Practice makes perfect—and when you’re out of practice you tend to forget the little things. Here’s how you know it’s been a while since you’re done any traveling by airplane.
• You don’t automatically establish a mental calendar entry to get your boarding pass precisely 24 hours before the established boarding time.
• You kind of forgot about the whole TSA precheck line and confirming that you are shown as TSA precheck on your boarding pass until you’re already at the airport.
• You don’t think about following any of the streamlining and expediting and weight-minimizing travel tips that you’ve developed over the years and you end up bringing three or more otherwise identical cell phone chargers.
• You need to think for a minute about how to put your cellphone into “airplane mode.”
• Kids crying and dogs barking in the gate waiting area seem like a novel experience.
Yesterday I went to the office. As I prepared to cross Livingston Avenue, which is the boundary between German Village and downtown Columbus, I realized with a start how rare it is for me to leave our neighborhood these days. The sad reality is that my personal world has become awfully small.
Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, I traveled regularly to different cities for business and recreation, stayed in hotels and cared about the points I was racking up on my different hotel rewards programs, and walked through airports without a second thought, trying to figure out the most healthy eating options on Concourse A. We entertained friends and family and were entertained by friends and family and went to their houses or met them at restaurants and talked about whatever. We enjoyed dinners at different eateries, and went to movies and live musical performances. On weekdays, I walked downtown to the office, checked out what was going on in the downtown area, talked to people in the hallways and elevators, and typically ate lunch at different places with friends from work.
None of that happens anymore. All of that interaction, that getting out and about, is pretty much gone. We drove to and from Maine this year, but that’s been it on the travel front. I worked at the dining room table and the kitchen table of our place in Maine and rarely left Little Deer Isle, just as I spend most of my days at our kitchen island or at the dining room table in our German Village home. If you graphed the amount of time I’ve spent sitting at the kitchen island over time, you’d see the biggest, most abrupt upward spike imaginable.
I’m not complaining about this — it’s just the reality of the current circumstances, and there’s no point in complaining about reality. But the way my personal world has narrowed is pretty remarkable. I’m ready to get out there and start experiencing different things and different places again and enjoying some of the mental stimulation that accompanies it. And I’ve decided I’m going to start going to the office from time to time, just to broaden my horizons even a little bit.
Back in the days when we regularly used hotels, the concierge desk sure could come in handy. If you were in a faraway city and needed directions, recommendations about restaurants or sightseeing opportunities, or reservations, the concierge desk was the place to go. In fact, the good people staffing the concierge desk seemed to know everything you might need to know about the city you were visiting.
We all could use a “COVID Concierge” these days.
We’re at the point in this pandemic, and in the governmental responses to the pandemic, where the rules being applied are becoming a bit overwhelming and hard to process. In Columbus, for example, we’re currently subject to a curfew and regulations imposed by the State of Ohio, plus a stay at home order issued by the county government — and for all I know, the City of Columbus has added an additional layer of regulation. The average person confronts a lot of questions as they go about their lives. How do you know for sure if you’re permitted to walk the dog at 6:23 a.m.? Can you visit your elderly relative at a nursing home, and if so, how? What’s the latest development concerning in-school and stay-at-home learning in your child’s school system?
And if you want to take a trip somewhere — hey, a fellow can dream, can’t he? — you’ll have to figure out the state, county, and local rules and regulations that apply to travelers at your destination, the rules and regulations for any states where you will be spending the night on your journey, and the rules and regulations of your home state and home town that will apply upon your return. Do you need to be tested to enter the state? If so, what documentation must you carry? Has your home state been put on a restricted list by the state of your destination? Will you be required to quarantine for a time period upon your arrival, or upon your return? What are the masking and social distancing requirements at your place of destination? How many gallons of hand sanitizer do your need to bring? And all of these rules can and do change, from day to day, so you need to stay up to the minute on it all.
That’s where the COVID Concierge comes in. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a COVID Concierge to help you navigate through the welter of different regulations and directives, tell you precisely what test you need to take and what documentation will be required, and make the reservation for you? And if you’re looking for a place to vacation because you just can’t stand the thought of being cooped up in your house for another day, the COVID Concierge would be a ready source of information and recommendations about which states would be the most painless to visit right now.
This is a sure-fire business plan in today’s environment. But I am offering it to the public, free of charge, so that anyone can put it into effect and set up their own COVID Concierge service. Just promise to send me the COVID Concierge phone number, will you?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sometimes it’s worth going out onto the rocks to get a photograph. This is a picture taken yesterday morning of the houses along the waterfront of the Greenhead peninsula, just to the west of Stonington’s city center. There wasn’t a breath of wind, and the water was as reflective as a looking glass.
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.
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.
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.