In the summer of 1982, my father announced a family vacation to Bar Harbor, Maine. It was the worst experience of our lives.
We lived in Connecticut – to me, the center of New England and therefore the very heart of the known universe. I’m sure if I had grown up in Ulysses, Kansas, or Coldfoot, Alaska, or Tewkesbury, Tasmania, I’d have thought the same about them. When we are young, our whole world is the town we grow up in, and only through travel and exploration do we expand our borders into the wider world around us. At that time, a trip to Maine was as exotic as a trip to Mozambique. Oh, I’d been to Florida and Puerto Rico, but those were far-flung southern places that could only be reached by airplane. Maine was in an entirely different direction.
That way be dragons and trolls and castles made of rock and snow.
To reach the fabled shores of Maine, we’d travel by automobile, and the drive would be longer than any plane ride I’d ever taken. At that age, the speed of travel was less important than the time spent traveling. So an eight hour drive to Maine meant Maine was far more inaccessible than Florida, which was a comparatively easy two-and-a-half-hour flight.
As a family, we’d made yearly pilgrimages by car to the white sand dunes of Cape Cod. At about three hours, those trips stretched my ability to sit still to the breaking point. Three hours in the back seat with a big sister is a lot to ask of a boy with ants in his pants. There are three memories that flood my mind whenever I think of our summer outings to Cape Cod. I present them here in reverse order.
- The dunes. They are disappearing and off-limits now, as humans and nature have taken their toll, but when I was small, they were huge, and I loved to run up their sandy flanks to the crest. From that windswept vantage point, the entire Atlantic Ocean would greet me, stretching as far as the eye could see. I would stand atop those majestic dunes and stare straight out across the ocean and…there! Just there! I was sure I could see England!
- Sunrise breakfast at the rest stop that was really a boat launch just over the Rhode Island border. We always stopped here to stretch our legs and eat breakfast. As a kid, vacations were the only time Margo and I were allowed to eat sugary cereal. For our Cape Cod vacations, my mom would get those sweet cereal variety packs – the ones with individual portions of Froot Loops, Frosted Flakes, Apple Jacks, Sugar Corn Pops , and Sugar Smacks. The neat thing about those little packages of cereal was that the box doubled as a bowl – if you had the guts to make it. These days, individual-serving cereals come in a literal plastic bowl. One needs merely to peel back the top, add milk and enjoy. Back in the 70s and 80s though, they were packaged like their bigger brethren – cardboard outer box protecting a flimsy bag of cereal within. Sissies opened the little bags and dumped the contents into a bowl. Intrepid adventurers, like we Navages on Safari, peeled off the front face of the cardboard box and tore open the liner to expose the sweet morsels inside, whereupon milk would be poured directly into the box and the cereal consumed with a dinky plastic spoon. As one measly box of travel-size Froot Loops was never enough to satisfy my plump 10-year-old framework, I would follow it up with a donut or two from the triple-play box of Entenmann’s: powdered for Margo and me, cinnamon for my mom and plain for my dad.
- The first sentence of that last paragraph should have sent shivers down your spine. Because if our first pit stop for breakfast happened at sunrise (or shortly thereafter), that means the journey must have started at night! Indeed madam, vacations by car at the Navage household began at The Crack of Dawn!. Now, lest you think that The Crack of Dawn! has anything to do with the actual crack of dawn, lemme set the record straight. In my father’s understanding, The Crack of Dawn! is any time after 2am but no later than one hour before sunrise. And make no mistake, madam! It wasn’t about waking up at The Crack of Dawn!. Oh, no! That wouldn’t do. That wouldn’t do at all! We needed to leave at The Crack of Dawn!. As you may imagine, The Crack of Dawn! was one of the most traumatic experiences of my childhood, followed very closely by The Itinerary!, which I’m sure will be the subject of a future Navage Yap Lookback.
Anyway, the roughly 8-hour drive to
the other side of the universe Bar Harbor, Maine was threatening to make those 3-hour jaunts to the Cape look like nap time in nursery school. There was only one other time in my short life that I’d endured such stretches of boredom in the back seat of a car. I’ll spare you the horrifying details, but let me just say this: other kids got Atari – we got Intellivision, other kids got Apple computers – we got an Adam computer (what do you mean you’ve never heard of it!), other kids went to Disney World – we went to Colonial Williamsburg and Washington DC.
Yep, folks, while my friends were laughing it up with Mickey and Donald and and all those other goofy bastards, my sister and I were forced on a Draconian death march through the greatest hits of the Revolutionary War. It was spring break of 1981, which means it was still full-blown winter anywhere north of the Mason-Dixon line. While my stupid jerk friends rode Space Mountain in sunny Orlando, Margo and I froze our asses off just like George Washington and the boys did back in the late 18th century. Nothing like numb toes and chattering teeth to drive home a history lesson, eh? The high point of that wretched vacation was a little replica of a canon I bought made from pewter that fired caps by way of a spring-loaded ramrod. It’s the only fond memory I have of that harrowing time. And don’t even get me started on the Washington DC portion of that “vacation.” The highlight of that trip was listening to Juice Newton sing “Angel of the Morning” on the radio as we sat in traffic at a toll booth somewhere on the outskirts of our nation’s capital.
So why Maine, anyway? What prompted my father to suggest this…this, what? Vacation was too strong a word. It was a weekend getaway, really, and that in-and-of itself should make you gasp. Who drives 8 hours for a weekend getaway?
The Navages, that’s who.
It was a hot summer, and my dad thought we’d find solace in the frigid, lobster-strewn waters of Down East Maine.
He’d been there before, you see. He and my mother. They drove to Bar Harbor on a whim sometime in the 60s, and by all accounts had a tremendously swell time.
Lobster lunch on a rocky shore.
Fresh New England salt air.
Motor lodges all up and down the coast.
Nearly 20 years later, my father was hoping to relive that wild and wonderful summer of sixty-something.
But he went off-script.
There would be no Itinerary!.
And best of all (for me), we wouldn’t be leaving at The Crack of Dawn!!
I think my dad worked a half day on that Friday so we could leave at a reasonable hour and get to Bar Harbor in time for dinner.
Hey, it was leagues better than The Crack of Dawn! on Saturday!
So on a sweltering Connecticut Friday in the summer of 1982, my parents, my sister and I piled into The Station Wagon and lit out for the Great Northeast.
Eight hours is a really long time to be in a car when you’re young and your mind has not learned the virtues of patience, self-reflection and contemplative thought.
I don’t know how I survived it. Truly, I don’t. Obviously those were the days before Game Boys, iPhones and other such electronic stimuli. But as a kid always teetering on the edge of car sickness, I couldn’t even read a book to pass the time! One look down at those small words on the page and my stomach would start flopping like a flounder on a fishing line. There was nothing to do but stare out the window at the other sad saps on the highway and pray for sleep.
Of course, the adults in the car kept finding “interesting” things for us kids to look at. Thirty some-odd years later, and I would find myself doing the exact same thing to Baris to about the same enthusiasm showed by my younger self.
Why do adults think kids care about the stupid crap they keep pointing at? Don’t they remember being kids?
Anyway, the drive from Connecticut to Maine is your typical interstate snooze-fest. I’ll admit it got mildly interesting once we hit Portland – at least there were bridges and some water to look at! And shortly thereafter the monotonous sameness of Interstate 95 (the same highway Handan takes to and from work each day in Jacksonville) was replaced in Brunswick by the individuality of US Route 1. Like the 101 out west which runs up the entire west coast and boasts some of the most beautiful vistas and adrenaline-pumping curves, US Route 1 is the longest north-south highway in America, stretching 2,369 miles from the tip of Key West all the way up to Fort Kent, Maine at the Canadian border. Along those thousands of miles you’ll find unparalleled beauty and your fair share of meh. But it is on roads like US-1 that you can get a sense of what America is and who Americans are. Superhighways tell of a country’s corporations. The smaller roads tell of its people.
Now, us hopping onto US-1 in Brunswick may cause you to think our journey was almost over.
Not so, madam. Maine is nothing if not enormous, and it’s got one hell of a long coastline. Brunswick marked a point something more than halfway but not quite two-thirds of the way.
Though the scenery had improved, our speed had fallen, and I slipped ever further into tedium. I despaired the trip may, in fact, never end.
A couple of hours later (and lord knows how many “squabbles” between Margo and me), we approached the final bridge that would land us on Mt. Desert Island and Bar Harbor. Oddly enough, the city of Bar Harbor does not sit on the shores of Bar Harbor, but rather Frenchman Bay. In fact, there is no body of water named Bar Harbor, but I have it on good authority that the waters of Frenchman Bay are known for how fast and far they retreat during low tides.
The sun had set and darkness fell on Bar Harbor as Clan Navage rolled into town on that hot humid Friday in the summer of 1982.
There was no relief from the heat up here. It was all a lie.
The ocean was probably cool though. I couldn’t wait to swim in it the next day!
Once dad found a motel, we would unload the bags and hit up a restaurant for some well-earned grub. The adults would go for lobster or some other oceanic bug, but what I wanted was a fat, juicy cheeseburger. Land whale – it was my favorite seafood.
“Dad, where are we going to stop?” I said. I’d had enough back seat to last me until high school.
I’d noticed a few NO VACANCY signs already.
“As soon as we can, Gregger,” he said. My mother gave him a look. She had protested embarking on this trip without The Itinerary! and one of its fundamental components: The Reservation!.
We drove to the motel that was in my dad’s mind from the beginning.
We drove down the road to another.
We drove further still.
We scoured Mt. Desert Island.
The mood inside the station wagon turned grim. We were tired, we were hungry, and my. mom. was. PISSED!
She’s usually not one to show anger, but this was an exception! She had warned my dad about this back in Connecticut! You can’t just go to Maine without reservations, she had said. Our trip was twenty years ago, she exclaimed! Do you know how much can change in twenty years, she asked?
Undeterred, my father soldiered on. What choice did he have? We left Bar Harbor and drove off the island. At this point we’d stay on the mainland. We just wanted a meal and a place to sleep. Unfortunately, one was linked to the other. There would be no dinner until we found a motel.
My dad turned the car southwest, retracing the route we’d so recently traveled. Perhaps we’d find something a little further down the coast.
But further down the coast and away from Bar Harbor for us was the final destination for so many others. Everywhere we went we saw the glowing red letters of rejection.
By Portland it was pretty clear there wouldn’t be any motels, hotels or any other lodging available. The world and country had changed these past 20 years. What was once a sleepy state well off the beaten path had become a tourist mecca. And on the hottest weekend of the year, was it surprising that half of New England seemed to have the same idea to beat the heat?
By Portsmouth, my dad had thrown in the towel. There would be no motel. There would be no vacation. Our next stop (that wasn’t for gas coming in or pee going out) would be home in Glastonbury, Connecticut.
Eight hours to Bar Harbor.
At least an hour driving around in circles looking for somewhere to lodge.
And eight long, hungry, cranky and tired hours back home.
I don’t remember much of the ride home. I must have fallen asleep at some point.
Looking back on it, I feel for my father. He wanted so badly to recapture a weekend from his younger years and share it with his family – a weekend that meant so much to him because he lived it with my mom. I know he felt terrible about that trip – even more so because mom warned him beforehand. And, really, I don’t blame him for trying. When I think back 20 years, it seems like yesterday. I’d most likely have done the exact same thing! But the past is tricky. Magical moments are nearly impossible to recreate or recapture no matter how much we may want to. It’s better to leave them as good memories and instead strive to create entirely new ones with the ones we love.
Have a travel disaster? Share your story in the comments!