Another year, another trip to Maine. I never would have thought it possible, but this time… we were bored. Maybe not bored exactly… just over it. You know the old saying, How do you know what’s enough unless you have too much? We discovered its meaning. We will always love Maine, and I will always love Bill if for nothing else than taking to this gorgeous part of the world that is no way, no how like anywhere else. We will return one day, but not for a while.
It did not help that the trip was plagued from start to finish, beginning with the unfortunate passing of an elderly Maine relative (see previous post), forcing us to make an extremely long two-day drive from Tennessee to Maine for the service, than doubling back to NYC to continue our trip. A vague little back pain that nagged at me before we left worsened, until sitting or lying down became excruciating. In New York, a heat wave overpowered our charming boutique hotel’s air conditioning, and after trying to power through the back pain with long walks, throttling subway rides and huge museums, I finally found myself in agony, taking to the bed for three days, forfeiting a Broadway show, a jazz concert and dinner with our friends. So much for all my careful planning. Bill seemed to be vying for Husband Hall of Fame as he brought me three meals a day, sometimes even tying my shoes when I couldn’t.
I kept thinking that if I could only make it to our peaceful summer rental on the water in Maine, I would be all right. God found this too extremely humorous, and we arrived at last in Bar Harbor to find … construction next door. All-day, heavy machinery construction, starting around 8 AM and grinding all day long. The house’s owner claimed she knew nothing about the plans, and after making inquiries, told us the neighbors were “nearly done,” with only “minor landscaping” left to do. The heavy machinery continued to beep its way down the driveway every morning for nearly another week, grinding away all day in all for a week and a half of our two-week stay. In the final insult, the wifi went out for five days. Despite the six years we’d spent as summer regulars at this lovely house, the homeowner’s lack of honesty and consideration for us was the final straw that broke my aching back. When we come back to Maine, it won’t be here.
So: What have we learned?
1. Obsessive planning does not trump happenstance.
2. Bill and I not only dodged every wild pitch, but managed to get a few base hits. (Despite everything, we had fun.)
3. Thankfully, our car, with its heated, reclining seats, was one of the few places I could get comfortable. We spend so much time in it, we’ve often joked it’s our living room, the windshield our picture window. Because we still maintain separate households, it’s where we spend most of our married life together.
4. Back pain sucks, but maybe worse is being sick on the road, and not being able to see your own doctor.
5. As urgent care clinics go, Beth Israel’s on 34th St. in NYC is pretty darned good. (Not least because it’s very near the excellent 2nd Ave. Deli.) However, if you’re in need of pain meds and you’re seeing a doc for the first time… forget it. (As a friend said, “Thanks, Florida.”)
6. Acupuncture: Helped a little, but also hurt. Massage: Helped more, and hurt not at all. (Shout out to Jing Jing at Chan Long, at 127 Madison Ave., right next door to our hotel.)
7. The best restaurant we tried this year: NYC’s NoMad, the new venture by the chef/owner at the excellent Eleven Madison Park (our favorite restaurant last year). We loved the house specialty, a $79 roast chicken for two, stuffed with brioche, truffles and foie gras. They bring out the cooked bird to show you, its crisp skin glowing like shellacked oak, then take it back to carve, returning with plates of beautiful breast meat, and dark meat in a cream sauce. With that stuffing.
8. As we walked home with our leftovers around midnight, we passed a doorway where a young couple had bedded down for the night, fast asleep in blankets. Bill quietly walked the bag over to the couple and set it beside them.
9. Let’s hope they’re not vegans.
10. Did I mention I have a Hall of Fame Husband?
11. As Bill had always wanted, we finally made it to ‘21’ for dinner. It was fun, especially when one of the old waiters told us lots of stories about the old days, with Frank Sinatra, Jackie O and more recent events with George Clooney and the like. They make the hell out of a Manhattan. However, while we might be back for a drink, now that we’ve checked that off our list, we don’t feel the need to return — unlike other NYC old-school favorites like La Grenouille or Keen’s.
12. Best exhibit: John Singer Sargent watercolors, Brooklyn Museum. (For Bill: Winslow Homer’s studio at Prout’s Neck, in a tour arranged by the Portland Museum of Art. Still hurting, I declined the 45-minute van ride each way — then found out the museum’s “vans” were ultra-comfortable Mercedes.)
13. Best surprise: Ma Peche, the midtown location of star chef David Chang’s Momofoku empire. Fantastic.
14. Swell lunch in Brooklyn: The Peruvian outpost Surfish, with a pretty shaded patio. Delicious Peruvian ceviches.
Great meal in Portland: Miyake, which now offers its omakase (chef’s tasting menu) a la carte, so you can order as much or as little as you like of these creative takes on traditional Japanese dishes, as well as expertly prepared sushi.
15. Worthwhile spur-of-the moment detour: Antietam. Ghostly, awe-inspiring, sobering.
16. What we missed: Walking the High Line. Going to Top of the Rock. Getting craft cocktails at Apotheke in Chinatown. Picnic in Central Park. The Met punk exhibit. Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike, with Sigourney Weaver and David Hyde Pierce in a Christopher Durang comedy (that one still hurts, and I couldn’t even get Bill to go and tell me about it). Frozen hot chocolate at Serendipity. Eliane Elias at Birdland. Dinner at a Hugh Acheson favorite, Il Buco Alimentari, with our friends Patrick and Janice Shay. (Patrick is the architect for Acheson’s new restaurant in Savannah, and Acheson told him he liked the design.) And in Portland, we missed exploring new restaurants that were just too far for me to walk to.
17. What we got instead (in addition to the above): Large segments of dialogue learned by heart from the HBO Liberace movie, Behind the Candelabra. (Squinting stonily, like Rob Lowe’s Dr. Jack Startz: “You look fantastic, by the way.”) A certifiable swinging late night — with barbecue — at Jazz Standard, with the great James Carter Organ Trio wailing. Fantastic takeout from nearby Koreatown, such as the excellent Miss Korea. A bunch of great clothes at my favorite shop, Jill McGowan, in Freeport, Maine, after I told Bill I thought another blouse might make my back feel better. A beautiful off-white Prada bag (Bill did this on his own — it’s my sympathy purse) from the equally beautiful NYC Madison Avenue store. Dim sum at Nom Wah Tea Parlor (Chinatown tearoom, circa 1920s). Long, leisurely lunches at familiar favorites John Dory Oyster Bar, the Chart Room, Becky’s Diner, DeMillo’s and the Jordan Pond House. In Portland, we ended up at our favorite restaurant — Fore Street — every day for drinks, dinner or a nightcap, in part because it was just a couple of blocks away from our hotel (we like this waterfront Hampton for its cleanliness and location). And at long last, we had dinner with friends on Mount Desert Island. Judy and Peter Aylen pulled out all the stops for the repast, starting with Aviation cocktails, through proscuitto-wrapped scallops, lobster risotto and lacy oatmeal cookies with sorbet. They made my wedding ring, and it’s saying quite a lot that their cooking is as good as their jewelry making (check out their store, Aylen & Son, in Southwest Harbor).
18. Ramps are not just a Southern passion. Apparently the springtime delicacy, a cross between garlic and leeks, climbs the Appalachian trial all the way to Maine, where we found them pickled in martinis, sauteed in side dishes and featured in omelets.
19. Three days with Patrick and Janice, when they joined us in Bar Harbor.
20. Three days at the Cape Arundel Inn, in Kennebunkport, for our anniversary. Despite the surprise of new owners, we were just as enamored of this beautiful spot as last year, and to our relief, the food and service (with lots of familiar faces) were even better. Thanks, Cape Arundel, for restoring our love for Maine. Lots of rest, quiet and another long leisurely afternoon on the porch with snacks and sips.
21. One bit of planning that worked out very well: We took the long way home, staying at inns no more than two or three hours apart. The stops included an emotional visit for Bill to Buck Hills Falls, Pennsylvania, the Poconos summer camp where he and his mother found work and solace in the years just after his father died. The old inn is in a shocking state of disarray, in a tumbledown state that reminds you of Chernobyl. I can’t find out for sure what happened, although rumors about murders, insanity and the Mob abound. The summer camp and “cottages” (i.e., summer mansions), however, are still beautiful, down to the manicured bowling lawn and pristine Olympic-size swimming pool.
22. After so many familiar places, it was good to discover a few new ones. Some of our favorites: Mount Merino Manor, near the weirdly groovy old downtown of Hudson, NY. Mount Merino is the former home of the best friend (and physician) of Bill’s favorite painter, Frederick Church (of the Hudson River School), whose Moroccan-inspired mansion (now a museum) is on adjoining grounds. It was a comfortable inn, made even more so to think of the times Church likely walked these very floors and staircases. Hudson is a funky town that lives for the weekends and closes Mondays-Wednesdays, but its main street stretches for 20 or more blocks to the river, with one amazingly fine antiques store next to another hyper-modern Italian-inspired graphic design shop. Bill was in heaven finding this stuck-in-amber hardware store, full of dusty, still-wrapped in brown paper ’60s tools; I found vinyl LP goodies at John Doe. For lunch, we recommend Mexican Radio.
23. We loved the French Manor Inn, not far from Buck Hills Falls — another original home, this one of mining magnate and art collector Joseph Hirshhorn. A young couple has taken it on, hiring a cutting-edge chef, and following some classic Poconos-resort rules, such as dressing for dinner. (Her father managed and booked talent for the legendary Mount Airy Lodge. She and Bill sang the old jingle together.)
24. On our final night on the road, at the Oaks Victorian Inn in Christiansburg, VA, the ceiling lights kept mysteriously coming on. The next morning, I mentioned that to the innkeeper, who proceeded to enthrall us with the inn’s ghost stories. He told us the lights turning off and on are a favorite trick of the former mistress of the house, who died in that room. (He says if a couple has been arguing, she will turn on the fan.) He has seen her, heard her call his name, and other guests have asked about the black cat that slept on their beds. The cat is her long-deceased pet. Who cares if it’s true or not — we loved all that!
25. I’d made one final plan, which was to begin the evening of our return — to join a screenwriting workshop at the Highlander Center, near our house in New Market. I wasn’t sure I’d feel well enough to sit through three all-day sessions, but I’d long been curious about this legendary civil rights center, where MLK Jr. and Rosa Parks went to explore their options before the Montgomery bus strikes. When Night at the Museum’s screenwriter (and Reno 911 co-creator and star) Robert Ben Garant offered the workshop to benefit the center (founder Myles Horton was his great-uncle), I had to go. It was by far the highlight of my summer. The people — so many of them who live nearby — were wonderful; the workshop exciting, fun and full of helpful information; and the center itself beautiful, and steeped in little-known history — and so rural that despite its being practically in our backyard, we nearly had to resort to plumb reckoning to find it, far beyond the reach of our GPS’s signal.
26. Home: What a relief. We stayed at the party a little too long, but we’ll be back for more trips — just more new places, and shorter journeys. Bill is back at home, preparing for a faculty fall exhibit; I’m back in Atlanta, getting back in the swing of things and getting ready for my UGA class. So now we’re looking forward to other destinations (besides, of course, the orthopedics doc and physical therapy): Like making the New Market house a little more couple-oriented, and guest-friendly. Like getting to some of those other places that have long been on our lists: Key West. Napa Valley. Santa Fe. Birmingham. New Orleans. Mobile. Back to Miami (before it’s submerged). Chattanooga. Like getting ourselves into a life together all the time, complete with aches and pains.