Back To Ohio

We completed our trip back to Ohio yesterday, returning to the Buckeye State after an absence of four and a half months. As we rolled under the curious new Ohio border sign — offering its curt and cryptic instruction to “find it here,” without even a friendly “welcome” or “how do you do?” or the exclamation points and promises of excitement you see in other state border signs — the chords of The Pretenders’ Back to Ohio echoed in my head.

This last four months has easily been the longest continuous Ohio-free period I’ve experienced in at least 35 years, and maybe for my entire lifetime. As we rolled toward German Village, Kish and I wondered if we had been gone from Ohio for four months straight during the years we lived in Washington, D.C. — when we often came back to Ohio for holidays, family gatherings, or birthday, graduation, or anniversary celebrations. If we didn’t hit the four-month mark during our D.C. years, then we’ve just set personal records.

And, it being 2020, the four months we’ve been gone from Columbus has been a pretty momentous period, too. We missed a downtown riot and periods of unrest, the closure of favorite restaurants, the sale of the Golden Hobby building down the block, and continuing struggles to deal with the coronavirus. Stonington, Maine is pretty removed from all of that — that’s kind of the goal when you go to Maine — and I wondered what, exactly, we would find when we got back to Columbus.

When we reached German Village, we found that our normal entrance way was torn up due to the ongoing construction projects at Children’s Hospital, and our street was partially closed thanks to a Columbia Gas rerouting effort. I had to parallel park for the first time in a long while, but we were glad to find our place still standing and were also pleased to see that, pandemic or not, our neighbors in the Village have made some improvements. After we unpacked, made the beds, wiped the dust off the counters, and settled in to watch some TV, I realized that Ohio still felt very much like home to me. Maybe that’s the “it” the sign was telling me to find.

The Scenic Route

We decided to take two days to make our way from Stonington back to Columbus. Since we weren’t trying to make great time on the roads, we avoided the I-95 raceway and took the two-lane roads through Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont instead, including lots of time on U.S. 202. My grandmother would have called it the “scenic route.”

It was a lot of fun, and gave us a glimpse of small town America, New England-style, and lots of pretty fall scenery. The towns were charming, and a drive on the “blue highways” shows you how many Americans work at their own businesses from their homes — doing hairdressing, nails, child care, dog grooming, carpentry, and other self-employed work. There were lots of political signs out, and a few roadside demonstrations where the participants were soliciting honks for their candidates. And the fall foliage was beautiful.

We ended up with a drive up the Taconic Parkway and this room at the Beekman Arms Inn in Rhinebeck, New York, which is supposed to be the oldest continuously operated hotel in America, dating back to colonial times. It’s one of those places that says “George Washington slept here.” We had a great meal at the Beekman, donned our masks for a twilight walk around downtown Rhinebeck, and enjoyed a fine end to a day that showed that taking your time is a good way to go.

The Random Restaurant Tour — XL

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.

One Last Lobster Roll

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.

The Morning View From Ocean Drive

Ocean Drive is a short stretch of road that splits off from Allen Street and then hugs the shoreline as it runs down to Greenhead Lobster.  At that fork in the road there is a manhole cover — specifically, manhole cover #123, which we know because all Stonington manhole covers bear green, neatly spray-painted identification numbers.  When the lobstermen who moor their boats in the western edge of the Stonington harbor drive to Greenhead to park their pickup trucks and take their skiffs out to their big boats in the morning, they hit old #123 as they veer onto Ocean Drive and make a distinctive “clink CLUNK” sound as the manhole cover rattles under the weight of the passing trucks.  Most mornings, that clink CLUNK is the first sound I hear.

Ocean Drive is a bit of a misnomer, because the Atlantic Ocean is still several miles away, shielded from the harbor by many islands.  But it’s not hard to imagine that, as the lobstermen turn left at the Ocean Drive split, give #123 a good rattle, smell the salt air, and catch the sunrise view shown above in the morning, it helps them get mentally ready for another hard day of lobstering.

On The Trail

This part of Maine is blessed with some fine hiking trails, and thanks to the Island Heritage Trust, Deer Isle has more than its share. A good hiking trail is a great place to rediscover the simple pleasure of a walk in the woods, and reengage with that inner child who has been buried under decades of life and countless layers of adult obligations. You can’t help but feel a bit like a kid again when you balance on some two-by-fours laid over the boggy areas or are tempted to skip a stone on the still waters of a pond.

It’s been a busy summer for us, and the occasional hikes have been an effective and much appreciated stress relief mechanism. As the summer draws to a close, we always regret that we didn’t take a few more, and vow that next summer we won’t make the same mistake.

Through Morning Mist

Sometimes the morning fog makes the world of Stonington look . . . different. This morning, the mist shrouding the sun as I returned from my walk gave this scene of the harbor from the foot of the Greenhead peninsula a kind of flat, monochromatic feel that looked like something you might see in a National Geographic article on Southeast Asia.

On the Glacial Erratic Trail

The glaciers descended on Deer Isle, as they did across most of the northern United States.  With their immense force and grinding power, they reshaped the landscape, scooping out harbors and inlets and coves and beveling the shoreline.  When the glaciers finally receded, after staying for millennia, they left behind the craggy Maine coastline we now know and love, as well as colossal, non-native rocks that the glaciers had brought with their initial inexorable advance.

Yesterday, on a foggy Labor Day morning, Russell and Betty and I explored some of the glaciers’ handiwork through a hike on the glacial erratic trail at the Old Settlement Quarry Island Heritage Trust site.  It’s a beautiful trail that winds through the woods and lets you see some of the glacial debris up close — like the enormous metamorphic rock pictured above that the glaciers brought with them on their visit and then left in place, deposited on top of the native Maine granite — as well as an alpine meadow, with its “snow in summer” plant life, pictured to the right. 

The Island Heritage Trust has done a fabulous job with all of the trails and hiking sites on Deer Isle, and the glacial erratic trail, and the rest of the Old Settlement Quarry site, is one of the best trails they have developed.  Thanks to the Island Heritage Trust, the people of Stonington will never have to worry about having a good place for a stimulating pre-breakfast hike on a Labor Day morning.

The glacial erratic trial ends at the old quarry itself, which also offers a lot of interesting viewing.  For decades, the granite-cutting business was a key part of the economy in this area, and the old quarry site gives you a glimpse of how the work was done — and just how tough that work was.  In the photo at left you can see the holes the granite workers drilled to place explosive charges to try to take advantage of fissures and split the rock into the desired shapes and sizes, and some of the precision work that was done, like the huge “box cut” pictured below that blasted out a massive square of granite.  It must have been an incredibly noisy and dangerous place to work.

The Old Settlement Quarry site sits atop a dome of granite that usually offers a commanding view of some of the islands and inlets of Deer Isle.  Thanks to a thick blanket of fog, we didn’t get the expected view, but we did see lots of rock — both the erratic rock dropped off by the glaciers, and the immense piles of granite “grout” left behind from the quarry operations.  If you like rock, the glacial erratic trail at the Old Settlement Quarry site is the hike for you.

Harbor Moon

Long ago I took a photography class and learned about “f stops” and prolonged exposures and the techniques you needed to use to take a good nighttime photo. I even had a 35 mm camera. But that knowledge and camera are long gone. These days, my camera is my phone, and if I can make those kinds of adjustments to the camera app I don’t know how to do it, anyway.

The nighttime can be beautiful here, with a full spread of crystal stars and the harbor limned silver by the handful of lights downtown. And when the full moon is out and over the harbor, shining on the scattered clouds above and the water below, it’s just bright enough to try a phone camera shot.

It doesn’t fully capture the scene, but it’s the best I can do. I probably need to get a real camera again.

At The Burnt Cove Boil

Tonight we tried a new place for dinner. It’s called the Burnt Cove Boil, and it was great. I only wish we’d found it sooner.

In Maine, if you’re talking about a “boil,” you’re talking about shellfish. The BCB offers you a prime picnic table right next to the waters of Burnt Cove, paper towels, a succulent Stonington crab, steamed corn on the cob, a whole lobster, a wooden pick to extricate the crab and lobsters meat, and an ice cream sandwich for dessert — all for a very reasonable price. Oh, and one other thing — a baseball-sized rock to smash the assorted claws, legs, and tails as part of the participatory dining process. Beverages are BYOB.

The food was terrific and fresh from the boat, the setting was beautiful, and the shellfish smashing felt pretty darned satisfying after a long day of remote work. Burnt Cove Boil, in Stonington, is highly recommended. Be sure to ask for Jake.

Harbor Dreamscape

A heavy fog moved ashore last night, leaving the world mist-shrouded and opaque for my walk this morning. As I walked down Main Street toward the center of town, this scene seemed hauntingly familiar. It reminded me of a vista from a dream, where everything lacks sharp edges and seems somehow unfinished.

At The Holbrook Island Sanctuary

Maine is, almost by definition, off the beaten track, and it has a lot of parks and natural areas that are not very well known.  One of them is the Holbrook Island Sanctuary.  Yesterday morning Kish and I went “off island” to the mainland to visit the Sanctuary and get in some hiking on a sunny, late summer day.

The Holbrook Island Sanctuary is a huge nature preserve in Brooksville that has been kept in a natural state for decades.  The property was acquired by a nature lover, Anita Harris, who donated the land to the state of Maine in 1971, and things seem to have been kept as they were then.  The area is so rustic that the roadways in and out are packed earth, rather than asphalt, and the only facilities are a picnic area and a few outhouses.  But it offers lots of interesting trails, the ruins of abandoned buildings, some old family cemeteries, and a chance to explore some of the different Maine ecosystems, from rocky coastlines to mud flats to steep hills, marshes, ponds, and deeply forested woodland mixed with intermittent meadows.  It’s a favorite destination for birders, hikers, and nature lovers.  The Maine state park website says that “alert visitors can see abundant signs of deer, fox, muskrat, beavers, otter, porcupine, bobcat and coyote.”  We apparently were not sufficiently alert — hey, it was pretty early in the morning, after all! — because we didn’t see any of those critters, but we did see a lot of birds.

The Sanctuary has nine trails, none of which seem to be super-difficult.  We took the Back Shore trail, which is well-marked and winds through forest and meadows and takes you past one of the cemeteries, where the gravestones date back to the 1830s, down to a rocky shore on the Penobscot Bay.  We got to the shore at close to low tide, which meant we got a good look at the shellfish shells and the seaweed-covered rock  beach.  From the shoreline you can watch sailboats glide by and catch a commanding view of Castine, Maine, on the opposite side of the bay. 

The Holbrook Island Sanctuary is a pretty place, and a kind of hidden gem.  With eight more trails to check out, we’ll definitely be back.

Colors Of Stonington

The pier at Greenhead Lobster provides a pretty good view of the west side of Stonington. The houses are built into the hillside and rise in rows from the water’s edge. The slope of the hillside is so abrupt that houses that are not right on the water still can have a commanding view of the bay. In local realtor parlance, they are not “waterfront,” but “water view.”

When you look at the town from Greenhead, you notice the colors. Most of the boats and houses are white, which itself gives a very Maine-y look, but some bolder colors are mixed in here and there — bright yellows and blues and reds, stately gray, and Opera House green. For some reason primary colors just look natural on the waterfront.

How Cold Is The Water Up There?

One question people frequently ask us is:  “How cold is the seawater up in Maine?  Can you swim in the ocean?”

It’s not an easy question to answer.  Some people enjoy the bracing ocean waters — but only if they are wearing wetsuits.  Others stick to the shallow water, where at least the majority of their bodies can enjoy the sun’s heat.  And, admittedly, there are others, who apparently count polar bears among their distant ancestors, who will actually splash around in the water in nothing but a bathing suit.  I tip my hat to those foolhardy and intrepid souls.

But here’s a concrete example of how cold the water is.  During a recent visit from friends, on a beautiful, sunny day, we took a favored hike through the Barred Island Preserve out to the shoreline across from Barred Island — so called because it is blocked from the mainland by a tidal channel at all but low tide, when you can walk over while the water is receded.  When we got to the crossing point it was about midway between low tide and high tide, and the water was a little over knee-high for an adult male.  The distance to the island through the water was maybe 30 yards or so, as shown in the picture above. 

I tried to walk over — but just couldn’t do it.  The water was so brutally cold it was a shock to the system, like plunging your face into ice cube-filled water — except colder, somehow.  It took my breath away, and my feet almost immediately became numb.  The thought of going knee-deep in the frigidity, even if only for a short 30-yard slog over to the island, was unimaginable.  So call me a wuss — but I declined.  I’ll save the stroll over to Barred Island for a day when I get there at low tide and can walk over without experiencing water so cold it is like a punch to the gut. 

There is one good thing about the ocean water temperature in Maine — when you step out of the water and let the sun heat your chilled feet back to normal temperatures, it really feels good.  That’s how cold the water is.