Southwest Harbor was asleep when I arrived, so I quietly found a spot, curled up and began dreaming. My iPhone started jumping at 5:00 AM. If I wanted to see dawn from the top of Cadillac Mountain I had to hustle, even though it’s a relatively short drive from Smugglers Den Campground. Slipping into last night’s clothes and grabbing a hat, so as not to scare small children, I started the 18-mile drive to Cadillac. For the record, there are a few ways to get to the top of Cadillac Mountain. 1. Walk. 2. Bicycle. 3. Drive. I concluded the night before that anyone choosing options 1 or 2, at 5 AM, should be immediately treated for a multitude of brain disorders. As it was, driving to the top in the dark was a test of cornering skills. Skills I began acquiring at the age of 12. But I digress.
Several people beat me to the parking lot near the summit of Cadillac, apparently shunning sleep for fear of missing an opportunity to be the first person on the east coast to see the sun rise. Considering the sun rises at a particular time regardless of who’s watching, I didn’t mind being an also-ran. After bundling up and exchanging slippers for hiking boots, I made my way to the top and tried to shelter from the wind. The horizon appeared to be back-lit from across the Atlantic, presenting graying light along its rim. As my eyes adjusted, stars twinkled atop islands as they slipped from darkness and began to take shape. Slowly the distant sky began to take on color, pushing the gray upward and replacing it with shades of yellow, orange, red. Then, as if hung from a heavenly string around the finger of God, a tiny blazing sun rose from the ocean, sat on the edge of the earth and stared back at all of us gathered to see its arrival. Flat clouds skittered along the horizon and I wondered if they were as mesmerized by this display as was I. Then I remembered they see this every day and haven’t once had to drive to see it.
An odd thing happens five minutes after the sun has fully risen. The top of Cadillac Mountain turns into a ghost town. If you booted myself and a couple other folks taking photos, Cadillac would be void of people. Apparently the enchantment of a big orange ball in the distance fades quickly. When I eventually walked back down to my van, with the exception of a few people who had obviously continued to hit snooze on their iPhone, I was alone.
To fully experience a National Park, you have to hike. Find a trail and begin to explore what prompted individuals to petition our government to protect this land. Discover the physical traits that make an area special and worth preserving for future generations. Acadia begs to be explored. Countless miles of trails guide you to mountain tops and lead you back to its craggy coastline. In between, timeless forests thrive, hiding their treasures from those who only dabble on the edges. On the way down Cadillac, I stopped at Bubble Mt trailhead and started hiking. In the wrong direction. I wasn’t lost, it’s just that there is usually more than one trail leading to the summit and I had not chosen wisely. Or, I had deliberately chosen one of the only trails in the park that was ‘natural’. I will allow the reader to decide which, but suffice it to say the trail was made up exclusively of boulders. Ever rising boulders of every size imaginable. And since boulders by definition are not flat, this made for two-hours of climbing that I will not soon forget. Boulder by boulder I inched my way to the top. Sometimes the crevices were so thin that I had to turn sideways and shimmy upward by pressing my knees against the wall in front of me and pulling myself up. Stopping several times on the way up to see an ever expanding view of the Atlantic and lakes below – and more than a few times to catch my breath and rub my knuckles – there was no way in hell I was turning back until I set foot at the summit. Which eventually I did, only to meet a wonderful couple that had hiked up the other side and said it was “a piece of cake.” I described the route I had taken and when they finished laughing, we all agreed it was well worth the effort. The Atlantic and her distant islands, lakes surrounded by sloping trees and massive rock outcroppings, all laid at our feet. Stubbornly, I finally turned and hiked back down the way I came.
Jordan Pond is a glacier formed tarn with clear water to a depth of nearly 50 feet. (Author’s Note: Tarn is a fancy word that I only recently discovered. It means small mountain lake, which moving forward I will probably stick with.) Hving sharply rising bluffs on two sides, it is a lovely oasis on Mt Desert Island. With trails branching out from the pond, I made an afternoon of finding my way around much of the shore. Each turn putting a new view of the pond on display. Afterward, I spoke with a Park Ranger at Jordan House who said, “About 95% of our visitors drive the park loop and leave. They may pull over a few times and take a picture or two. But for the most part they drive and leave. A nice day trip.” After walking the trails around Jordan Pond, I found this inconceivable. Given its breathtaking vistas, with countless photo ops, the Acadia park loop is unquestionably one of the great National Park drives. But to experience the heart and soul of the park, you have to venture inside – if even for a few moments.
Returning to Smugglers Cove (I just like saying Smugglers Cove. Makes it sound like a dangerous place instead of a campground nestled into the woods with rather large RV’s and a great bank of showers) I decided to circle through the seaside village of Northeast Harbor. With magisterial homes leaning out over the water, or tucked into the woods only to be seen by those sailing by, this area has long been known as an enclave of wealthy summertime residents. Secluded with architectural styles and materials that blend into the landscape, I was tempted to meander up one of the lengthy driveways and see if perhaps the occupants were looking for an older gentleman to adopt. One can always dream.
Hulls Cove Visitors Center is a beautiful building, set high above the parking area. Ascending the 50+ steps, you take note of how carefully the man-made structures blend seamlessly into the natural environment. A deliberate attempt to meld into what was there long before man set foot on Mt Desert Island. Inside, as in most National Park visitor centers, rooms are open and high ceilinged. On this warm day, even late in the season, several people waited in line to ask questions of a Park Ranger. This is where I met Ranger Emily. We began talking about the various trails in the park and she asked if I had had the opportunity to hike during my visit. Yes, quite a bit – and I mentioned the trails. She smiled. “I see you managed to find one of our only natural trails over by Bubble. How was it?” Hard. Still smiling. “Yep, that’s a hard one.” And to make it worse added, “You know the other side up is much easier.” Yes. I’ve been told I’m not very bright.
When I informed Emily about TheMountCo Project she opened up about funding and what it takes to “keep a park running smoothly.” She mentioned something in a context that I hadn’t considered. “People think we just set aside land and that in itself makes up a National Park. What they don’t realize is that it takes enormous resources to develop access to these pristine pieces of land. And once access is developed it requires enormous funding and manpower to maintain that access and all the attendant services.” She spoke with conviction. “I wish we could make people understand that a National Park, in particular one such as Acadia that presents unique geological challenges, is a living breathing space that must be tended to. Constantly nurtured, while integrating spaces for the public. It’s much more complex than simply setting aside a piece of land.” Well stated. I can’t improve upon Emily’s assessment.
The following day, I decided to give my legs a morning of rest and drive up to Elsbury for an oil change since I was over 4,000 miles into the trip. During the drive, my battery light came on, so while at Route 2 Oil Shop, I asked them what they thought the problem was. “Could be a low baaattary. Or the altanataaa.” I think it’s the alternator. “You a mechanic?” Nope. Hardly. “Yep. Could be the altanataaa.” Oil changed, heading back to Bar Harbor to take some photographs, every indicator light on the dash comes to life. Then she dies. No warning, just dies. But with good fortune I coast into a gas station. AAA informs me that I have used up my free services (doesn’t everyone lock their keys in the car at least 3-4 times a year?) and a tow truck would be out for the small fee of $60. And my choices are? Eddie pulls up about 45 minutes later and we head to Skip’s Auto Repair, where it’s confirmed, “The altanataaa is bad,” as he hands me the large metal part. $500 later, thanks to Shaun staying late – with his young daughter Katie watching his every move – and a paaaats store next door, I’m back on the road. Could have been worse. Could have decided to quit on the back-roads of Canada. I’d still be sitting there waiting for AAA to deliver an altarnataaa.
Before heading down to Uncle Mike and Aunt Amy’s blueberry farm in Alna, Maine for a couple days of apple picking, good laughs and good food, I needed one more hike. I wanted a few more views from above the treeline. Beech Mountain, at a little under a thousand feet and its fire tower at the summit looked like a good choice. And in one of my rare moments, I was correct. The trail leads up through trees still bristling with color, shoulder to should with pines and evergreens. Along the way there are large slabs of rock, perfectly placed millennia ago by mother nature in anticipation of mere mortals sitting and viewing her work. Which I did several times before reaching the top, climbing the fire tower, taking in every inch of the view and reluctantly heading back down.
On my way out of Acadia, I stopped for one last meal. I had another long drive in front of me and was starved after hiking all morning on a few scoops of peanut butter and a mug of coffee. Luckily, the Lobster Pound & Real Pit BBQ on Bar Harbor road had yet to close for the season. I ordered a bowl of clam chowder and a BBQ pulled pork sandwich. Oh my. Oh my. I kept biting into clams that were only slightly smaller than my head. Fresh, meaty clams in the perfect blend of potatoes, celery, pepper and melted butter. I thought I might cry, so I ate with my sunglasses on. Then I took a bite of the BBQ pulled pork and I had to put my hand over my mouth to keep from making that Mmmmmm sound too loud. Topping it off was a side of creamy homemade potato salad and a glass of freshly brewed iced tea. Days later I still drool just a touch when thinking of this meal.