Rarely we are given the chance to put an exclamation mark at the end of our journey with another person. One last handshake and hug at the corner. That chance materialized for Ben Breger and I this past September. Paradise had, shamefully, proved unfulfilling for us both. By the summer of ’15 we had taken jobs in separate locales, ending our time in Portland, Maine. Ben and my adventure, beginning as barefoot freshmen in the fall of 2010 was ebbing towards the open sea. With one final window of time left, we packed up the car and headed north for an intrepid voyage as our simpler selves – one final trip towards the coast, the county, and Katahdin.
The first stage of any trip is to shop for grub. The first part of our trip should have been to lock in our itinerary, but we were on a tight schedule and there wasn’t much time for that. Ben, the pragmatist, did book our first night up in Baxter State Park. My job was to plan the summit > sea portion, which I had flat declined to do. Regardless, we had our cheese and salami, we just needed a lead on a spot. And damn Portland if you didn’t come through for us one last time! ‘You should go to the Bold Coast,’ our friend Leila advised in Trader Joes, sealing our plans and fating us for a trip to the end of the country.
That night we rocketed up to Katahdin on a pristine, long cloud evening. Highlights included a level campsite and an elderly woman with a watermelon trailer in tow; she spat the word “seedless” at us through a window rolling up. We also marveled at the knife’s edge and Katahdin’s plateau, but I’ve already expanded a bit on that hike here, so I’m choosing to stick with the old lady and the watermelon. The real meat of the trip didn’t begin until we got down anyhow.
A route exists that connects Baxter State Park to the public preserves of the Cutler Coast, a non-linear collection of roads that ladder rungs you down to the sea. Plainly put, it is unlike any stretch of road that I have ever seen and we caught it on one of those last long summer evenings. You begin by meandering through a dense canopy of red pine forest – in places the trees hug so closely to the road that your car is forced to a crawl – a tunnel into unknown townships like TB R11 WELS, their jumbled titles a function of demarcation, not identity. Soon the forests flanking the roads open into overgrowth forest, their old oaks sparsed through deserted farmland, a bayou apparition in the hanging mist of cicada sound. Remnants of unkempt orchards spill over the road, leaving pre-prohibition apple species to be squashed on the cement. At one point I believe we traveled for over an hour without seeing another car, human structure, or yellow median line on the road. It was five hours in the forgotten end of our country, We one of the few who wriggled north of Acadia’s nets. Ben and I mostly chain smoked, looked out the window, and listened to our Led Zeppelin’s discography. We were past the novelty portion of Maine, just as we were past the novelty portion of ourselves. We had reached the boarderlands, the U.S. precipice, and the fitting setting for a final deluge. I wouldn’t give that afternoon back for a stable job and a retirement plan, I’ll tell you that much. Absolutely goddamn right!
Of course Ben was on me to see if we could reserve a campsite, despite my attempts to down play the entire scenario. After some prodding and a window of cell service I was able to discover that the campsites were a first serve kind of deal, a development that had Ben slapping his head in stressland. “Such a Collin adventure,” was uttered in disgust at some point if I recall right. But just as I am attuned to the occasional unplanned trip, Ben knows a thing or two about comfort and the limits of weary travelers. As I rushed to stuff my pack basket full of essentials in the dying light, Ben piped up in the name of reason. So we spent that night in the parking lot and felt no shame in it. The stars were out, the spot was level, and not one car passed us in the night.
We woke that morning, beating our chests with vigor over a bacon breakfast. We had summited the highest point in Maine the day before, so what was a 5-mile hike in to the Fairy Head campsites? Nothing! That’s what. A foolish underestimation as it turned out. Coastal travel plays an elevation game with you and we weren’t prepared to ball. With my 1930’s style wicker pack-basket cutting into my shoulders we took to the trail with hanging pots clamoring off loose straps, our tents running the length of our shoulders. We made it a mile and a half before bailing, and for once our lack of conditioning provided luck. We spotted a rivulet leading off trail, a steep stream bed that ended in a stone beach. We snooped, scouted, and found that we could access the coast by way of a pack pass (one person climbs down, receives the packs, and your mate follows). By these measures we made our descent down the cliffs to our home for the night.
There was only a single flat patch of land, which I gladly forfeited to Ben. He wasn’t keen on the spot in the first place, but his exhaustion won the day. I settled for a terrace of smooth rocks right above the high tide mark. My bed was made by lying down on the stones – a way to locate the pressure points – and, with two hands, I slid the worst rocks to form a troth. There’s something simple about making one’s bed out of smooth coastal stones, a kind of ouija ceremony to summon restful sleep. Our real estate would heed the rules of the tides. Seeing as the water was low when we began, we rallied to explore the coast, feeling spruced up by the day ahead.
The land is preserved in a way that could only be Mainer’s work. Exploring the trails of the Bold Coast feels like walking onto ground sown with intention. It’s evident that many have left their hearts on that stretch of coastline and it is little wonder why. Along with the pristine plant life in autumn bloom, the cliffs separating the beaches were cast in washed purple and lapis blue, a scene that was, to my disbelief, almost tropical. Staircases with driftwood handrails were made in places to assist with climbing off the shore and frequently we came upon a note or hanging wreath left by a blissful forbear. By sunset the waters reflected grapefruit, painting the cliffs of Grand Manan on a night so clear you could see detail on the Canadian island twenty miles to our east.
At the top of one staircase I took a seat. That place was effectively my final step into Maine. With looming dates and a job in Vermont, I slowly lowered myself down to that stoop. The waves lapped the coast and Ben was off snapping pictures as I turned my hands over. I weight that seat as my final outpost, looking past my feet to the coast in my bid of shade. I had only known advancement in my time in that great state; everything from here on would be only retreat. I’m sure more immeasurable beauty lie further down that trail and someday I know I will go back there, but it was not meant for this trip. I snapped a picture and we lit out for our campsite while we still had the light.
The joy in making any campsite home is in the resources provided by the land. Stones, driftwood, and the tide were ours to manipulate. Ben managed to fashion a recliner out of a washed up board and played a guitar set that slapped off the water and cliffs – luring a seal to poke his/her head up for a listen at one point, I shit you not – as I set to heating our chili on the whisper light. When our bellies were full, Ben built a fire circle below the high water line, a move that ensured any flames we built would be consumed by the tides. At one point a woke Bostonian traveled above us and belted out a toast to our site with a raised fifth of Jim Beam. We joyfully responded from below, sweaty and smiling. No one else would be by to tell us a damn thing and I liked it that way. That night and that beach were meant for living, not controlling. By the time the day moved to darkness, Ben and I sat sipping flask whiskey by a roaring driftwood fire.
And toast we did. To our friendship, to years spent looking for a crevice to slip in and remain unseen. We toasted to our friends who could not be there, to our fellows who lived in the Vale and the ones in Portland. We drank to being the final two as the cold began to nip at our toes. But mostly – at least in my heart – I toasted to Maine, to a state left off the list, best known to a few who are given a wink and a nudge. Consider this my nod to you.