- Thursday: Fly to Bangor, Maine
- Friday: Driving the Loop Road
- Saturday: Rock climbing and hiking
- Sunday: Flight back Washington, DC for work
Dates: September 10-13, 2015
My weekend in Acadia National Park in Maine was my first
ever trip for one taken completely alone. I had no one traveling with me, and I
had no plans on meeting up with anyone I knew once I got there. The trip came
about rather unexpectedly. I originally had plans for that weekend to go on a trip
with a friend, but (long story), they didn’t pan out and I was suddenly
presented with an opportunity to spend my weekend anywhere I wanted (within a
reasonable distance of Baltimore, where I would be traveling from and returning
to for work). Never having traveled solo before (something that seems to surprise
most who know me), I thought about trying to find a friend to spend the weekend
with, but then I realized this opportunity to travel alone was a gift I should
take advantage of. Insert Cheryl Strayed and Elizabeth Gilbert clichés here.
Acadia National Park had inexplicably been on my mind for
several months and it was one of the first places I thought of. When I polled
some friends on Facebook to gather ideas, two of the handful of people who
responded recommended Acadia as well. Okay, the universe was aligning – Maine
it was! Before I could change my mind, I booked my flights, booked a hotel in
Trenton, Maine, bought a camera (since I’m typically dependent on Tim’s when we
travel) and sent an inquiry to a company specializing in guided rock climbing
A few short weeks later on the second Thursday in September,
I was at the airport and ready to go off on my own to a new state. I flew into
Bangor, Maine, rented a car, and then drove an hour to my hotel – which was a
small motel, really, on the side of the main highway connecting the town to Mount
Desert Island (where much of Acadia National Park is located). It was night
when I arrived, but the motel reception was friendly and warm. There were no
restaurants open this late (9pm), she explained, but there was a Denny’s thirty
minutes away in Ellsworth (the direction from which I had just come).
Okay, so much for the lobster I’d been craving. I hopped in
my car, drove to town, and ended up at Taco Bell.
The next morning it was raining. I was glad, because as much
as I needed a weekend of getting out in nature, I also needed a morning to
sleep in and lay in bed reading. Around noon the sky began to clear up and I was
getting hungry. It was time to go exploring. I stopped by a grocery store on my
way in to the park and grabbed some snacks before heading to the visitor center
of the park. I’m an absolute nerd (readers, you know this) and so I can’t step
foot inside a national park without first going to the visitor center to 1. Watch
the video explaining the park’s history and significance and 2. Obtain the
activity book I would need to complete to obtain my Junior Ranger Badge. That’s
right – Tim and I are Junior Rangers at a handful of sites managed by the US
National Park System. When I went to get my activity book, the ranger told me I
actually should complete their new Senior Ranger program, which would award me
upon completion with a Senior Ranger badge. I was moving up!
Over the course of the weekend, I did complete the required
activities in the book and obtained my badge, but I have to admit, this book
was way more difficult than the junior ranger programs to which I’d become
Through the activities and the video I did learn quite a lot
about the history of the park. Roosevelt had loved this area and is really the
one responsible for making it popular for vacationers both during his day and
beyond. He is also the one responsible for the many miles of carriage roads
throughout the park. One of his favorite pastimes in Acadia was to ride in a
horse drawn carriage throughout the park. Today these roads are still used for
carriage rides, as well as biking, jogging and general meandering. Aside from
these trails, Acadia’s most notable features are its seaside cliffs and coastal
mountains (Acadia is home to Cadillac Mountain, the tallest coastal mountain on
the east coast), all accessible by car via the loop road that circles the park.
Acadia’s iconic shoreline.
So, the loop road is where I began my journey to see the
main “sites” of the park. My first stop was an overlook out across Frenchman
Bay, the body of water separating Mount Desert Island from the mainland. This
is a common spot for cruise ship tourism, and sure enough, there was one of
these floating cities when I stopped there. I was happy to be free and alone in
the park and not trapped on a ship with thousands of others.
A few beaches and waterfalls later, I eventually came to
Thunder Hole, one of the most popular stops along the loop road. When larger
waves roll into this natural inlet, the sea crashes against the cliffs with a
thunderous clap, spraying as high as 40 feet. While it wasn’t this momentous
during my visit, it was nevertheless mesmerizing to see and hear the water
crash in and then swell back out to sea, over and over.
Just a little seagull on a little rock by Thunder Hole
Less than a mile onward I came to Otter Cliff, standing 110
feet over the Atlantic. It is one of the tallest headlands north of Rio de
Janeiro. The views here were enormous, but I didn’t linger too long. I also didn’t
yet know the significance this spot would later have for me come Sunday.
My next stop was Jordan Pond. I had read in my guidebook
about a scenic and pleasant hike around the pond that would take about 2 hours,
so I set out with my rain jacket and my camera. I must have made a wrong turn
(or neglected to turn when I should have), because I ended up on a 2 mile
detour heading straight for Cadillac Mountain. I’m still not sure how I managed
to do this, since the task was literally just to keep the lake to my immediate
left until I got back where I started.
In any case, I ended up on a trail where
I saw not a single other person. I was surrounded by lush green trees,
listening to Ben Howard (my favorite) on my iPod and, feeling an enormous
amount of freedom at being completely alone in the woods, I danced – the way
you do when you’re in your bedroom alone. This liberating solitude was a
highlight of my trip.
Green moss and trees on my hike beyond Jordan Pond
After I found my way back to the trail head, I returned to
my hotel to shower. I then headed back over to Mount Desert Island to the town
of Bar Harbor for dinner and drinks. I went to a restaurant called Side Street Café,
where I sat at the bar and ordered a lobster quesadilla and an Atlantic Brewing
Co. Ginger Ale. The man next to me started up a conversation, and not really
used to talking to strangers alone, I probably seemed a bit standoffish at
first. I relaxed though and learned that he’s one of the drivers who guides
tourists around the park. He told me that the next night he would be driving a
trolley up Cadillac Mountain as part of the park’s annual Night Sky Festival.
Astronomers from all over would be on top of the mountain, volunteering their
time and sharing their telescopes with whomever was interested in observing
celestial bodies. I certainly was!
After dinner I said goodbye to my new friend and went to a
bar called One Off. Sitting at the bar, I pulled out my Senior Ranger activity
book, ordered a beer, and set to work on the most challenging crossword puzzle.
Feeling friendlier, I chatted with the bartender and other bar patrons, before
heading back to my hotel for the night. I felt like a drifter or a butterfly,
just flitting around from situation to situation, person to person, unattached
to anything and yet having fairly meaningful conversations.
The next morning I was up early to head to Bar Harbor, where
I met my rock climbing guide at an outdoor gear shop. Up to this point, I had
indoor climbed a total of two times ever in my life – the second time just a
week prior to this day. I had never climbed outside on an actual rock before. I
was nervous, but somewhere in my mid-twenties I started a hobby of doing things
that scare me (sky diving, hiking for days in South America, white water
rafting, skiing, traveling for a year…). Having been a somewhat fearful child
and young adult, I have a big pool of scary things to pull from, and rock
climbing is one of them.
My guide’s name was Summer and after sizing me for my
climbing shoes and getting my harness and helmet together, we set out into the
park. Our destination, Otter Cliffs. Yeah, the 110 foot tall ones that end with
jagged rocks jutting out of the Atlantic Ocean.
When we got to the top of the cliff, she hooked up my ropes
to a rock there and checked my harness for security.
“Okay, what you’re going to do is stand at the edge here
with your back to the ocean and step down with your right foot onto this little
ledge, and then step down with your left to this other little ledge.” Then she
demonstrated. She made it look so easy.
I went to the edge of the cliff, turned my back to the
ocean, and looked down to find the ledge she was talking about. The alleged
ledge was about the size of my thumbnail. I was supposed to rest all of my
weight on that and somehow stay balanced? Meanwhile, down below this “ledge”,
waves crashed loudly on the rocks below. I nearly panicked.
Otter Cliff, where I climbed
“Is there maybe another way to do this?” I asked.
Thankfully, there was. This time, Summer had me sit on the
cliff, legs over the edge, facing out to the water. Then, using my hands, I turned
myself around (like in a swimming pool) so my back was to the water and lowered
myself down to the ledge. I was surprised once my feet were in place that it
actually didn’t feel too precarious.
Then, she told me to lean back in my harness and start to
repel myself down. That felt pretty scary at first and I repelled myself very
slowly. Eventually I got comfortable with myself, with her and with my ropes,
and after about 15 minutes I’d made it down.
“Okay, whenever you’re ready, start climbing back up.”
Summer yelled down to me. Just like that. So I caught my breath, looked up at
the cliff face, identified a path to start on, and started climbing. It
probably took me about 45 minutes to climb back up. It was a challenging climb,
and there were times I felt stuck and couldn’t identify my next move, but
Summer encouraged me to trust my feet more and rely on some of those smaller
ledges that, in the climbing gym, I had normally avoided in favor of bigger
footholds. I did fall into my harness once (that’s what they’re there for!),
but kept going until I reached the top. When I arrived I was so exuberantly
proud of myself – just simply ecstatic. I had been terrified climbing over the
edge and the adrenaline flowed during the whole way down and the whole way back
up. I absolutely understand why some say climbing is like a drug.
I couldn’t get enough. Summer helped me complete four more
rappels and climbs that day over the Otter Cliffs. These were all much easier
and more relaxing than the first, and I could also tell I was getting more
comfortable with my feet.
During some of these other climbs, we attracted a bit of
attention from tourists. I had strangers taking pictures of me climbing – and I
don’t even have a picture of myself! The spectators definitely made me nervous
and at one point a woman asked me, “Does it make you anxious having an
“Well, I’ve never actually done this before, so yes, it
absolutely does.” I replied. This didn’t really deter anyone. I guess I must
have looked really badass hanging over the side of the cliffs.
After my climbing adventure, I drove to the western part of
the park and hiked to the summit of Acadia Mountain (about 3 hours) overlooking
Somes Sound – the only fjord on the US east coast. It was a fantastic hike. It
was a sunny, warm day and the views at the summit were beautiful. I also met an
older couple, Susan and Charlie, on my way down, and finished the hike back to
the road with them.
Me, at the summit of Acadia Mountain.
After all of this activity, I was exhausted, so I headed
back to my hotel to take a nap before going back to the park for the Star Party
at the Night Sky Festival. The event was very well-organized. They had everyone
park at a local high school and then they had trolleys and shuttles
transporting people (for free!) up to the top of Cadillac Mountain. The sky was
brilliantly clear the first part of the evening – so much so I could see the
Milky Way. Unfortunately, once I actually got in line to talk to an astronomer
and view the telescope, a fog had moved in, obstructing any of the views. That
was okay though – I was still happy to see the sky devoid of light pollution
and enjoy the educational talks.
I had tentatively intended on getting up early the next
morning to go see the sunrise from Cadillac Mountain (where, during certain
times of the year, the sun first hits the US), but I’ve never been one to be
particularly motivated to get up early to see sunrise, and so I was glad to see
that it was raining when I woke up. Now I could sleep in guilt-free!
For my last day in the park, I returned to the visitor
center to pick up my Senior Ranger badge and then set out for a run on the
carriage road that circles Witch Pond. Tim and I had just recently started
training for our November half-marathon and I needed to run 3 miles that day.
Since I was in no particular rush, I went back to Otter
Cliffs after my run, just to capture some last pictures and see where I had
climbed (now that my vision wasn’t clouded with adrenaline).
The last thing I did in the park was stop for lunch at the
Jordan Pond House – the only restaurant in the park, to try one of their famous
popovers. A popover is a fluffy hollow biscuit that you cut a slit in, place a
pat of butter inside, close back up, and then shake to melt and distribute the
butter evenly. I also got a small lobster bisque that had a surprisingly
generous amount of thick lobster meat. When I asked for my check to pay, I got
a note that said this instead – “Don’t worry about the bill. Have a great day!”
And with that, my heart happy and still, I made my way back to Bangor.