Thursday, June 7, 2012

"Elizabeth [Queen Elizabeth II, that is] Embarks on Day of Jubilee" - my daughter graduates from college

My daughter went to college at The College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. She graduated this past weekend. Do you think I'd not be there?
For the impatient among you, graduation pictures are at the end.

We arrived in Bar Harbor, Maine about 5PM Thursday afternoon. It was a mostly pleasant drive and like most long car rides, potentially boring. After all, most scenery is self-similar to other scenery you've seen before. The mill towns of Central Connecticut and Massachusetts are both alike and dissimilar in appearance. They have their century old brick factories, often repurposed by the twenty-first century into either residences, offices, retail malls or art galleries and studios, depending on what was both fashionable and doable at the time of redevelopment. There are the churches in stone, brick and wood, with their spires - Congregational, Baptist, Episcopal and Roman Catholic, among others, for the various denominations that settled the area. Sometimes there's a building that truly stands out, such as the clock tower in Waterbury, CT or the train station in Worcester, MA. The larger cities have a more notable skyline, such as Hartford's. Between the cities are stretches of woodland on either side of the interminable interstates. Is there that much difference between the north woods in Maine, with its mix of hard and softwoods, deciduous and coniferous, interspersed with marshy areas, and the woodlands of northern Michigan or Wisconsin?

Yet there's a sense of anticipation upon leaving the interstate behind a few miles south of Bangor, ME. Now we're almost there even though it's still a solid hour's drive to Bar Harbor. The countryside is different because it's off the interstate: hamlets whose principle attraction is a gas station/general store at intersections where the speed limit drops to 35 MPH, occasionally a farm or auto body shop, the road climbing and dropping through the wooded hills of down east Maine. There's not much there and what's there has that same sort of self-similarity I mentioned above: woods; bogs; tarns; a golf resort; ramshackle rustic buildings. I've seen it all somewhere else, and I've seen it here, too. Then the speed limit drops to 30 MPH and we're in Ellsworth. In Maine, this is a notable place. It grew around an intersection of major roads and it has a downtown with a late 19th century brick core of commercial buildings. If you turn right at the traffic light, you will drive through that old downtown and into a neighborhood of 19th Century frame and brick homes, large piles of the sort that occupy the same part of town throughout the northeastern states. You can find them in the Finger Lakes of NY, the Berkshire Hills of northern CT and the mountains of western MA. If they've been maintained, they are attractive.

Stretching south toward Bar Harbor, still twenty miles away, are several miles of strip malls, motels and restaurants. This is the sort of scenery that's both inevitable and distracting. You've seen it, allegedly you travel to get away from it, but seeing it here, there's a comforting feeling  that you are still in a place that can look and feel like home. Yes: there's a Home Depot and a Walmart; there's two supermarkets representing competing regional chains: a Shaw's and a Hanneford's and LL Bean has an outlet store. So what was I anticipating?

 We're in a costal zone, fairly flat and leaving Ellsworth behind, we enter the tourist zone with a miniature golf course, a Lumberjack show, free-standing shops full of schlock and local merchandise for the tourists: locally made foods; local crafts; local specialties; antiques. There's the kitschy and the corny, buildings with odd shapes designed to catch your eye and advertise their wares. There's the lobster pounds, the barbecue pits, the soft-ice cream stands, the hamburger stands, and on an on. There are billboards along the roadside advertising aeronautical adventures at the county airport, cheap motels and local attractions. All of this detritus only enhances the sense of anticipation because having been to Mount Desert Island several times, having stayed in Bar Harbor, having walked along the deserted pebble beaches within Acadia National Park, I know something that's mostly not self-similar lies ahead.

The US Park Service signs begin a couple of miles before the road crosses a low bridge from the mainland. If you aren't paying attention you might not notice you're on the island. That's never been a problem for me. My expectancy is at a level approaching anxiety. The flatness of the coastal plain's punctuated by the highly eroded mountains that make up the islands on the coast of this part of Maine. They've been visible on the horizon for a little while, some heavily wooded, some bald at their rounded crown. They are the heart of the National Park. The road forks after crossing onto Mount Desert Island. To the right it follows the south shore of the island toward Southeast Harbor and Northeast Harbor. We take the left fork and drive along the north and east shore toward Bar Harbor.

We are in a remote place now, even though the lines of civilization followed us here. We aren't off the grid, but we are miles from any densely populated place. The reality is that most of Maine is thinly settled by people. In all likelihood, the raccoon population is as great as the human - well, not really since the state estimates only about 120,000 raccoons in Maine. I am not surprised that somebody's counting them. The most populace city in the state is Portland, 3 1/2 hours to the southwest, and it's population is less than 70000 - the metropolitan statistical area is over 1/2 million people. Maine is not where you go to be around a lot of people all of the time. Yet summer brings crowds to Bar Harbor. It is a tourist town, full of picturesque heaps, cute shops and restaurants. It is also the gateway to Acadia National Park. Last weekend, still early in the season it's already filling up with a cruise ship in the harbor, the picturesque inns and B&Bs next to the seedy motels and larger hotels, all booked solid. There's a motorcycle tourist group at the Anchor Motel, a Corvette club's in town though I don't know where they're staying, and I saw a caravan of Ford Mustangs of various vintages go down the street toward the center of the village.

It is where a small four year college sits on a thirty-five acre campus between the main road into town and the rusticated shoreline. It is here, in and around Bar Harbor, and on the campus of the College of the Atlantic, that my daughter spent most of four years. And it was here that last Saturday she was called up the podium by the graduating senior alphabetically ahead of her, to receive her diploma from the president of the school, before calling up the person behind her in the alphabet.

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