Travels With Charlie... and Sissi
In 1960, novelist John Steinbeck decided to make one last trip across America. He was 58 years old, in poor health, and close to the end of his life. It had been twenty-five years since he had travelled extensively in the U.S., and, in light of the fact that he had made his reputation and a good living writing about America and Americans, he thought it a good idea to reconnect and revisit the places and people who had formed the fibre of his work. He bought a GMC pickup, fitted with a small customized camper shell which he called “Rocinante” after Don Quixote’s horse, and set off from Long Island with his wife’s black2 standard French Poodle, Charley, for company.
Steinbeck wanted to take stock of America, and the changes that had taken place. The result was “Travels With Charley: In Search Of America” his last work, an insightful, biographical novel, that has become a literary time capsule of life in the U.S., nearly sixty years ago. For years, I’ve shared the feeling that Steinbeck must have had; that maybe things aren’t as good as they used to be; that maybe, in our rush to move forward, we’ve lost some of what we had; our “uniqueness.” Steinbeck, in 1960, was looking back twenty-five years, to 1935. In 2016, after I had read Steinbeck’s book with great interest, my wife Marion and I bought a “C-class” RV, built on a Ford Econoline van chassis. I named it “Rocinante” in honor of Steinbeck, and we set off on a summer trip up the coast of Maine up to the Canadian border, roughly tracing Steinbeck’s route. We don’t have a dog, but we took our two parakeets, Franz and Sissi, named for the 1800’s emperor and empress of Austria. (Franz the parakeet had very fluffy white feathers on each side of his beak, very closely resembling the “mutton-chop” sideburns of Emperor Franz Josef, and Sissi is a very beautiful bird, worthy of comparison with the emperor's bride). The birds and we had a wonderful summer, driving through Maine, Quebec Canada, Vermont and New Hampshire; so wonderful, in fact, that we decided to retrace our steps this summer.
Emperor Franz Josef of Austria lived a very long and distinguished life. Sadly, this was not the case for Franz the parakeet, who we lost this last winter due to an inoperable tumor. To keep “Sissi” company, we introduced a new bird shortly afterwards. We named him Charlie, after Charlie Chaplin, because of his big feet, funny walk and comedic antics. Fortunately for all concerned, this was a match made in heaven. In no time, Charlie succeeded in winning Sissi’s heart. To quote Frank Sinatra, “love is better, the second time around.”
Maine is a wonderful and unique state. Everyone who lives in the U.S. should make a point to visit Maine at least once in their lifetime. From it’s rocky coastline and beautiful harbors with an abundance of historic lighthouses, lobster fishing boats, quaint colonial towns, Victorian farmhouses, piney woods, whoopee pies, wild blueberries, loons, moose, to cities like Portland - with it’s five-star restaurants serving local seafood and fresh farm-to-table faire, craft-beer brew pubs, and the nearby L.L. Bean Store in Freeport - open twenty-four hours a day, three-hundred and sixty-five days a year - Maine truly has something for everyone. Hmmm… now that I think about it - maybe I should just shut up and keep it for myself…
We set off, Marion, Charlie, Sissi, Rocinante and I, for the Fourth Of July Holiday. Stopping in Cushing, we visited the Olsen house, setting for the iconic Andrew Wyeth masterpiece, “Christina’s World.” This has always been one of my favorite paintings. Until I came to Maine, I always imagined the location was somewhere out west, on the prairie. Of course, close inspection of the painting reveals that the house is all New England, of the colonial era. Learning that Christina Olsen, the subject of the painting, was crippled and could only move by dragging herself along the ground gave a whole new meaning and intensified the impact of the work. We were somewhat disappointed to find that the Olsen house was closed to tours on the Fourth Of July. Nevertheless, this proved to be an unexpected gift. As we arrived in Cushing, we realized we had the whole property to ourselves. After enjoying a picnic lunch on a bench adjacent to the house, we ventured across the road to appreciate the Christina’s house from Wyeth’s perspective.
Continuing toward the bay, we came to the family cemetery, where Christina as well as the artist, Andrew Wyeth, are buried. Family cemeteries are everywhere in New England. The tombstones sometimes date back to the 1600’s, and are often found in the front yard of old family homes. They give one a sense of awe and a reverence for history and those who lived in what was then a wild, untamed new territory.
Camden is one of our favorite towns, and a great place to spend the Fourth of July. Flags and bunting abound, as well as all-day band concerts-in-the- park and a brilliant fireworks show to complete the festivities. Camden is also one of our favorite spots to hike. Mount Battie is a short hike, not much more than half an hour, with just a bit of scrambling (rock climbing), and was a favorite of the local poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Mount Battie is notable for inspiring the poem “Renascence,” which won a competition and launched Millay’s writing career.
This year, we did a new hike, Mt. Megunticook, the second highest mountain on the Atlantic coast, just north of Mt. Battie, with a similar view of the town and harbor of Camden as well as the Maine coastline and nearby islands. Camden was also the location for the classic 1957 film “Peyton Place,” starring Lana Turner and Lee Phillips. In addition to being an actor, Lee was also one of my favorite “Waltons” directors. If you’re a fan of the movie, you’ll enjoy Camden. It hasn’t changed much.
I’ve always enjoyed visiting places I’ve read about in books - Hannibal Missouri, home of Samuel Clemens, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Tintagel, Cornwall, on the English coast, legendary home of King Arthur, the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, where Anne and her family hid from the Nazis - these were all places that became real to me after seeing them with my own eyes. Brooklin, Maine was the home of one of America’s most beloved authors of children’s books - specifically “Charlotte’s Web” and “Stuart Little” - E.B. White. White’s farm in North Brooklin was the inspiration for the Zuckerman farm in “Charlotte’s Web,” and the story came from White’s own regret after the slaughter of one of his farm animals.
White was an extremely private man, and the farm is not easy to find. It’s said that White liked to write in his study, overlooking the bay, where he kept his “Old Town” canoe. Down the road from the farm is the cemetery where White, his wife and son are buried, and the village center, with it’s general store and town library, circa 1911. Brooklin may have been the setting for “Charlotte’s Web,” but I had the feeling it could just as easily have been the inspiration for “Our Town,” or any number of stories of timeless, classic Americana. In 1973, years after the publication of “Charlotte’s Web,” the novel was made into an animated film. The screenplay was written by none other than Earl Hamner, creator of “The Waltons.” I’m not sure if Earl ever met E.B. White, or visited his farm in Brooklin, Maine, but I know for sure he would have enjoyed this place.
The online reviews told us one could fall to their death. Well, maybe, but one would have to try pretty hard to manage it. Having enjoyed a wonderful time in beautiful Acadia National Park last summer, we returned again this year, and decided this would be the year we would hike up Cadillac Mountain, the highest mountain on the U.S. Atlantic coast. We opted for the west face, one of the shorter but steeper, boulder-laden routes. The fourteen-mile bike ride we had done a couple of days earlier on the park carriage roads was a good warm-up, but it had left me considerably saddle-sore. So much for my bike’s so-called “comfort seat.” Two days later I was still walking like John Wayne. It took us about an hour and a half to ascend, a bit longer than some of the estimates, but we weren’t in a hurry.
Along the way, we stopped to take photos, eat, and talk to fellow hikers coming down the mountain. I didn’t envy them. While the uphill hike was mildly treacherous and fairly steep with lots of boulders and a good deal of scrambling over rocks, going down would have been a good deal more challenging. We encountered several hikers along the way who had committed to the descent and seemed resigned to what turned out to be a long, slow, tricky process. One older gentleman in particular seemed a bit overwhelmed and admitted to longing for level ground. The online reviews were right about one thing: this was no hike for a wet day, when the steep granite faces would have been slick as ice. Luckily, we had perfect weather. We made it to the top, Marion got some great photos, and we returned to Bar Harbor via the longer but less steep north trail for some well-deserved Mt. Desert Island Ice Cream.
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