Thursday, August 14, 2008

Defying Death, Maine Style

So I'm talking with the very adorable, frizzy-haired, squirrel-keeping inn owner, and he tells me, in his sharp-as-nails Maine accent, that I ought to hike "the mountain". Then he shows me its photo. Oh, how adorable. Here in this little bay village is an ice-cream-scoop of a hill, covered with trees and topped with some variety of War Memorial. I can even walk to the trailhead from here, he tells me. Forty-five minutes up, forty-five back, he tells me. Great views, he tells me. Or you could drive around the back way... but you'd need a car.

Sold. I'll hike it. Walking to the trailhead, I find myself involuntarily gasping aloud at the most precious homes in the world. So much original glass and functional shutters. I momentarily lose the mountain (can you do that?) behind the tall trees. Glancing across the street to catch the road sign to make sure I'm on the right track, I see what should be a truly adorable house, but it sends shudders of horror from my neck to my knees.

(Note: This is a tangent. We will return to the hike directly after these messages.)

This house is typical for Camden: white wood, three stories, front porch, black shutters. So what's freaking me out? The heads in the windows. I swear, I am not making this up. In every window of this house (and rooms here have several windows each) there are dolls. Creepy, Victorian-style, three-foot-tall children dressed in every clothing style imaginable. Guarding the door are tall Native American dolls, complete with headbands and faux-suede leggings. Most of the windows in the front of the house have three dolls in them. Staggered in height to suggest friendly, age-range groupings, they are each backed by a lace curtain (presumably so the creepy old lady who lives inside with her seventeen cats doesn't actually have to look at the scary dollies). They look like children begging to be set free, hands pressed to the glass, eyes glazed with untold years of longing for freedom. I have such an irrisistable urge to run, screaming from the neighborhood that I do what any normal person would do in this situation. I take a dozen photos so I could show my kids and scare the pants off them.

Then I wish I could write a ghost story.

But only for a minute.

Continuing up Mountain Street (with a smug smile for Camden's adorable little "mountain" -- aw, who's a big, tall mountain? Who can reach up and touch the clouds? You can. Yes, you can! Yes, you can! What a good, brave mountain you are!) I take a right at Spring. Catching a glimpse of a truly fabulous roofline, complete with widow's walk, through the trees, I stare with my hands clasped and little squeaks of delight at another of Maine's architectural treasures. The depth of the front porch alone was worth whatever these people paid for restorations, and whatever they would have to pay this winter just to keep the thing defrosted. In my rapture, I nearly miss the trailhead marker (nailed to a telephone pole).

The corner of Spring and Megunticook basically leads to this great house's driveway. I get the side view of the property, its gorgeous lily garden, wildflowers in abundance, and a couple of boulders the size of my house growing out of the lawn. "Hmmm," I think to myself. "What a strange place to plant an enormous rock." (This is foreshadowing. I'm telling you because at the time, naturally I didn't know and I rather wish I had.)

The lovely woman in her mid-sixties working the wildflowers waves when I call good morning. I ask if this is the trailhead.

"Ayuh," she answers, waving in the general direction of an impenetrable wall of trees. I'm far too tickled by her textbook stereotype accent to wonder how to find a trail, so I barge in. Instantly the light goes all greenish and magical. There is a six-inch carpet of springy pine needles under my runners, and a tree in front of me THAT HAD BEEN DEFACED! This is ridiculous! This is an outrage! This is the East Coast, where people recycle their cooking oil, for heaven's sake! Who would put paint on a tree? Inexcusable! That's what this is! What is the matter with these...


I see.

Trail markers. 3x5 rectangles of light blue paint marked the trees I should be passing. Riiiiight.

I actually stop, right there at the beginning, to photograph this lush, soggy forest. It had poured rain like crazy the day before, and I can feel the water hanging in the air. My skin is drinking it up, and it had never been easier to breathe. Then I start off, my feet bouncing along the padded trail. I see toadstools in ridiculous colors, bright red, yellow, white, growing at the feet of these huge trees. But every time I crane my neck up to see the tops of the trees, I stumble over a root only semi-covered by wet needles. Time to pay attention. Focus.

Out of nowhere, I find the hill.

And not only that, but some joker had clearly come out here with a matching can of baby blue spraypaint and tagged these stones, because there is no way that is the trail. These rocks are 25 feet high and practically vertical. I look around in anticipation to see the real trail. Here? No. Here? No. Come on, little trail. Come out, come out wherever you are... Oh, you have GOT to be kidding me. THAT is my trail? That wet, slippery, frictionless stone is THE TRAIL? As I stand there, totally at a loss, I hear voices from behind me. No, the dolliles didn't follow me. This is a very nice older couple who manage to look thoroughly undaunted by the Slope of Death looming over me.

"Hi, heh, heh." I chuckle bravely. "Have you guys done this hike before? Heh, heh."

"Nope. First time," the man (who has to be my parents' age) tells me.

"Any, um, suggestions on how I'm supposed to get up this thing?" I'm going for casual, but I'm pretty sure they can tell I'll hit the road at the first sign that it's okay to wimp out.

He joins me to inspect the Slippery Slide of Doom. "Maybe you can wedge your feet in that crack along the edge."

Do I look like Spiderman to you?

I would have loved for them to go first, but really, there's something more chivalrous about being the first to walk into the unknown. I slip the camera case around my back and launch my foot into the crack. Lifting myself up, I scramble for a handhold. There's a knob of stone just up there... Got it. Did I just grunt? Oh, brother. Let's get this part over with. Clutching hairline cracks in the stone with my fingernails, I wedge my shoes into the cracks in the side of the stone. Dare I ask these kind strangers to shove my backside? No, I can do this. They're watching from the ground, presumably so they can tell Search and Rescue where to locate missing body parts after I fall to my death and crack various pieces from my skull.

Eventually I get to the edge of that blasted stone. My feet touch real land, complete with slimy forest debris and trickling water. Water! Looking beneath me I can see that the stone wall I just scaled is GLISTENING. As in with water. Can I even contemplate how I will get back down this? A zen home-decor water wall has more footing than this.

Okay, don't think about that now. Watch the elderly folks and make sure they're safe.

What was that?

Do they have metal spikes on the toes of their shoes? These kindly, gentle sixty-somethings just scaled that stone as if it had not, in fact, been conspiring with the forest to murder them.

I'm starting to wonder if I belong here. Sweat is rolling off my face and it's nine o'clock in the morning. Around the next corner, the rocks are growing in normal rocklike formations, edges peeking out around dirt and plants, wildflowers and -- are those blueberries? Why yes indeed they are. Growing here on this hill -- forgive me, mountain -- are zillions of wild blueberries. Oh, Maine. You are so charming.


  1. Becca! I love you so much, you are such a delightful story-teller. I wish I could do personal narratives that beautifully.

  2. Wow. I have seldom read someone do "setting" that well. I mean--I was RIGHT THERE. With the creepy dolls, glistening rock, and squishy toadstools. You rock, Becca. You rock.


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