I was born and raised in New England but we tended to stick to Massachusetts. I don’t remember ever going to Maine as a child.
As our family grew, Jim and I began taking our little ones to Bar Harbor, Maine–a place we first visited during a summer when we both had a rare overlapping break from school and work. I had just taken the Massachusetts Bar Exam and was about to start the new job that would turn out to be my life’s calling.
When our family was just the two of us–and in our hearts the certainty that one day there would be more–Jim had driven north in the Olds Delta 88 (otherwise known as the “Living Room on Wheels,” a vehicle that evidently screamed “short-term renters” when we eventually drove it around seeking to purchase our first home.) He acquired it for free, a quarter million miles already under its fan belt. It would prove to be our sturdiest and best vehicle.
Jim always did the highway driving. Always glancing left more than right as he drove. Always keeping the beat of some song in his head, even when nothing was playing on the radio.
Highway driving is one of many things I feared before I understood what is worth being afraid.
Although that first camping trip to Acadia was made with no little beings in our car (and so no one to provide cover for yours truly, who never abandoned a child’s awe at visitations of the vast), that never stopped me from endlessly wondering about cloud formations.
“That one looks like a dinosaur–more like a triceratops with gazelle horns. . . .Oh, look: an eclair! And a banana split right next to it . . . by that pile of little cream puffs–Oh! I’ve got it! It looks like a croquembouche!”
“Getting hungry, Steph?”
The first time we returned to Acadia as parents we had a happy, curly-haired one-year old in a pack strapped to Jim’s back. It was a rainy October when Jim took his assured long strides around Jordan Pond. Baby Sam smiled and laughed every time a raindrop tickled his cheeks or one of Jim’s footfalls made him bounce and settle back into the green canvas seat. I woozily followed, pregnant with the next baby.
We returned with two boys, then their baby sister, and then another. By that time Sam was in first grade. Our son Noah lost his first tooth while visiting Acadia. No one batted an earnest blue eye at the logistics of having to navigate the Tooth Fairy’s toll-free number to report the need for an extra-jurisdictional collection.
Last month, on summer’s last weekend, I took my first trip overnight by myself since Jim died–in fact my first trip alone since we married. I could see our family in every nook of the Acadia National Park Loop–our children’s little selves hand-in-hand with their dad, clad in summer cotton and climbing across the rocks atop Cadillac Mountain; skipping pebbles by eponymous Sandy Beach (where our Sam and Noah were startled to hear another mom call out “Sam, Noah!” to her similarly aged sons); the bright yellow midriff-level flower on our youngest baby’s first tiny swimsuit, at the pond near Bubble Rock where Jim swam with our children and tickled her belly and she laughed and laughed.
I was standing by myself by Eagle Lake, taking pictures of a teal kayak against the teal water, when the kayak’s silver-haired owner appeared. He took one look at me and said, “It looks like you lost your best friend.”
It turns out the kayak’s owner is a retired psychologist–evidently a pretty good one. And he lives in the Southwest Harbor, so I seized the opportunity to ask where he would go in search of sunset. He gave me meticulous directions across the island.
Soon after that, wind and rain descended. The harbor settled under fog so thick and opaque that I could barely make out a lighthouse only yards away. Hoping it would clear, I hiked around the island; just as the sun poked through the woods, I found the trail head that had been described to me.
I began the trek from a main road that angled into an increasingly claustrophobic path, from asphalt to gravel to dusty earth and then a carpet of copper pine needles. It was lined with an increasingly dense collection of trees and overgrown sea grasses, both darkening and quieting the path. As bird songs faltered and fell off, I saw twisted felled trees which had been weathered into fairy tale creatures.
Finally the path veered sharply, like an elbow pushing through a crowd, past a small orchard flecked with gnarled crab apple trees and white butterflies whose wings caught the sunlight, flickering lights joining dragonflies’ silvery-plum flashes.
Almost as suddenly as the path returned to shadowed deep woods, it emerged at an even narrower razor’s edge of a space through piled boulders to the rocky shore: a perfect view west, to a lingering gold-dusted sunset, all by myself but never entirely alone.