the Maine coast and beyond. In an age without Internet mapping I could not conduct a virtual bike ride online to find clues regarding road widths, conditions, or scenery. Travel books slanted toward bicycle touring beyond Bar Harbor were nonexistent. My only source of information came from looking at photos of tourist traps in travel books and magazines designed for auto and air travel along with topographic maps. I could catch a ferry to Nova Scotia from Bar Harbor or from Canada further up the coast, cycle the length of that Canadian province, then continue cycling and riding ferries all the way up to Labrador. As appealing as that appeared to me, any more pedaling away from New Orleans would necessitate a flight or two to escape the north country before winter trapped me. Most of my long bike trips ended by painting myself into a corner just like that. The cost of return transportation would suck about one month of travel money out of the trip fund and I had no idea what the roads were like up there. My experience suggested that roads were getting steadily worse as I traveled northward. Given my CSR self-diagnosis, worse would be very bad for my health one way or another. Certainly no roads could be worse could they?
Further reading in a world atlas revealed the types of industries employing the most people in Nova Scotia. Tourism did not make the Top 20 list. The frontrunners in order of size were: Agriculture (farming - no problem), Forestry (lumber trucks), Fishing & Hunting (fishing is a given near the coast and hunting season was closed during summer months), Mining and Oil & Gas Extraction (dump trucks, liquid fuel trucks). Photographs of the Nova Scotia landscape appeared very similar to Maine scenery. Other than the desire to learn how far from home I could pedal, riding further north did not look appealing on paper.
My other choice was to pedal back down the Maine coast toward home. It was very clear to me that I was not spending a long winter up there in Maine or Vermont playing board games and reading romance novels. And pedaling due north into unincorporated lumber-land was out of the question entirely. Doubling back on a route, especially one as unappealing as rural Maine had mostly been, never sits well with me. There were not many choices to be had. I very nearly painted myself into an inescapable corner again. There was no denying the positive aspects of turning southward. The most significant reasons were time an money. I would be pedaling into areas without real winters carrying enough money to stay in motels every night if I felt like it. Everything would get cheaper with each pedal stroke southward from groceries to lodging. Also, I knew exactly what I would be getting myself into, more or less, as once out of Maine I would repeat a lot of states but on different routes than before. I could visit some big cities like Boston, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. as well as some of the same friends as before. And very importantly - I knew the roads would provide enjoyable cycling. I also knew at least three places I longed to ride: Western Connecticut was everything Vermont pretended to be, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the Natchez Trace Parkway. I also wanted to make a pilgrimage to Walden Pond where Henry David Thoreau conducted his famous experiment in frugality.
With facts in hand, I felt no need to make a decision on the spot. I still had some time on Mt. Desert Island to enjoy my vacation. My indecision had nothing to do with CSR. I knew it would probably come down to which way the wind was blowing when I reached the Highway 1 crossroad.
The day finally came when I had to pack up my camp and hug my new family goodbye. We packed so much activity into one week I felt I had been there much longer. I had not yet cemented my big plan for the days to come. I would iron those plans out after a short stay at Bar Harbor on the opposite side of Mt. Desert Island. Perhaps the library there would reveal more clues to help me decide. With my body in top shape and my mind on the mend it was time to perform some routine maintenance on the bicycle. New brake pads were installed, spokes tensioned, and bearings checked and lubed. Worn clothing got stitched up and a new zipper pull installed on the door of my tent body. Everything was in good repair and ready to tackle several more months on the road.
Getting an early start was not necessary as Bar Harbor was only ten miles away. I took my time crossing the island on roads I had already cycled several times. When I reached town my first task was to secure a bunk at the Bar Harbor Youth Hostel, stow my gear, and do some exploring on foot. Hostels were not my favorite places to stay, although I had frequented more than a few in my travels. A hostel could be a converted four star hotel, or an uninsulated wooden shed behind a church. The dormitory sleeping quarters of the larger hostels were fine places to become infected with whatever germs were coughed into the air by the sleeping lodgers, or to pick up a pregnant bedbug in my bedding. There were no guarantees of peace or quiet late at night, and there is always the risk of some tenant losing the plot about other people's property. The only reason to search out a hostel was the lack of reasonably priced campgrounds within easy cycling distance of the town. Normally, when given alternatives, I would avoid any hostel as if it were infected with a plague.
The Bar Harbor Hostel was a converted old house right in town and would be a very convenient place to store my belongings while exploring the area on foot. The town of Bar Harbor was located at the water's edge. It was a great launching point for excursions by land or sea. I rolled into town just before lunchtime. The hostel looked deserted. I was expecting to find a beehive of activity there. I looked at the sign near the front door which read "Hostel closed between 10AM and 5PM". "That sucks" I whispered to myself.
It would be nearly five hours before the hostel was scheduled to open. Not a big deal, but what if they were full up? My only recourse would be to find, if I could, a motel room costing nearly two hundred bucks. And I was saddled with eighty pounds of loaded touring bicycle that would become a liability while exploring Bar Harbor during the next five hours. I rolled away from the hostel and down to the last street at the water's edge. There I noticed an outdoor shop renting kayaks. I chatted with the owner for a few minutes while helping him move kayaks outside to start the day's business. I inquired about reasonable places to stay other than the hostel. He had no suggestions to offer me. I began making my way to a bench near the harbor to stare out toward Frenchman Bay and give my situation some thought. Time was on my side. I had nearly ten hours of daylight to work with. I could feel the now familiar tingle of annoyance crawling up my spine. Tourist traps were almost always a logistical nightmare without reservations made eons ahead of time. How badly did I want to be there anyway? I was riding a cognitive teeter-totter when a young man in his early twenties approached me out of nowhere. I never made it to the bench.
The part of town where I hoped to sit was completely deserted except for some activity near the shops located a fair distance behind me. That fellow had to go well out of his way to talk to me. There was something else about the guy, visually, that was not quite right. His dark hair fell beyond his shoulders and he was clean shaven. His clothing gave him away as being either homeless or mostly unconcerned with visual hygiene. If he had any odor I did not notice it. Not to be too hard on homeless people - I was among their ranks at the time - even the homeless come in many hues and shades of homelessness. Also, my touring bike loaded down with saddle bags is always a conversation starter. Generally after just a few sentences I could judge the appropriateness of an encounter. To the average con man, I probably looked like a basket-person who lived under a bridge. Even in large cities I rarely had trouble with con men.
Innocently enough, the young man started out with the usual questions. He asked where I started and where I was going. In a short time he had asked what I considered to be too many questions. Keep in mind I grew up in New Orleans - the home of Bourbon Street - quite possibly the epicenter of the known universe for conning tourists as well as locals. I could detect a con from a mile away. I was definitely marked and not just the subject of innocent curiosity.
As the inquisition continued I began looking around me, over my shoulder, up and down the street. Was there an accomplice somewhere? There was no one to be seen. My inquisitor appeared to have nothing in his hands. The questions kept coming and I gave short answers. I was prepared for a fist in the throat and attempted theft of my bike and all my belongings. I kept the bike between us. Both my hands were occupied holding up the bike's weight. I was in near perfect position to receive a sucker-punch.
Finally, he asked if I was travelling alone. That was one question too many. And after three months on the road I had absolutely no fear of anything, especially since my trip was completed. I looked him square in the eyes and with a knowing smile on my face responded: "So who are you...the Bar Harbor welcoming committee?" Next came five full seconds of silence as we locked eyes. I raised my eyebrows and shrugged my shoulders slightly as way of repeating the question without any words. Then the cursing started as he began backing away. "F... you! F... you man!" as his middle fingers traced circles in the air. He yelled another "F... you asshole!" as he crossed the wide street toward the shops and disappeared around a corner.
No hot dagger through the chest of a conman hurts more than his con being discovered by a mark in less than one minute. His response erased any small doubt I had about his intentions. A sincere person would never leave with a hail of curses in such a manner. And our meeting had erased any doubts about my next move. Within sixty seconds I was looking at the "Welcome To Bar Harbor" sign in my rear-view mirror. I could have stayed home and visited my local tourist trap rife with conmen. That would have created a lot less expense and trouble for me. I guess it makes sense for pickpockets and con artists to follow throngs of tourists like fly-by-night roofers follow hailstorms. The small amount of trust I had to leave my belongings unattended in the hostel or on the street was crushed.
I rode through two private campgrounds within a few miles of Bar Harbor, and although clean and well kept, the tent sites were expensive, close together, and concrete. Also the places were loaded with noisy kids and their families.
Since it was very early in the afternoon I decided to press on. Fifteen short miles from Bar Harbor found me at the intersection of Highway 1. It was decision time. To my right was one hundred miles of remote Maine then Canada beyond it. If I turned that direction, my trip would last two more months before weather and dwindling funds forced me into air travel. To my left Highway 1 led back to Camden and the rest of the United States where people know how to build proper roads. Turning west would extend my trip fund several months longer and allows me to explore another swath of my own country, take my time, and if I felt like it - stay in motels the entire trip home only camping on perfect evenings in scenic locations. To my right...the unknown. To my left...a long list of places I wanted to visit. Traffic on Highway 1 cleared for a moment. I stood up on the left pedal causing my heavy touring bicycle to begin rolling forward. I clipped my other shoe onto the right pedal and pushed hard again. I glanced eastward down the road to unknown places one last time before leaning left and pointing my front wheel towards Camden to the west.
I felt relief immediately - in part because a decision had been made, but mostly because I was fed up with the kind of mystery and adventure the extreme northeast had to offer. I worried that I would be sad pedaling homeward so soon, however, the vast country before me and unlimited time to explore it balanced out any sorrow trying to bloom. Maine was a beautiful state covered with the kinds of roads that sucked much of the fun out of bicycle touring. More than three months of travel were behind me. At least three more months lie ahead. With no more second thoughts I stood up on the pedals. After a few moments my bicycle was humming along at cruising speed.
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