Impressions of Maine
Lighthouses, lobster shacks, blueberries and clam chowder. That’s Maine, right? Not so. For me, the irresistible draw of travel is exactly that: the way in which the real place is always both more and less than the guidebooks and the Google image searches promise you. We find a Maine that I did not envisage at all, and I fall hard for this tough, self-sufficient place where the sign for ‘Fred’s Yard Equipment – We have snowblowers’ sits unassumingly alongside ‘Harbor Ice Cream – Closed for the season’.
After lingering in the red-and-gold glory of Vermont, it is very late in the season by the time we reach Maine. The first (and the second and the third) lobster shack on my carefully researched list are already closed for the season. It is on our third day in Maine, on the 18th of October, that we see the first snow of the trip. Five minutes of compact, silvery flakes suddenly start falling onto a rocky Maine beach where Saul and I, bundled up, are taking a sunset walk. It is devastatingly beautiful.
At the local supermarket, I make an unlikely discovery: linguica. Although linguica is quite similar to chorizo, unlike chorizo, it is not available at home. Its slight novelty as an ingredient serves to temporarily distract me from pining for the unattainable lobster shacks and I make a sausage and sweet potato soup from Smitten Kitchen, one of my favourite food blogs. I don’t think the soup would be on anyone’s list of typical Maine dishes, but it certainly complements the weather. The soup keeps us going until we track down two spots that stay open to feed locals during the off season, Chase’s diner in Winter Harbor and The Pickled Wrinkle pub in Birch Harbor.
Saul and I make our first happy acquaintance with New England clam chowder at Chase’s. We are also tempted by their freshly baked blueberry pie, but decide to show restraint, a fateful decision as we never find authentic-looking Maine blueberry pie again and ultimately leave the US without having eaten this iconic Maine dish. At The Pickled Wrinkle they don’t have any pickled wrinkles (wrinkles being large carnivorous sea snails, not to be confused with periwinkles or winkles, or so the blurb on the menu tells us) but we happily devour fried clams and po’boys stuffed with scallops, one of the more irreverent and delicious ways I’ve eaten scallops. We eat there on two consecutive nights, driving home somewhat gingerly after dinner when an unfamiliar warning message pops up on the dashboard alongside the below-freezing temperature reading: DRIVE CAREFULLY – ICE POSSIBLE.
To offset the damages of our wanton eating, we spend some time hiking in nearby Acadia National Park. The park is the reason we based ourselves this far north in Maine in the first place. The combination of pine trees, rocky coast and dark indigo sea in the mostly empty park is exhilarating and we forgive them the confusing trail markers that lead to us getting lost on one hike, even with a hiking map in hand. Of course, this is also the hike on which it starts raining, hard.
Although it’s late in the season for birds, we encounter bald eagles in the park. Eider ducks and the Maine state bird, the black-capped chickadee, are everywhere. The eiders are not bothered by the cold; they bob happily and stay underwater for a long time.
With daily walks on the rocky coastline, I start taking an interest in rocks. Instead of the grey rock that I am used to seeing on the South African coast, much of the coastal rock here is pink granite, like eighties kitchen counters. There are some really odd boulders lying around though. They look completely out of place, as though they fell from the moon. I later learn that these strange rocks have a pleasingly descriptive name: they are called glacial erratics. They do indeed come from far away, carried to the coast by long-ago glaciers.
Saul and I simultaneously read the same novel on our two Kindles. This tandem reading makes me feel a bit silly, but I delight in the book, a violent and satisfyingly site-specific Maine detective novel with echoes of Stephen King’s supernatural malevolence. King, a Maine local, lives in nearby Bangor where he can apparently be found at church suppers and other humble community events.
We do eventually find our Maine lobsters and picturesque lighthouses and we love them too. But it’s that first chowder in the sunlit diner and a snow shower on the beach in the middle of October that will forever come first to mind when I think about Maine.
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