I recently drove up the coast to Acadia to visit friends in this, the ‘off–season’, more commonly known as winter. Only a two-hour drive away and I arrived in a different world. Geographically I arrived at the mountains and the coast towns and I arrived at a summer destination closed for winter.
In the good months, when I make this trip, I take the back roads to avoid the crowds and the strip malls. But this time a recent snowfall has sent me along the main drag. It had been a year since I had travelled that route and so memories and thoughts began to fill my mind, and then my mood, with their observations and anecdotes.
To get to my destination I had to drive through Mount Radiant.
The town of Mount Radiant has grown up at the edge of the National Park lands and has become a noose through which one slips, narrowly escaping aesthetic annihilation. The town, so named for the eastern most point of land, where the rising sun first appears, could have been, had it wanted to be, a gracious ambassador to display the proud works of man. It could have been a destination to rival the beauties of nature that await a traveler on the other side of its border. Instead it behaves like a border town hussy with aspirations to fit in all commercial enterprises before you go into nature for a simple rustic experience. “Empty your wallets here,” is the subtext.
Local shoppers, the year round residents have all the country and nature they can handle, they do not have to cram their glimpses of beauty into a small summer vacation, of a week, or a month. They wanted the bargains and the conveniences that the giant stores promised and so they made a deal with the devil. The developers built the stores that filled up and eventually swallowed what was once a town and now resembles the ass-end of any suburban sprawl in America. It is a sprawl without a soul, only a devouring mouth and blind eyes.
I drove through the half deserted landscape. Along the side of the road are carcasses, the relics from summers past, and summers yet to come. A tire swing hangs from a rope near a pond, next to a shuttered snack bar. A miniature golf course sits next to a go-cart track; a chainsaw sculpture turnout is an attraction for tourists who want to see a log turned into a bear.
There is a rope climbing area and the space for it is hacked out into a thicket of trees, as if pioneers founded the wilderness in a desperate attempt to bring this marvel to the new land, to the streams of visitors who would surely come. Ice cream shops vie for attention, the universal symbol of cone and scoop are a cartoon ghoul of enjoyment. The bison petting zoo is an improbable attraction, yet it exists and people must go there, I assume this because it persists.
Along the “Maine drag” in the smaller towns the business’ are titled, “Mainley this” and “Mainley that” or “Just so and so’s.” The names are cutsie and kitschy clichés that shriek out for ones attention, like a gaggle of teen-aged girls. A series of lobster pounds surrounded by parking lots are full only during summer months.
Then there is the former cheese house. It was shaped like a wheel of cheese, and, at one time, painted bright yellow, with one slice cut out for the entry. A giant grey mouse was mounted on the flat-topped roof - offering up a slice of cheese - presumably the missing piece. It had been a joke at the time, when it first arrived and we were children. It was one of the first of that sort of hokey-folksy gimmick stores that slipped in using it’s own self-mockery as cover.
It’s joke status allowed it to remain unobtrusive and therefore pave the way for what would become no laughing matter.
At that time there was only one bookstore, one supermarket, and one, single, restaurant. The years have multiplied everything into a town resembling a cautionary tale to ponder and examine.
Long chains of electric lines clamber above the road and choke the sky. The moon and mountains become tangled in the lines. My thoughts get caught there like a vagrant kite that has been blown off course.
I drove away from that cackling hag of a town.
The real departure began when I arrived at the Narrows Bridge that separates mainland from Island. I drove across the bridge and my memory machine began, taking me back to childhood, and all the times I have crossed that bridge. The bridge marks a separation like stages of a rocket booster falling off and behind me.
Years ago the narrow bridge marked a third, in a series of separations.
The first separation occured when my family left our home in St. Louis, as the school year ended the car was packed full before dawn as if we were on a secret mission.
The second stage began when we drove, two days later, across the Maine border. There on the center of the bridge, suspended above water, we were transformed but still hours away from our goal.
And then came the Narrows Bridge where the mainland falls behind and the ticky-tacky jungle lapses into the rearview mirror.
Fifty years have gone by and I still feel a small thrill as I cross the Narrows Bridge. Now it is a two-hour, not a three-day journey but it is still a voyage and an arrival. Fifty years of arriving here and I still feel like a stranger in this land. I have come to visit friends, and although we talk of all of our people in common and our mutual family relationships, I am a guest.
I look back at my past self and feel that I had so little claim to the spaces that I occupy. Where is my home? I spent years in New York thinking about Maine only to come to Maine and finally come to see New York. There were years in St. Louis spent thinking beyond the confines of the middle of the country and yearning for the edges.
There in the off-season, in a small hotel room, I woke up to a full moon setting over the Western Mountains. I felt out of place but then I remembered another night that I had spent in this sheltered harbor, when I was ten years old. I had wanted to sleep in the harbor at Elsa Vee’s home, on the night before our family was scheduled to leave on our long reverse trip back to St. Louis.
My family was friendly with Elsa. She had sold us her home, out on the Island, after her husband died and in order to send her son through college. I have always remembered that, our home and happiness came out of her loss and needs. She was at an end of a cycle of life and we were, then, just beginning.
She had made the offer that we were welcome to stay in her home, in the harbor, on our way through. It was large and quiet, on a tree-lined street that looked out onto the water and boats. I had wanted to see what it felt like to be there, among the photographs of her departed husband and student son. I had wanted to curl up on her couch and watch the small TV, something we did not have and it seemed interesting to me then.
So I stayed at her home that night, ate with her in the kitchen and then sat with her in her living room, watching her tiny black and white television. The next day my family came for me and we began the long drive back, through the rocket stages, the bridges and borders, until we reached the point where we had started from three months earlier. We arrived at the end of summer and the beginning of the school calendar.
For one night, at Elsa Vee’s, I stayed in an in-between place. I slept on the mainland, just out of site of the Island where my family remained. I was separated from my family and for that night I experienced one of the towns that we had always hurried through. For one night I was with someone who was always there. I was with someone who was already home.
Last year, at this same time and place, I met my friends and we swam in the winter water. They considered it a cleansing ritual but for me it was an uncomfortable baptism. Yesterday we walked along the snowy beach. Then, I headed back down the coast ahead of another snowstorm. The bright opal moon that had set into the pale pink over the mountains, gave way to banks of clouds and thin grey winter light.
On the drive back down the coast I passed through the town where the author Marguerite Yourcenar is buried. Her final resting place is in a town as lovely as Mount Radiant is not. Like the story, ‘A Picture of Dorian Grey’, the town of beauty has hired out its ravages to a surrogate. The ugly town of Mount Radiant provides all of the marketplace services, without frills while the town of beauty where Margeurite lies provides a respite for the soul from the ugliness of the world. She had looked at the mountains and the ocean view and saw through to the world of Piranesi and Hadrian in Rome. She looked deep into the past and into the minds of others, and therefore herself. She was an intellect and saw beauty with her mind.
I drove home back to our workshop and studios. I longed to reach for the things that will not fall away like the stages of rockets. I want to create things that will gather strength and become fulfilling as the years go by.
I need to clear my eyes of the vision of a limbo world that exists to amuse but never satisfy. I am looking for the things that will save me from being a migratory animal. I do not want to be dependent on the whims of the winds and the tides. I do not want to be dependent on the mountain views in order to feel alive, as pleasant as they may be to contemplate.
The works of man need to rival the works of nature, to create harmony and balance in life. If mankind continues to build large cheap and flimsy works of commerce then we are forced to split and separate man from nature. The metaphor of the portrait double is a mirror of our own countenance. The decay is just out of our line of site and is a mental illness that haunts our society. We live in a world that we are not always comfortable in.
The practicality of easy shopping and cheap available goods are often welcomed whenever they are allowed to roll into town. The stores look upon their customers like a bird of prey examines the meat on a bone. In the town of Mount Radiant the main road was diverted to virtually deliver you into the giant parking lot.
I became confused as I drove by and narrowly escaped, but not before getting trapped in the wrong lane.
More should be demanded of them; we should demand that they are less. The super-size of the ‘big boxes’ demands an explanation beyond the ‘three for a dollar’ thrift they offer. Do we say they provide relief for the poor? Do they satisfy the middle class need for a perfect home and tidy life? Or do they subsidize a standard of living that is itself substandard? We are complicit to the degree to which we participate. A cheap life comes with a matching throw away soul for the masses.
Spectacular views are quarantined at the end of long driveways with ‘Private’ signs. The view is reserved for glimpses during a holiday, in officially sanctioned areas. Because it was off – season, we walked along a private drive and came out onto fields and a beach of staggering beauty. But the beauty left me cold, the winter wind perhaps, but I was unsatisfied.
Beauty has become a thing here, a commodity. Beauty is often something that is owned, hidden away and very, very expensive.
I have some skin in this game. I have a small stake in a place that is inaccessible for most of the year and uninhabitable for the rest. I tried, for a time to make it something more. I could not make a whole life there, and I could not put my life on hold to make room for it.
I cannot afford the austere beauty of that world and cannot bear the cheapness and ugliness, which is the opposite side of that coin. So I have come to settle away from the searing views and the hideous twin at the gates.
I have landed in an area that is beautiful still, and yet modest and so within reach. It is not the glamorous jewel desired by so many and so it is a little left alone, a little off the beaten track.
I have needed to create a palace for my soul and the more I considered this, I have concluded that the place for it lies within. That palace is inside the labyrinth of my mind and intellect. I sit, now, at my desk, looking out onto a field and woods, at the deepening, falling snow. The branches are outlined with layers of brilliant white snow and the forest takes on a fantastic form. The skeletons of winter trees fill out with the fat flesh of many snowflakes.
I turn through the pages of ‘Memoires of Hadrian’ by the author Marguerite Yourcenar. She had remained in my mind as we drove past her cemetery and now her restless ghost delivers this paragraph, as if she read my thoughts:
“Like everyone else I have at my disposal only three means of evaluating human existence: the study of the self, which is the most difficult and dangerous method, but also the most fruitful; the observation of our fellowmen, who usually arrange to hide their secrets from us or to make us believe they have secrets where none exist; and books, with the particular errors of perspective to which they inevitably give rise… The poets transport us into a world which is vaster and more beautiful than our own, with more ardor and sweetness, different therefore, and in practice almost uninhabitable.”
Her words continue and the melody mingles with the swirling snow. Her words explain something to me, about the process of reflection and the difficulty of separating the layers of truths, half-truths and untruths we tell ourselves and hope to convey to others. Something about the difficulty of finding, or feeling at home.
I sit here and descend into myself, all the while looking on from a great distance, through the tangle of years. I see myself as a dark branch outlined by the white snow. I begin to take form.
I see myself as if looking at a stranger. I welcome that stranger as if it might become a friend.