The Less Vacationed Part of Vacationland
Maine. What's the first thing that comes to mind? For me, it's the ocean. The countless serrated inlets, beaches and harbors lapped at by frigid North Atlantic waves.
Obviously that's a significant part of Maine's personality, but what about the millions upon millions of acres of forest that begins not far inland from the rugged coastline? Well, living next door in New Hampshire all these years, I had scarcely - if ever - explored the far less-visited but equally real part of Vacationland.
Feeling ambitious on a beautiful June Friday off, I plotted out a road trip that would hit about a half dozen eclectic sites ranging from Maine's only Basilica to a remote scenic byway to a life-size statue of Paul Bunyan. The miles - 375.9 to be exact - did not intimidate me, but rather added to the sense of adventure in striking off in a new direction.
I departed home at 6:45am with the intention of returning in time for dinner. My first stop would be in Lewiston, a gritty outpost with a heavy French-Canadian influence. When I arrived in Maine's second-largest city, my first impression was that, in a state with so much coastal and mountain beauty, this locale has probably never once featured as the cover model on promotional materials.
That's not to say it was horrible, as there was some handsome architecture and a tremendous amount of history. However, the compact downtown was eerily quiet, and I just had the uncomfortable sense that a) I was being watched, and b) I somehow didn't belong here. Just as I was wrestling with a mediocre impression of the city, the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul's stunning stone spires came into view.
Grandiosely soaring 167 feet high and completed in 1938, I learned that this is the only Basilica in Maine, and one of the few churches still offering Mass in French. I really wanted to go in, but after trying five or so different doors, it was not meant to be.
Perhaps what made the fortress-like church even more impressive is that it is located in an otherwise "normal"-looking neighborhood of two- and three-story multifamily homes. Let's call it exquisitely imposing, shall we?
I continued my stroll, the neighborhoods looking progressively more haggard. Somber, faded three- and four-story housing was at best utilitarian, at worst ugly and intimidating. Trash was strewn about. It remained quiet but for the occasional background conversation or power tool. I kept my head down and kept walking.
I had one more stop before getting back in the car. Sports fans will likely recognize this iconic photo of Muhammad Ali standing triumphant over a felled Sonny Liston, taken in 1965. Did you know that photo was taken in Lewiston, Maine? The first time I read that I was incredulous, thinking it must have been a typo for Las Vegas, New York, or LA (which, incidentally, is a nickname for the Lewiston-Auburn area of Maine; L-A). But no: evidently this shot, which graces male dorm-room posters nationwide and was once deemed by TIME magazine as perhaps the greatest sports photo of the century, was taken in the building that now stood before me.
Without going into tremendous detail, a fight of this magnitude was held here because of a sloppy mix of controversies and the last-minute withdrawal of Boston as the fight's location. Maine stepped in to host. For better or worse, the fight was an extremely short one, and remains the only heavyweight title fight ever held in Maine to this day.
Before departing Lewiston, I briefly walked the refined grounds and breathed the rarified air of Bates College, third oldest in Maine and the first co-ed college in New England. What a different feel from the rest of the town... with a price tag to match.
One year of undergrad tuition will set you back a cool $56k. Hmm, a year of education, a down payment on a house, or a nice Mustang GT... decisions, decisions. In any case, walking the grounds was as free as the birds that chirped overhead.
It was time to head north to the town of Rumford; with a population just under 6,000 it qualifies as one of the larger municipalities in the area. Whenever I hear that name I picture a thick-mustachioed, flannel-clad lumberman of 70 years - let's call him Wilbur Buckscomb. "Welcome to RUM-fud". In any case, it was nearly 11am and all I'd had was a banana all day. I stopped at a local café - OK, full disclosure, it was Dunkin' - and brought my food over to Boivin Park, where I was greeted by a life-size Paul Bunyan-and-lovable-sidekick-Babe statues.
In addition to making a fool of myself with several selfies, I perambulated the deserted green space on the corner of the dammed Androscoggin River. The view was lovely, but my high expectations for Rumford Falls - apparently the tallest east of Niagara - were squashed when I saw a gentle trickle that might have been someone washing her car upstream.
Farther northwest I proceeded, back toward the New Hampshire border. But first, it was time to enter Maine's awe-inspiring Grafton Notch State Park. Those who know me understand my loathing of crowds in pretty much any circumstance. Driving this magnificent stretch of road with blue skies and undeveloped, thickly-forested mountains ahead felt like hitting the jackpot.
At one point I pulled over and literally got out in the middle of the road to take some photos, proving how deserted these parts of Maine are on June Fridays, even 80-degree ones.
I'd never thought of it before, but I suppose much of interior Maine benefits from having the coast an hour or two away. By benefits, I mean remains relatively undiscovered. When the hordes from Southern New England come to Maine, they're often looking for cheap beachside experiences and don't have the patience or desire to trek so far inland. In other words, if Maine's interior was not complemented by a coast at all (a.k.a Vermont) the tourism picture would look fundamentally different.
I made brief pull-offs at three separate water features, all of which were beautiful in their own way: Screw Auger Falls, Mother Walker Falls, and Moose Caves. The last was a stunning fissure in the earth that, evidently, some poor moose hundreds of years ago had been unlucky enough to slip into. Despite a couple other vehicles in the dirt lot, I had the place to myself. Upon reaching the caves, the air temperature, which was probably into the low 80s, cooled down at least 20 degrees - nature's air conditioning.
The stresses that had accompanied me to start the day were gradually fading with each new vista. I soon crossed back into New Hampshire, seeing what was either a very tall deer or perhaps a young moose scamper off into the woods to my right. Human interference in these parts was very limited.
Just after crossing the border, I pulled over at Umbagog (um-BAY-gog) Lake on my right. I had always seen this lake on New Hampshire maps and been intrigued, but growing up in the Lakes Region never saw the need to venture 2+ hours north to see it. It kind of reminded me of what Lake Winnipesaukee must have looked like, perhaps 200 years ago before development took place. Other than a handful of parked boats and a single building nearby - a campground perhaps - the lake was pristine - just water, trees, and sky.
There was a flat pebbly area near where I parked, and I couldn't resist testing the water. It was cool but not as cold as I'd expected. If you hadn't noticed by now, I pack a lot into my day trips, and this half hour or so relaxing and being mindful of the moment was just what I needed. Not just today, but every day. I saw a large bird circle overhead, very likely a bald eagle.
Noises were minimal, and the wind wove its way through the young leaves and through my thinning hair. Another instance of this exquisite natural feature being blessed by its remoteness from large population centers. At that moment I could have been a Native American living 1,000 years ago, taking a break from hunting or fishing by feeling fresh lake water caressing my feet and legs. It was absolutely delightful.
After enjoying the peace, I reckoned it was time to motor on. I also realized at this point that I was as far north as I'd ever been in New Hampshire. I took a sharp left on Route 16 in the pint-size town of Errol (population 291). If you think that's tiny, I had just left the township of Cambridge, which had a 2010 population of 8. No, I did not forget any digits. A town meeting could be held in Aunt Sally's dining room. (Side note: not only had I never heard of Cambridge, NH, but I didn't even know we had townships... oops!)
I still had a long ride back home as I approached the White Mountains from the north. I stopped again at the Nansen Ski Jump State Historic Site. Believe it or not, this ski jumping facility (built in 1936) was the largest in the eastern US for nearly 50 years. The 1938 Olympic Trials were held here, in fact.
The jump closed down in 1988, but recently there has been a movement afoot to restore it to acceptable standards. This was done about 5 years ago, and a celebratory jump was done by US Olympian Sarah Hendrickson in March 2017 on the newly-restored facility. Plans are underway to use it more regularly. How cool is that?!
I pulled into the driveway in Manchester at about 4:15, well in advance of dinner. I'd covered a tremendous amount of ground and enjoyed the drive thoroughly. As always, it felt great to be home. It was an eclectic day of touring, and probably the first time in my life I'd been to Maine without so much as glimpsing the ocean. But this part of Maine is as real as the pretty coastal parts, if a bit more rugged and less-visited. Sometimes just because a place (or a person, for that matter) is overlooked, doesn't mean it should be ignored. In fact, sometimes when we give an unheralded area its due, it can be just as rewarding as if we had just parked ourselves on a beach.