Border Crossings and Invisible Lines

Monday morning, it was necessary to accommodate a rare time constraint on my schedule  - I needed to be in Charlotte, North Carolina just a few days later and had a good bit of ground to cover in the interim. I focused the entire day on scooting through the densely populated corridor of New York City/Philadelphia/Baltimore/Washington D.C.  I knew it would be an arduous drive, but what I was really dreading was the irritation I'd be experiencing as I shelled out tolls in every single state I passed through.  The most egregious offender turned out to be innocuous seeming Delaware where after spending no more than 10 minutes on the interstate I had paid two $4 tolls - one to get in and one to get out.  By the end of the day, I'd handed over a grand total of $22.00 in two and three dollar increments.

On the bright side, I did manage to cover enough territory to set a new personal record for the most states passed through in a single day: five, plus the District of Columbia! The magnetized representation of the East Coast on the rear panel of my car became a confused jumble as I shoe-horned in a new mid-Atlantic state every couple of hours. Especially challenging to incorporate were toll-loving Delaware and not-really-a-state Washington DC, both of which are outrageously ill proportioned. I soon discovered that trying to get all of them to fit into a representative whole was a job for a far more abstract thinker than me.

My day's drive first took me down the splendidly scenic Taconic Parkway, over the Hudson river on the impressive Tappan Zee bridge (connecting New York and New Jersey), along the tedium drenched New Jersey Turnpike, skirting Philadelphia altogether, directly through downtown Baltimore and then smack dab into the middle of rush hour traffic on the beltway outside downtown D.C. where I trickled along for the better part of an hour in a stream of humans heading some place other than where they'd been toiling all day.  When I at last reached Quantico, Virginia, I decided I'd had enough driving for the day and pulled into the first reasonable looking hotel I could find.
I approached the front desk tired, frustrated and completely over dealing with other people and the clerk behind the counter could not have been nicer or more friendly.  As we chatted genially it hit me like a slow motion pressure wave of charm."Wait a minute!" I remarked to myself, "Someone I don't know is conversing with me and being pleasant!"  In that moment I grasped that I'd finally crossed the invisible line between the North and the South, that imaginary yet palpable border between polar opposites.  I basked in the familiar comfort of the contrived intimacy that seems to be second nature to Southerners.  It was like a good back rub after a long day of working at the computer - I could feel my social fibers unfurling.

I passed an unremarkable night in the strange military flavored town of Quantico (small but also home to one of the largest Marine bases in the world) and spent the next morning catching up on a few chores like having the oil in the car changed since I'd accrued so damn many miles I needed new oil.  After lunch I headed off to Durham, North Carolina to stay overnight with my friends Dave and Fen.  Dave and Fen fall into that cherished category of friends that I unfortunately see only rarely, but even so, have no trouble picking things right back up where we left off the last time. I got to hang out with the two of them and their two young daughters Thea and Ottoline who I hadn't yet had the pleasure of meeting.  We managed to pack a lot of pleasant visiting into my short 1/2 day stopover and it was grand to meet two fresh new humans.

Wednesday morning, I took a series of North Carolina back roads from Durham to Charlotte.  I passed through a number of small towns, all of which seemed to have at least a couple of stores with  Guns! Ammunition! or Gold! offered for sale.  When I stopped at a convenience store for some gas along the way, I bought a package of pork rinds that were emblazoned with the phrase "Like your mama used to pan fry" and included a lengthy bible verse printed on the back of the bag.  They were so damn hard they nearly chipped my tooth and were immediately relegated to the on board trash collection system.  I'll tell you what, my mama would have been embarrassed to pan fry something as inedible as that!

I was looking forward to spending a couple of days in Charlotte where I'd be attending a concert one evening and then picking Mark up at the airport the next day so he could finish out the last part of the trip with me. I'd planned on arriving in Charlotte just in time for lunch since I'd scouted out a local fried chicken joint that sounded right up my alley.  Charlotte is a wonderful city to be hungry in, seeing as how North Carolina is the easternmost state in a long broad swath of the south that is burgeoning with delicious food.  I meant to celebrate my return to the South with a heap of golden fried chicken wings, and Price's Chicken Coop was just the place to do it.

Price's Chicken Coop is ensconced along a fringey street on the borders of an old downtown Charlotte neighborhood and is surrounded by a patchwork of weedy overgrown lots, urban rail crossings, high rise condos and artsy boutiques. The modest brick building that houses Price's bustles with a steady stream of customers arriving to take their turn placing an order at the well worn white laminate counter.  Price's opened in 1962 as a takeout counter (situated as it was, in a chicken packing plant) catering primarily to the huge number of factory workers that needed a quick meal at lunchtime. But word of the delicious fried chicken soon spread and over the years, it has earned an extremely devoted following.

After ordering my chicken wing dinner, I pulled out the camera to take a few photos of the folks that were working their tails off to serve me.  They looked up with obvious joy and gave me the most wonderful, glowing smiles. I'm always very impressed with a business when I see such easy merriment in the people that work there.

Because Price's has never felt the need to maintain a dining room as a feature of their booming business, you must instead seize the grease speckled cardboard box handed to you across the counter, walk quickly to your car and shut yourself safely inside at which tie you can proceed to voraciously inhale your prize. You'll soon notice that he streets surrounding Price's are dotted with cars, each occupied by a human hyena cowering in isolation, protecting and devouring their golden fried share of the kill.

My wings were so delicious that every single other thing in the box paled in comparison.  I ate every morsel of the chicken, but barely tasted any of the rest - it was one of those days when stomach math becomes so damn important. I felt strangely justified by my culinary equations later that evening when I stopped at another local place called the Chicken Box on my way to see the band Pinback in concert, Unbelievably, the wings at the Chicken Box were every bit as good if not better than Price's.  I was so DAMN glad to be back in the South.

The Pinback performance was thoroughly enjoyable.  I've been following them for well over 20 years now and they're one of the few bands I never get tired of hearing live.  I was very glad I'd been able to catch up with them in Charlotte.

The club where they appeared reminded me of Austin's now-defunct but much adored iconic rock bar Liberty Lunch.  In fact Charlotte's bohemian flavor reminds me quite a bit of Austin before it became quite so big and glamorous.

Thursday morning, I enjoyed a leisurely brunch featuring a cavalcade of orange foods while preparing for Mark's arrival later that evening. After whisking Mark from the airport, we shared a delicious gourmet dinner and then put some miles under us heading south on the darkened interstate. We had a couple more important stops to make on the last push toward home.


Queen of Upstate New York for a Day

Without really intending to, I was slowly wending my way through New England, and now it was upstate New York's turn. Fresh from the ocean scented realms of Byfield, Massachusetts, I drove due west on the uninteresting Massachusetts Turnpike, eventually turning south just in time to enter upstate New York north of Poughkeepsie.  Happily, when I exited the toll road and started down the two lane byways of the upper Hudson River valley, the needle on the scenery gauge shot way over to the right.

Seeing as how it was Sunday afternoon, it wasn't long before I found myself trailing a large pack of burly weekend bikers, reproducing their swoops as they wove back and forth, back and forth along the hilly country highways.

An extensive installation of shiny metal sculptures suddenly popped up on the roadside, and it was compelling enough to trigger my  turn-back-and-check-it-out response. As I meandered about the sprawling grounds of artist Bijan Mahmoodi's Circle Museum Sculpture Park, my focus quickly shifted from the art itself to the remarkable quality of the salvaged materials used in the pieces.  Bijan has a good eye for the attractiveness of junk and the things he's chosen to include really bump his sculptures up a notch.

I began to encounter the peas from a pod of puerile bikers who had stopped at the same time I did. They were busy mounting what I'm sure they thought was a hilarious running commentary in stage voices so loud as to be inevitable.  One fellow was apparently the Benny Hill of the group and managed to orchestrate a few lewd pictures before the whole lot of them hopped back on their bikes and went roaring off.
I noticed that Bijan had retreated to his studio shortly before the bikers had reached their height of hilarity, but when the dust from their abrupt departure had begun to settle, he reappeared and we sat down to chat a bit about welding.  Geeks like us never tire of talking about metal, it seems.

I really liked these galvanized trash can flowers Bijan made - great use of materials:  

Before the afternoon got away from me, I bid Bijan adieu and head off toward the town of Millbrook where I'd be spending the night at a place called Wing's Castle.  I wanted to leave myself plenty of time to have a good look around and take a nice long swim in the moat before retiring to the dungeon. I zoomed along a series of winding country lanes that threaded through forests and pastures, passing every now and then through a tiny township and occasionally running alongside a mossy green lake.

After turning off at one of the bends in the road and passing through a portal of greenery, I found myself at the foot of a tall rocky tower that stood sentinel high above the sweeping hillsides that cascaded gracefully down to the Hudson River. I feel certain I must have gasped out loud.

One of the first things that hit me as my eyes took in the castle's turrets and stairways and crenelated walls and pointed roofs was the sheer enormity of moving so damn many rocks from one place to another. I'd venture to say that no two rocks in the entire complex are the exact same size and each one has had to be carefully fitted to its neighbors, stone by distinctive stone.  The next thing that hit me was how much charm and beauty every single line of the castle is imbued with.
Artist Peter Wing is definitely not afraid of making things round or curved and the resulting geometry is extremely organic and pleasing.  In fact, in mulling it over, I decided the entire place is a truly magnificent love poem to the serpentine. It's sometimes expressed in verses as obvious as the numerous Gaudi-inspired serpent walls and it's sometimes expressed in verses as subtle as the superb undulations of the ornate iron railings that grace the entire property. But one way or another Peter and Toni have not only mastered the art of articulating the curve, they've created a whole epic poem celebrating it.

Construction of the castle began in 1970 when Peter Wing returned to the family dairy farm after serving in Viet Nam.  He soon married Toni and the two of them began working on an extraordinary art project that after 44 years is still going strong.  Fortunately for me, the Wings rent out several of the castle's rooms, which generously allows others to share in the fantasy of living in a better-than-fairytale castle, albeit for only a night or two.

After skillfully navigating the difficult reef of special social skills required to deal with hard core Yankee folk (I'm sure they dread dealing with Southerners just as much), I unloaded my suitcases into my way-cool room, grabbed the camera and dashed out the door to start exploring. There were so many fascinating things to behold!  It wasn't very long, however, before the aqua blue water of the moat pool sang its siren song and induced me to change into my bathing suit.  I had to ease myself inch-by-inch into the chilly water, but I was bound and determined to take advantage of such a fantastic swimming opportunity while I was able. And anyway it was just fine once I swam a few laps back and forth through the tunnel. The best part of the swim was that it made me feel like I was about 12 again.

I returned to the dungeon to dry off my carcass and organize myself to take a few more pictures before dark.  As I was poking around the grounds waiting for the sun to drop below the horizon, I found lots and lots of fascinating little nooks and crannies to explore.


As I climbed up and down spiral stairways and found chambers I hadn't yet discovered, it amazed me how much of it I'd simply failed to detect the first time around.  There's so much packed into every square foot of the castle!  From the corner of my eye, I finally detected the sunset portent I'd been waiting for: every single blade of vegetation touched by the sunlight was suddenly outlined in luminous gold. I quickly made my way to a semi-circle of steles that sit at the hill's crest. They come together to form a powerful place awash in grandeur, perspective and quietude, and an excellent vantage point from which to view the velvet tapestry of the purpling plains.  I sat contentedly and watched the oldest show in the world as the sun sank swiftly beneath the mountain tops, leaving a widely diffused wake of glowing orange in its path.  

When at last the light had receded, rendering the landscape completely featureless, I walked back up the short path toward the glowing yellow portal of light and stone that marked the entrance to my dungeon bower.

The crickets and frogs had already begun a haphazard duet and the newly darkened sidereal canvas above my head was sparkling with points of starlight.  I left the huge heavy stained glass window at the head of my bed open when I turned out the lights, so I could listen to the sounds of the cool summer night.  My final thought before dropping off to sleep was, "Man, I hope my handmaiden remembered to program the espresso machine before she went to bed. I'm just sayin', Don't be making me wait for my LA-tay, girl!"


New Hampshire and Massachusetts

Sunset on Lake Ivanhoe - photo by Ron Nottebart
From Portland, Maine, it was necessary to drive a wild zigzag pattern of country roads to head west toward New Hampshire where I'd be staying for the next couple of days. The blacktops through the ancient and storied woods wove and forked and intersected and every so often roundabouted, and were the polar opposite of the gridded roads I'd driven through the Iowa cornfields. The arcane route necessitated an elaborate list of driving cues writ large on the whiteboard I keep in the front seat of my car for just such a purpose. My drive soon took on the fun and challenge of a puzzle or a game - how well could I execute the multitude of steps necessary for the completion of my mission?  The day was pleasant and the scenery just what I'd been missing from Canada - lots and lots of trees and every so often an interesting little town.

Less than a half hour after crossing into New Hampshire, I rolled to a stop on the luxuriant bed of pine needles covering my hostess Joanne Nottebart's tree-lined driveway.  Joanne is a wonderfully funny and plucky woman who just happens to be my good friend Ron's mom. I've had the pleasure of getting to know her over the years at rendezvous of this exact sort and I was looking forward to having some time to chat with her. Joanne passes her summer months in a comfortable and neatly appointed cottage perched a short distance from the shores of mighty Lake Ivanhoe near East Wakefield.  I say lake, but the locals actually refer to it as a "pond" due to its modest size. I do think it merits a mighty in the swimming department though!

Photo by Cathy Nottebart
Before yet another half hour had elapsed, I was in my bathing suit, floating in the rejuvenating green waters, delighting in the perfect balance of cool-but-not-too-cool water to warm, dry, moving air.  My only distraction was to reach up every now and then and take a swig of the rum and Coke that was waiting for me on the pier. Let's see...life very hard today...check!

Oh, and even sadder - did I mention that my pal Ron (he and his wife Cathy had arrived just the day before) is a really good cook?  After porpoising about in the lake to my heart's content, the next imposition forced upon my time was to sit down to a magnificent dinner of perfectly roasted lamb with homemade mint sauce and all sorts of other tasty trimmings. What a decadent day!

Thursday morning I got to enjoy the rare pleasure of riding along as a passenger when Ron drove Cathy and me out the lovely Kancamagus Highway through New Hampshire's White Mountains.  There are a number of very picturesque pullovers along the Kanc's 26 mile length and Ron selected a few of his favorites for us to explore more fully.  Our first stop was the serenely lush Sabbaday Falls.

Walking along the trail to the falls, we discovered all sorts of wonderful flourishes of nature: mosses, pine cones, ferns, water bugs and mushrooms to name a few - it was a real treasure hunt of a hike. The dense canopy of foliage obscured any sign of the bright fall sunshine just overhead with the dramatic exception being an occasional beam of light pouring down from an invisible opening in the leafy ceiling as if to spotlight a single aspect of the forest floor.  This unusual milky white fungus wore a stunning necklace of dew drop jewels where the sun touched it:  

We next popped into an area called Rocky Gorge to take a look at a spectacular array of boulders that constrict and sculpt the rushing waters of the Swift River.  It's a place where water and rock interact on a grand and impressive scale.  Posted at the entrance to the bridge over the gorge is a sign relating the riveting tale of one Dorothy Sparks, trapped beneath a Rocky Gorge waterfall gasping for life for well over 3 hours on an October day back in 1942.  As far as warning signs go, I have to say it was an extremely effective discouragement, which is good because it really is a tempting area to try and dip some part of your body into.  

Not far from the gorge lies the enchanting Falls Pond, tucked away on one of the bends of a trail that snakes off through the White Mountain National Forest.  When we emerged into the clearing around the pond, the water had created an enormous mirror, doubling the broad swathes of vivacious green and sublime blue.  Ron and Cathy both managed to take pictures that I just love that beautifully represent the gorgeousness of the place, I however took crappy photos that aren't worth sharing:

Photo by Ron Nottebart
Photo by Cathy Nottebart
We made one last quick stop to check out a quaint covered bridge and hop across some rocks sticking up in the shallow edges of the river and by then we'd drunk in enough pastoral beauty for the day.  It was time to get back to the cabin and begin preparing our fabulous lobsta dinner - and I do mean lobsta!

Joanne and Ron worked in efficient tandem preparing a huge steaming pot on a propane burner outside.  Cathy and I looked on with amazement at the whirl of activity and occasionally attempted to straighten a fork or fluff up the pot holders so as to try and feel useful.  Into the pot of luxuriant steam went fresh, fresh, fresh lobsters, huge steamer clams and sweet summer corn.  When the treasures were plucked from beneath the billowing clouds of vapor a short while later, I was reminded that the bright orange of a steamed lobster's shell is one of my favorite colors of all - as orange as orange can be.

We had a spectacular feast.  Huge clams slathered in melted butter, giant chunks of orange flecked lobster flesh slathered in melted butter and sweet summer corn, slathered in butter.  I think the theme is obvious.

After clearing away the butter besotted remnants of our dinner and washing down the seafood slicked surfaces of the table, we sat down to relax by the light of the forest fire lamps and tell ghost stories and war stories and tales of romance, because we were at camp, after all.  We yakked until the frequency of our yawns indicated we should retire.  The sounds of the Indian summer night coming through the screens on the open windows lulled me right to sleep. If I'd been able to stay awake just a little longer, I would have been able to hear the calls of a solitary loon searching for her mate, but too bad! I had sleeping to do.

Friday morning Ron gave me a tour of the family shop building out back because it's always fascinating to me to see how other people organize their things (or not).  While I was happily poking around, I found a set of four hand-painted ceramic Tiki heads pushed to the back of a dusty shelf and when I remarked how much I liked them, Ron informed me (and Joanne later confirmed) that they were destined for the trash heap and I could save them from certain doom were I to take them with me.  Yahooo!  I absolutely love them.  No telling how I'll end up using them. but it'll be something grand.  We subsequently discovered that Ron had in fact painted one of the four (the one with the black face and blue accents) when he was a teenager - which made my Tiki head booty even cooler.

As I worked to ready the car for my imminent departure, Ron prepared another delicious and deeply satisfying meal - real Yankee hot dogs.  The ones with a casing that snaps when you bite into them and that burst open on the grill when you're cooking them.  I love a good hot dog and these were the real thing.

After properly stowing the Tiki heads, polishing off a few super-tasty hot dogs and saying some fond farewells, I zoomed off through the trees headed south toward a curious destination in Salem (New Hampshire) referred to as "America's Stonehenge."  The site features a number of hand built stone structures that are undeniably pieces of human architecture but because of the place's varied and colorful usages during the last two centuries, the owners aren't really able to say with absolute certainty who built what or when.  Carbon dating of charcoal fragments from the site suggests humans were there at least a couple of thousand years ago, but then a zealous owner in the 1800s moved things around and sold off and quarried a good bit of the stone from the site, and completely muddied any archeological record that might have been present.

Perhaps due to its mysterious origins, the New Age movement has embraced America's Stonehenge as a sacred space.  It could also be due to the staggering number of low rock walls that snake around the 30+ acre property marking an elaborate and accurate celestial calendar (hence the Stonehenge association).  All of which is helpfully etched into a diagram located near the sacrificial altar. But the fervor of the New Agers simply adds to the deliciously complex flavor if you ask me.  We human certainly love a story, don't we?

It was a hot and airless afternoon though, even in the shade, so I soon tired of the cognitive gymnastics I'd been performing on the piles of rocks and was ready to head on to nearby Byfield, Massachusetts where I'd be staying the next couple of days with my brother-in-law Steve and his family. The short 48 hours I spent with them was a pleasant whirl of talking, eating and kayaking.  It's so easy and stimulating to converse with the Massachusetts Schades - Steve, Trish, Dean and Ian.  I really enjoyed the good long stretches of conversation we got to share and feel lucky to have such appealing folks in my extended family.  I had a reservation for a dungeon in upstate New York for Sunday night, though and our visit was soon concluded.


I Liked It, in the Maine

My abrupt transition back to the American mindset most resembled a rough landing in threatening weather about 50 miles south of the Canadian border with Maine.  I'd become accustomed to the verdant remoteness and simple modesty of Canada, so to encounter a sudden rash of expensive homes and restaurants, high end retail outlets and harbors full of fancy boats gave me the sensation of being mauled by a lifestyle. All the trappings of the Bar Harbour set were in evidence as I passed through village after village.  I kept running across enclaves of sophistication that weren't nearly proportional to the number of residents they served - a sure sign that your town has been overrun by the privileged.

So it was with palpable relief, then, that I spied the lavender limned contours of Wild Blueberry Land on the side of Highway 1 outside Columbia Falls, Maine.  All throughout Canada I had been pining for something as simple as a group of awkward mannequins giving vivid expression to a strong theme, but Canada hadn't yielded up much more than a handful of giant avatars (some good ones, admittedly) to feed my roadside attraction cravings.

Wild Blueberry Land, on the other hand, was an entertainment bonanza!  

What an admirable commitment to theme.  Everything, absolutely everything, was drenched in cartoon blueberry blue paint and some of the objects were even spherical to boot!  The owners operate a wild blueberry farm (wild blueberries being smaller and tastier than what we usually get at the grocery) and they use their own harvest to produce all manner of blueberry accented delights: ice cream, cake, muffins, cookies, bread - you name it.  The shop is also stocked with rows of outlandish blueberry themed trinkets and shelves packed with classic summer vacation souvenirs, because you just never know when you might need a rubber tomahawk or a lobster shaped bottle opener.

It was standing there amongst the raucous assortment of geegaws and purple tinged snacks that I realized the transition back to my native mindset had eased somewhat.  The reason you wouldn't find something like this in Canada is because they're not nearly as fascinated with capitalism as we are in America.  And yet I experienced that colorful cacophony of wares spread before me as a real joy to behold and it made me feel as though I'd finally found something I'd been yearning for, even though I didn't end up buying a single thing.  Complicated stuff, capitalism...complicated stuff.

Strolling around the shop I was thrilled to discover the Wild Blueberry Land throne room where ordinary, everyday customers like me can choose to take on the burdens and joys of ruling Wild Blueberry Land by simply selecting either a crown or a tiara (or both?!) from one of the shelves proffered by tiny soldiers on either side of the throne.  I thought this fellow made a particularly beneficent looking ruler:   

Restored to an equilibrium of sorts, I departed Wild Blueberry Land and headed toward my evening's lodgings in the minuscule town of Winterport, Maine,  As I passed through the town of Bucksport on my way, I stopped to photograph an intriguing bridge and discovered the adjacent Fort Knox Historical site in the process. I resolved to make an extended visit to both the bridge and the fort first thing next morning.

After a pleasant evening spent in a cozy antique filled room at the Old Winterport Commercial House (built in 1883 as a stagecoach stop) I rose and made my way back to the Fort Knox Historic Site through a dense installment of fog.  The fog made things look exactly as I thought they should on a rainy fall morning in northern Maine.  Well, keeping in mind, I guess, that my impression of what it should look like was almost entirely informed by eavesdropping on Mark while he watched every last episode of the 60s Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows a couple of years back. The theatrical dome of dense fog did indeed make a perfect backdrop for wandering among the ruins of the enormous granite clad Fort Knox built at great expense in 1844 - now a warren of cavernous empty rooms and dark winding passageways.  The site is reputed to be haunted, but noisy unrestrained toddlers were the worst manifestation of evil I experienced while there.  I did enjoy seeing the cannons and reading about the intensive labor required for each firing of the mechanism.  Dirty and dangerous work indeed.

I was impressed by the large number of ventilation shafts cleverly designed and built into the structure to help dispel smoke and other noxiants produced by warring.  The brickwork that lined the vaulted ceilings was intricate and beautiful to behold.

The barren granite walls of the fort weren't able to hold my attention for long, though, so I headed off to exercise the other half of my admission ticket - an elevator ride to the top of the Penobscot Narrows Viewing Tower.  The tower sits atop the bridge that I'd stopped to photograph the day before and reaches 447 feet into the air. It's just a quick one minute elevator ride up to floor...two!...where you'll find yourself suspended in a a cube of sturdy windows overlooking the Penobscot river in an unencumbered 360 degree view.

By the time I stepped off the elevator, the fog had lifted just enough to give clear definition to the paper factory across the river which was busy belching plumes of smoke from its multiple stacks and adding to the lugubrious feel of the scenery.  Looking down, I loved the geometry I saw in the web of steel cables anchoring the tower and the sinuous curves of the road passing beneath the bridge.

It dawned on me as I swept my eyes from horizon to horizon that this would be a sensational place to ride out a really wild norwester' - can you imagine how scary and spectacular that would be?  Ah well, time to quit gawking and take the elevator back down to the first floor - I had many other tourist attractions that merited my attention this day.

My next stop was Perry's Nut House in Belfast, Maine.  Perry's opened in 1927 and has catered to aficionados of roadside commerce (the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, even) from that day forward.  In it's earlier years, it was supplemented with a large and impressive sounding collection of oddities which were displayed alongside flocked moose nodders and bags of pecans. Today, the store still offers a variety of nuts by the pound and a respectable array of toys and tacky souvenirs, but it has largely abandoned any efforts at showmanship after having removed all but a few examples of the wacky taxidermy that was such a big draw in years past.  I do have to give Perry's credit, though, because while it may be a bit lacking in the two-headed calf department, it's definitely the only place I've ever been where you can enjoy a free sample of fudge (your choice of 12 delicious flavors!) while examining an ancient Egyptian mummy crammed unceremoniously into a glass display case next to the cash register.

It's the mummy and its purported story that actually made my visit worthwhile.  Here's the tale, gleaned from a sign that was taped to the top of the counter: A world explorer of local fame visited Egypt in the 1920s when it was fashionable to dig up a mummy and bring it back to America as a souvenir.  The idea was that you'd have a big party when you returned (think: robber baron) and unwrap the mummy as a party game.  Any treasures discovered in the course of removing the bandages were given as party favors to the guests.  The disrobed corpses were then just simply thrown away in the trash or burned like firewood.  Fortunately, the world explorer in our story didn't see the use in completely unwrapping his find, wanting instead to display it artfully in his home.  In the intervening decades after our hero died in 1940 of a poisonous snake bite, and after a series of Abbott and Costello style incidents involving the storage and transfer of the mummy, it finally found a home at Perry's in 2005 and serves as a sole bold acknowledgement of Perry's illustrious P.T. Barnum past.

While overall I found Perry's to be a bit forlorn, I ended up being glad I stopped.  My next destination was the State of Maine Prison gift shop (I sure do love prison art) but it turned out to be a disappointing flop.  Most of what I saw on display were crude wooden handicrafts of the lowest common denominator (super-sized decorative fishing float, anyone?) all sealed with a thick glossy veneer of enforced moral smugness. Okay, okay, I just made that last part up out of resentment, but suffice it to say the place wasn't nearly what I'd hoped for.  Big deal, though.  That's a risk you always run when you try something new and I try to never let it deter me.

On to the last stop of the day, the legendary lobster shack called Red's Eats in Wiscassett. I generally find the word legendary to be overused in describing restaurants, but Red's Eats truly merits such a label by succeeding so wildly on every single measure of the how-to-run-a-business-right scale.  The food is top notch, the staff inspiring and the locale charming. There's a never ending line snaking around the block packed with people only too happy to pay $17 for a sandwich.  And as if all these accolades weren't enough, Red's embodies one of my favorite subtle qualities of an eatery: you automatically become part of an unintentional community that forms around the experience of eating there. I love it when that happens!

A good deal of Red's success and notoriety seem to stem directly from co-owner Debbie Cronk who puts in long hours behind Red's front counter, continually opening and closing the rolling screen window that marks the exact eye of an enormous seafood maelstrom whirling about her. Debbie greets each customer warmly as they take their place at the window in endless succession. She attends carefully, pen poised, pad in hand, patiently listening as the customer tries to blurt out what they want.  She often suggests insightful amendments or overlooked economies to planned selections. It sincerely feels as though she wants to provide every customer with a personalized plan for their best possible meal.  Isn't that wonderfully corny?  Everyone, including me of course, just eats it up - literally and figuratively.

While I was waiting for my order to emerge from behind the screen window of seafood happiness, the gentlemen behind me swept the cap off his head after placing his order and asked Debbie to reink an autograph she'd made for him on one of his previous visits.  As she signed and thanked him for being such a good customer, he swore undying fealty and love in surprisingly inspiring words, giving me a fleeting glimpse into the immense fandom that surrounds Debbie - and she seems to earn every bit of it.  It was about that time I noticed that the tip jar on the counter was literally stuffed full of bills, over-running, bursting with gratitude that could hardly be contained.

So aside from Debbie, here's what all the fuss is about - a sandwich (?) called a lobster roll.  The roll part is like a hot dog bun but with the sides trimmed off and then toasted.  The boiled then chilled lobster (more than a pound, freshly caught, freshly cooked and freshly picked) is massed on top of the bread and served with your choice of melted butter or mayonnaise.  Not a single other ingredient - I kid you not: just roll, lobster and butter.  When I sat down to inhale my sandwich, I finally got the appeal. This was your classic Wicasset boiled lobster dinner only without the bib, without the clunky metal claw crackers, without the seafood patina and the finger bowl - just great huge lolly pop chunks of fresh lobster with a side of melted butter on a roll to catch the drippings.  So much cleaner and without any of the tiresome toil.  Fantastic to eat and worth every penny.

Okay so Maine was going a little bit better now.

Wednesday morning's first stop was a curious place my host in Wintersport had reminded me of - the desert of Maine.  I remember really loving the concept of a vast arid desert in Ohio introduced by David Foster Wallace in his novel Broom of the System. In Wallace's book, business men create a desolate wasteland in Ohio so they can convince people to go there and tour it.  That always tickled me for some reason, so when I heard about the Desert of Maine I knew I should go for a visit.

The so-called desert is really a lake bottom comprised of glacial silt that was exposed after a century of poor farming practices by the family that owned it in the 1800s.  After the farm finally failed at the turn of the century, an entrepreneur named Henry Goldrup bought it for $300 and turned it into a roadside attraction which officially opened for business in 1925.  Henry offered guided tours and tried introducing camels and miniature donkeys to entice customers, but all the animals he chose ended up being so foul tempered that it was necessary to relocate them to "a farm." Ahem. Guests these days are transported over the rolling dunes in an open-air tram car tugged along by a feisty old Jeep (please keep your arms and legs inside the tram at all times, ladies and gentlemen).  Our knowledgeable and well rehearsed guide provided elaborate explanations, snappy visual aids and a multitude of corny jokes to entertain us.  As we drove by the hilariously wonderful  temperature gauge at the desert's entrance it pointed emphatically to near 100 degrees.  Tee hee!  I'm so sure!  I've spent quite a few days on 100 degree plus deserts, and I'm here to tell you the Desert of Maine wasn't but about a scorching 88 degrees or so. But it kind of made me like the tour even more, reminding me as it did of the importance of good theater in running a tourist attraction.  My guide was kind enough to take a picture of me languishing on the parched slope leading to the Desert's center.  Much more of that and I might have had to break out in a bead of sweat.

After dusting the last grains of silt from my Mary Janes I headed off to one last stop I wanted to make in Maine before crossing over into New Hampshire. I was very much looking forward to visiting the tantalizingly titled International Museum of Cryptozoology in Portland.
"What kind of animals do you study in cryptozoology?" you might ask ironically, if somewhat unknowingly.  Cryptozoology is defined by people who seem to know as the study of "hidden" animals.  This includes species like the coelacanth that we thought were extinct only to then subsequently discover the opposite; species like the Panda bear that were thought to be imaginary animals dreamt up by superstitious natives until specimens were captured in the wild; and then finally rounding out the list are animals of unknown biological makeup -  like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster - whose existence has been reported, even photographed, but who remain a mystery by virtue of their ability to elude capture.  This is obviously where the cotent gets a little...um...wilder.

This serious but fun loving museum is packed to the gills with models, dioramas, drawings and plaster castings that playfully document a cast of characters as diverse as the Jersey Devil, the Woolly Mammoth and the Giant Squid  No stone has been left unturned in gathering popular cultural representations of each cryptid, as they're referred to individually, ranging from lunch boxes to board games to stuffed animals.  There were two Texas favorites given ample display space - the Chupacabra or "goat sucker" that terrorizes south Texas ranches and the beloved Jackalope of all places Western.  

I really enjoyed the thoroughness of the collections and being able to talk with the museum staff as I strolled about.  They were knowledgeable folks and fun to chat with.  

So, sorry I was so cranky, Maine.  We kind of got off to a bad start with all the L.L. Beans and Range Rovers, but you really delivered in the end after displaying an admirable amount of quirk.  I underestimated you in the beginning blinded by the glare of the Bar Harbor marina, but I quickly came to love your mummies and your lobster rolls and your hot, dry desert.  Keep up the good work.