Sand, Schmaltz and the Beach That Never Ends
Travelling is tough. It requires a clear vision, a sharp mind and the ability to make decisions. You need to make decisions all the time. Should we eat in or should we eat out? Does renting a car make more sense than using a bus? Airbnb or hotel? Sure, they’re not exactly life and death decisions (most of the time anyway) but nobody wants to be the guy who orders the flat white when the cappuccino is so much better. Or heaven forbid, spend the last hours of daylight photographing a quaint waterfall when there’s a more picturesque one just up the stream. Regret can be a wicked travel partner and a three-hour bus ride can become an exercise in self-recrimination as you wonder why you chose your lobster roll Connecticut-style when the more traditional Maine-style was the speciality of the house. Yes, I am a bit of a ponce.
But beyond the relentless decision-making, there’s the packing. When you’re moving every two or three days, you spend quite a bit of time opening suitcases and searching through their jumbled contents for your last piece of clean underwear. Or more frequently, throwing your hefty frame onto an overflowing Samsonite beast, spread-eagling yourself starfish-like whilst simultaneously forcing the zip closed in an effort to test its lifelong guarantee. Of course, such gymnastics are made all the more annoying when you find out that some items that you jammed into non-existent spaces and carried over oceans and through border control posts are in fact useless. Like the travel hairdryer which you never used for three months and when you eventually did, discovered that it had about as much blowing power as an asthmatic six-year old with pneumonia. It wasn’t my hairdryer, by the way. I am not that much of a ponce.
After about ten weeks on the road, we decided that we needed to slow down and stay in one place for a while. As San-Marié’s excitement at the idea grew, she started calling it, “a holiday within a holiday”. I call it, “the thing you tell people at work if you really want to piss them off.”
Having already sampled and enjoyed the subtle joys of low-season Maine (see here for a more romantic view than my cold realism), we sought and found a house near a place called Popham Beach in mid-coast Maine. Now, I’m not really a fan of beaches. They’re fine for a bit of photography or a game of touch rugby when you’re in your twenties or as a location for slow-motion videos of jiggling Baywatch stars, but they’re not great for simply hanging out. Deluded lovers of Freud will point to a sub-conscious discomfort caused by uncovered torsos or to a bizarre Jungian archetype reflecting some deep-seated shame, but the answer is a lot simpler: it’s the sand. I don’t like it. It gets everywhere. It sneaks into the spaces between your toes, it clings to your hairy legs, it nuzzles your sensitive nipples and insinuates itself into your armpits and slowly chafes the skin away. It’s devious and downright unpleasant. But San-Marié had built up an image of the type of beach holiday she wanted and I was happy to oblige provided it didn’t involve me spreading a towel on an uncomfortable piece of dirt whilst putting some glutinous cream on my face, inviting the mildest of breezes to whip up loose grains of sand to stick to my skin. I know, I must be a sheer joy to be with on a summer holiday.
Popham Beach is a rare, long stretch of flat sand on the rocky shore of Maine. At high tide most of the beach is covered by water, yet six hours later it becomes a spectacular stretch of hard, flat walkable terrain where flocks of migrating shorebirds hop around the breakers. Two lighthouses are visible from the beach and numerous islands at varying distances from the shore call out invitingly. If you time it right (and we did), you can walk across the shimmering flats at low-tide to the nearest island, being cautious not to allow the revenging tide to trap you as it returns. Our house was set in a small forest alongside a lake about a one minute’s walk from the beach. It had a wonderful open-plan living area with huge windows on the second floor amongst the trees, where we could see a resident bald eagle making visits to the lake and comedic woodpeckers testing the integrity of their skulls with their violent trunk-tapping.
Regular readers will be unsurprised to know that the beach was the site for the filming of a Hollywood weepie and it was no co-incidence that San-Marié tracked it down. “Message in a Bottle” starring Kevin Costner and Robin Wright Penn, was filmed here. It is one of my wife’s favourites amongst a collection of schmaltzy movies about far-fetched love starring improbably perceptive men. I suspect that even she could see little parallel between me and the boat-building, love-letter writing Costner so fortunately I was not expected to cuddle on the beach under a blanket next to a blazing fire as the sun dipped below the horizon.
When I mentioned “The Bridges of Madison County” in my previous post, one of my friends described it as “sentimental tripe” – I only hope that he hasn’t read or watched “Message in a Bottle”. I was subjected to a compulsory viewing of the movie whilst we were there and although the emotionally wrought narrative may not have been entirely to my liking, I couldn’t resist squealing in childish delight whenever we saw a site that I recognised. Still, I can’t help but wonder when my wife will cast me in a more suitable role. First the grizzled, sensitive Clint Eastwood and then the fading softness of Kevin Costner. How about the bristling muscularity and dark mystery of Matt Damon in a Bourne movie? Or the rugged intelligence of Daniel Craig playing Bond? San-Marié’s not a huge fan of Billy Crystal or Danny De Vito, so at least I’ll be spared that indignity.
We spent most of our days beach-walking, seafood-eating, reading and movie-watching although we did make the odd trip to some nearby towns. On one such visit to Camden, we met a couple of old fellows from Minnesota. I was standing on a little tower admiring the dramatic view to the harbour down below when they clambered up the stairs to join me. The first guy was clearly enthusiastic and told me excitedly that this was the first time that he had ever seen the ocean. The second chap was a bit more circumspect and when he arrived at the top of the stairs, his excited friend asked him if he had ever seen the ocean before. “Oh yes,” he replied nonchalantly, “I’ve seen both of them.”
That was when I realised it was time to leave the USA. We hopped on a bus and headed into Canada.
To view our Popham Beach Gallery, click here.