In seasonal towns like Stonington, many businesses close for the winter. When spring comes, residents start to look for signs of when the businesses will reopen. The businesses reopening sends the welcome message that summer, when Stonington will (we hope) welcome happy and free-spending tourists back to the town, is just around the corner.
Because all of the businesses are locally owned, each one follows its own timetable, which means the town-wide reopening is really a gradual process. Some businesses have partially reopened, some have shown activity that suggests they are getting ready, and others remain dark and shuttered, with no signs of life yet.
I like to look for clues about where things stand during my walks around town. Sometimes the signs of reopening are literal signs, like the hand-lettered notice in the door of one of the shops shown below, and sometimes it is doing the things that get a space ready for business—like painting the gray wooden deck and putting up the signs and the bright red lobster at the Stonington Ice Cream Company stand, above. When the handwritten list of flavors goes up next to the order window, completing the last step in the reopening process, we’ll know that summer is really here.
We’re lucky to have some talented artists as friends, and I am flattered that they have liked some of my Stonington photos enough to use them as the basis for paintings.
It’s a beautiful, sunny Sunday in Stonington today, with perfect conditions for some photography of the scenes around town. Above is a photo looking east form a spot next to the mailboat dock, and below is a shot of downtown Stonington, and a big patch of floating algae, from the public dock next to the Harbor View grocery store. They both have some interesting colors and lots of different shades of blue.
I’ll keep taking the pictures as long as someone else does the painting!
Winters in Stonington can be harsh, and spring comes later than it does in the Midwest. But it does arrive . . . eventually.
One sure sign of spring is the emergence of the fiddleheads. Our down yard is fiddlehead territory, with lots of ferns growing among the rocks. They get wiped out during the long winter, but they are hardy plants that are used to the cold, wet, windy conditions. When spring growing season is upon us, these little fiddleheads shoot up from last year’s dead debris. Soon they will unfurl like flags to expose their fronds, and then the ferns will grow like crazy. By mid-June we’ll have ferns and their bright green colors dappling every nook and cranny of the down yard.
When the fiddleheads come forth, it’s time to start planting your flowers.
So when we got back to Stonington, of course we decided to promptly pay a visit to the F&F, both to get an excellent meal and also to reward them for being courageous stalwarts during a very difficult time. The food was great, as always–we shared some very tasty oysters, and I had a delicious, perfectly cooked ribeye steak for my entree–and we were glad to see that the place was jammed with patrons. I’m betting that many of them also wanted to reward the F&F, and that the restaurant’s decision to stay open created some customer loyalty that will last for a long time.
Last year I wrote periodically about the need to support local restaurants and bars, which were hard hit by the shutdown orders. Keep them in mind this year, too, as the country works to recover from the pandemic period. And if there are places in your towns that stayed open during the worst of it, give them a special nod, won’t you? They deserve it.
On my walk this morning, a few pickup trucks–the official vehicle of choice for most of the hardy residents of Stonington–passed me on the road. I gave the “walkers’ wave,” which is a cheerful smile and an upward flap of the right hand, fully exposing the palm. In return, the drivers of the pickups gave thestandard two-finger wave from the steering wheel, which I call the “Stonington salute.”
The two-finger steering wheel wave isn’t unique to Stonington–not by a long shot. Texas apparently has tried to claim it as a Texas invention; in the Lone Star State it’s evidently called the “hi sign.” Others describe the gesture as a “rural wave.” I like calling it the Stonington salute, even if it wasn’t invented or perfected here, because I’m a fan of alliteration. But I also like and appreciate the friendly thoughts behind the gesture. The drivers want the walkers to know that they see us and are acknowledging our presence, and the walkers want to be sure that the drivers are aware that we’re sharing the road, too.
The Stonington salute is a small-town thing, for sure. When I’m walking down the street in German Village, passing cars don’t give a wave. If big-city motorists waved at every pedestrian, they’d be waving their arms off. And there’s really not the need to do it, either. Pedestrians aren’t walking in the roadway, like they do here; they are on sidewalks, separated from the street by the devil strip and, in the case of German Village, a row of parked cars, too. The safety concerns that are part of the motivation of the Stonington salute and the walkers’ wave just don’t exist.
Of course, another part of the motivation for the salute and the wave is just that people are friendly around here. I like that, too.
I notice the sky a lot more when I am up here in Stonington than I do in Columbus. I think that is because, when you are down by the harbor, the sky seems so huge and wide and sweeping, with a horizon that is absurdly far away. The sky is not fenced in and limited by trees, houses, and buildings, like it is in Columbus or any other city.
The unfettered sky seems like a gigantic artist’s canvas, where the wind and sun shape and color the clouds into brushstrokes on the blue background and illuminate the island masses below. And when a stray seagull wheels into the frame and soars past, as in the picture above, it’s like Mother Nature generously shared her artwork just with me.
The last year has seen a lot of changes for everyone. We’ve rolled with the changes and adjusted as necessary—there’s really no alternative to that, is there?—but it’s also nice when we learn that something hasn’t changed, and probably won’t change.
That’s why I was glad to see the Stonington mailboat docked and at the ready when I took my first early morning walk through town and past the harbor earlier this week. That’s it there at the right of the photograph above, prepared to toot its horn, head out to the islands in the Bay and deliver mail, packages, and passengers, just as it has for years.
In the ever-changing world, the mailboat is a constant. I like that.
I’ve always been an early riser. Grandma Neal liked to say that I got up at “the crack of dawn.” This morning’s stunning sunrise reminded me of that favorite phrase, because it looked like a crack in the sky, with light beaming in through the break and spreading over the sleepy town and boats at anchor in the harbor.
Sunrises like this are best enjoyed with a cup of hot coffee, and make getting up at the crack of dawn worth every lost minute of sleep.
In Stonington, Maine, the Harbor Cafe is a bedrock of the downtown business area. During the winter, it’s typically the only restaurant open on Deer Isle. It serves a great menu of classic diner fare for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with many chowders, stews, fish dishes, lobster rolls, and other classic New England favorites mixed in. It’s a great place to go for a glass of Allagash White and a bowl of haddock chowder (with extra oyster crackers and hot sauce, of course) and, if you’re up to it, a piece of one of their great, homemade pies.
But now the local newspaper is reporting that the Harbor Cafe is in danger of closing. Thanks to the coronavirus, its revenue have been cut by a third this year, and it still has to pay rent, and water, and the other costs of running a restaurant business. As a result, the Cafe is in danger of closing, which would cost the downtown area an iconic business and eliminate 12 jobs on Deer Isle. A former employee has started a Facebook fundraising campaign to try to help the Cafe stay in business.
The Harbor Cafe is not alone in its struggles to survive a business-crushing global pandemic. CNN reported this week that 17 percent of America’s restaurants have closed — about 110,000 restaurants in all. We’ve seen closures on the restaurant row on Gay Street and elsewhere in Columbus, and the CNN story reports that the news for those of us who like to dine out from time to time may get even worse: a survey conducted by the National Restaurant Association found that 37% of respondents say it is “unlikely” they will be in business in six months unless things change.
In short, an economic disaster is happening right in front of our eyes — although many of us, keeping to our snug coronavirus cocoons in our houses, haven’t really noticed it yet. The shutdown orders, the changing instructions from health officials, and the fear that has been generated is decimating an important small business sector and causing a loss of jobs that won’t come springing back if and when a vaccine gets here. 100,000 restaurants aren’t going to magically reopen when the “all clear” is finally sounded.
I don’t like the idea of Stonington, Maine, without the Harbor Cafe, and I don’t like the idea of an America without a rich smorgasbord of restaurant options. If you agree with me, I urge you to get out to your local restaurant of choice, have a hearty meal, and maybe splurge on that piece of pie, too. Stimulus packages are nice, but what restaurants really need right now are full dining rooms.
Edited to Add: Just to make it clear, I’m not suggesting that people disregard governmental orders or flout social distancing norms. Most of the restaurants I know of (including the Harbor Cafe) have implemented social distancing in entrance and egress rules, creating distance and/or putting up barriers between tables, masked staff, and other measures to make dining out as safe as possible. And if, notwithstanding the safety measures, you just don’t feel comfortable dining in, carryout is always an option to help support your local restaurants.
The weather gods looked kindly upon us today, giving us one last beautiful day in Stonington before we head back to Columbus. The skies were clear, the sunlight sparkled on the waters of the Penobscot Bay, and the temperature hovered around 60. It was a perfect day to hike the trails of the Settlement Quarry and take in a breathtaking view — and we weren’t the only ones who thought so.
A day like this makes you sad to leave, but eager to return.
Thursday night the Montauk daisy buds were out in force and on the cusp of blooming —finally!—and the only question in my mind was whether we would see the plant in its full-flowered glory before we returned to Columbus.
But when I awoke on Friday morning I found that the marauding band of deer had paid us an overnight visit, come right up to the stairs, and chewed off dozens of the buds, leaving only one or two sad and shaken reminders of what the daisy could have been. And so two of the principal gardening storylines of the summer — the Great Deer Battle of 2020 and the Waiting for Godot-like delay in the blooming of the Montauk daisy — have coalesced, weeks of anticipation have been dashed, and the thuggish deer herd of the Greenhead peninsula has had the last laugh. May those white tailed reprobates be consigned to some flowerless hell!
But one battle does not determine a war, and the deer’s triumph in 2020 just means I will have to redouble my deer resistance efforts in 2021. I guess you should plan on that when you decide to try gardening in a place called Deer Isle. In the meantime, I’ll be rooting for the hunters of Deer Isle to shoot straight and true when deer season rolls around in a few weeks. In this clash, I could use some allies.
This summer we have been trying to support all of the local businesses around Stonington — especially restaurants, which really need the traffic to stay in business and which face unique challenges in achieving appropriate social distancing and sanitation in the coronavirus era. Every week, we’ve tried to go to at least one local-area restaurant for a hearty meal and a very generous tip for our server. This week, as our stay in Stonington is coming to a close, we’re looking to complete a final circuit of all of our summer options.
Last night we went to the Fin & Fern, which has become a mainstay this summer. It’s located next to the mailboat dock and features a really good and diverse menu. It also made the decision to open when a lot of restaurants were still debating their options and resolutely stayed the course all summer, offering fine, and safely served, meals. I’ve become very fond indeed of the F&F short rib and mashed potatoes, and Kish swears they have an amazing Caesar salad. (I wouldn’t know, because when it comes to salads, I came to bury Caesar, not to praise him.)
Last night, though, I went for the lobster stew, shown above, and a bacon cheeseburger with fries. The lobster stew was a creamy treat, served piping hot with lots of big chunks of lobster and accompanied (of course!) by oyster crackers. And the cheeseburger was a grilled-to-perfection medium rare, with thick pieces of smoked bacon and just the right amount of fries. It was a fine way to bid the Fin & Fern adieu until next year.
We’re all going to try to forget 2020, and for good reason. But there are some parts of the year that I will remember, and the restaurants that opened up and offered patrons a dash of normalcy amidst the craziness will be one of them. Thanks to the Fin & Fern for some great food and a friendly atmosphere when we really needed it the most.
Our time in Stonington is rapidly drawing to a close. After more than four months of working remotely from the salty shores of the Penobscot Bay, we’ll soon be heading back to the Midwest.
When a very pleasant sojourn is ending, it’s important to lock in those memories about things that make a place special. That means large gulps of salty air on morning walks, and feeling foggy mist on your arms and face, and touching rough granite rocks, and hearing a few more locals talk with those unique Maine accents. And of course it means a lobster roll, too, because lobster is one of the flavors of Maine.
Fortunately, the Harbor Cafe in Stonington makes an exceptional lobster roll: a split-top bun, toasted and lightly buttered, loaded with fresh lobster in a light sauce. You get heaping amounts of lobster with every crunchy bite. We headed there for one last lobster roll yesterday, and got something to savor.
One of the many cool things about Stonington is the presence of handmade signs—like these two carefully carved signs identifying Ocean Drive.
Why are there two virtually identical road signs, right on top of each other? Beats me! It’s just part of the charm of the place.
Many of the signs around town are hand-lettered and often involve artwork for some added panache. Lobsters are popular accents for signs, for example. I think some of the business owners feel that hand-lettered signs are a personal touch that says more about their business than a commercially produced sign. And the signs around town aren’t limited to commercial establishments, either. Some houses have joined in the hand-lettering parade and put up their own signs. Sometimes the yard signs are political, sometimes they are more personal — like asking dog walkers to please not let their dogs off the leash.
I find the personal signs to be affirming. You wouldn’t make a sign unless you believed it will have an impact. In a town where people do a lot of walking, it’s nice to know that neighbors believe that passersby will read their signs and at least acknowledge — if not agree with — them.