2021 Maine – Autumn on the Atlantic (Part 2)

September 22nd – My Sunrise Surprise

Our alarms went off at 3am and we were dressed and had coffee in hand by 3:30. We were excited for this sunrise, so it wasn’t too difficult. On top of that, we went through a bit of stress to get these reservations, so we definitely didn’t want to waste them! Because of how popular Acadia National Park is, several of their activities require advance reservations, especially ones that can’t accommodate as much traffic as there is. If you have a specific date you want to go, there are only two times to buy tickets…exactly three months before, and then again two days before. We were adamant that we went today, so we bought three months ago, counting down the minutes until the tickets opened so we could be one of the first…almost as stressful as buying concert tickets!

Watching the sun rise on Cadillac Mountain is one of the most popular things to experience, not only in Acadia, but in the whole northeast. That is because it is the highest point on the eastern coast, therefore it is the first bit of land that sees the sunrise, before anyone else in the country. And this particular day just so happened to the first day of fall, our favorite season! No coincidence there. I really wanted to be able to say that the first light of fall fell on us before anyone else. And, as I was soon to discover, David had his own reason for insisting on this day…

We dressed in lots of layers, expecting a cold morning, but it was only 67 degrees. Thankfully, the entrance to Cadillac Mountain wasn’t more than a ten-minute drive down the road and we were second in line. Once the road opened at 4am, we made our way up the winding mountain road in the windy darkness. The wind got stronger and stronger the closer to the top we got. One we were parked, we stumbled about in the dark for a few minutes, struggling to find the right path that led to the actual summit and not to a side trail. But we still got there without too much trouble. We followed the rocky path to the point that felt the highest and found a nice little hole in the rocks that allowed us to nestle in and have something to lean on, while shielding us from the wind! We wrapped a blanket around us, so we were snuggly and comfy, and then waited.

There were quite a few people there, but you could tell everyone here was of the same vibes and mindset, so it was never uncomfortable. Except for what nature herself threw at us. That wind was fierce and, after sitting in the darkness for two hours, we were very thankful we had dressed in all our layers after all. More people began to filter in as the sky began to lighten, although it was still darker than usual at this time of morning because of how thick the clouds and fog banks were. But it had a beauty all its own. We watched the bay far below slowly coming alive as fisherman began their daily routes. The gray ocean shifted softly beneath swiftly moving fog, and there was a dim glow illuminating the rolling hills of pine trees all around us.

We were afraid we might not see the sun at all, but then, right at 6:16, I saw the first tiny sliver of bright red poke above the ocean. Everyone pointed and gasped together as that glowing ball began a swift ascent. Within minutes, we could see the whole sun sitting just above the horizon. It was blood-red, but dim enough you could look right at it. In our photos, it almost looks like a great red eye peeking at us through eyelids of cloud. And then, just as quickly as it had appeared, the sun began to slide behind the gray skies above. Within a few more minutes, we saw only the red glow of the rays bouncing down and reflecting off the ocean. Perhaps it wasn’t the picturesque sunrise we had imagined, but it was still unique and beautiful. I would love to come back and see it on a calm, clear morning sometime, but I don’t regret the one we did witness! At least we still saw the first light of fall before anyone else!

David and I held our spot for a while longer, letting the crowd filter out. Very soon, we were all alone on the windy, foggy mountain top. I started to wiggle out of our warm nest, when David stopped me with a breathtaking surprise…a gorgeous ring, presented in a box he had spent months building, as he asked a question that every woman dreams of hearing. I will spare our readers the ooey-gooey details of the proposal, because all that matters is that, of course, I said yes. Everything about the ring, the location, the moment itself, was beautiful and well-thought out, and my head was spinning with love and giddiness. And then, nature decided we had had enough fun. Just as my emotions were coming back down to earth, a thick wall of fog rolled over us, bringing some vicious wind and a sheet of mist that soaked us instantly!

We grabbed our things and hurried back to the car, shrieking and laughing. We tried to wait it out for a bit, as I was really wanting to get some engagement photos here on the mountain top where it happened! However, there did not seem to be a break in the rain anytime soon. I was pretty disappointed, but I told myself that it was the moment itself that matters more than pictures of it, so I agreed to make our way back down Cadillac Mountain. The fog followed us all the way down in a way that was eerily reminiscent to the fog that chased us up the Million Dollar Highway in Colorado! But it was much easier to get away this time, and we made our short drive through the rain back to our cozy cabin.

This rainy, gloomy weather on a cool fall day is my absolute favorite, and it was really making the autumn colors pop against the gray sky, so despite not getting pictures on the mountain, it was still a lovely day. We made some lunch and decided to do a quick photoshoot using the beautiful, dark woods around our cabin as the backdrop for our engagement photos instead. Then we threw another pine log on the fire and cuddled up all warm, fully fed, and happily engaged! We also took this time to reevaluate our plans for the week, as there are more storms to follow over the next few days.

We had originally crammed our schedule pretty full of small activities all throughout Mt. Desert Island. But now, we are more interested in relaxing and staying close to Acadia, so several things have been marked off as “things to do next time”. As for today, we had several options to consider, but eventually decided to try rescheduling our Nature Cruise for today (originally planned for Saturday, but it’s supposed to storm pretty bad that day). Thankfully, they had availability to do just that, so we changed out of our hiking boots and engagement photo outfits and grabbed binoculars and hoodies instead.

We headed for Bar Harbor and spent a short while complaining about all the things we don’t like about this town…like the massive potholes created by manhole covers that almost bottom out our poor little Fiat, the excessive crowd, and these greedy parking meters! The spot we thought we had found on Main Street wouldn’t give us enough time to cover the cruise, and it also wouldn’t give us our money back, so after grumpily moving the car further away, we were able to get back to all the things that we love about Bar Harbor! Aside from parking, most of the prices in this town are not outrageous, so both souvenirs and food are affordable. So, we did a bit more shopping and started looking for lunch.

Not a lot of places had cheap to-go options, and we were a bit short on time, so we ended up returning to Sunrise Café. It was such a handy location, as our nature cruise would leave from the same dock here that our whale watch had yesterday. David got himself another English muffin while I decided to try a lobster crepe (it was a whopping $24, which I wasn’t aware of when I ordered it…oops.) It was super good and incredibly filling…unfortunately, the sweetness of the bread and richness of the lobster wasn’t sitting well in my stomach. I love seafood, but having so much at once appears to be making my organs rebel. But surprisingly, I held it all down and just sipped water to keep my nausea at bay.

There were far fewer people on this tour, so boarding the boat wasn’t nearly as stressful. We grabbed a couple seats right at the bow with brilliant views, warm sunshine, and cool wind (cold wind, if you ask David). The rain had cleared out an hour ago, leaving nothing but blue skies! The next two hours were a delightful, peaceful cruise through the many small islands that pepper the shoreline of Mt. Desert Island. Funny enough, our naturalist guide from the whale watch yesterday was our same guide for today. We got another interesting narration on the history of the land and Acadia National Park, got some brilliant pictures of beautiful lighthouses, and saw a host of sea birds, porpoises, and harbor seals!

It was a very relaxing and comfortable afternoon, however, as the boat began to finish up its loop, David and I returned to our seats to rest. I still wasn’t feeling the best and David was exhausted from our early morning. The mix of wind and sun, the gentle lull of the boat, the distant call of the sea birds, was all a soft ambience that lulled us both into a doze. We startled awake as our boat pulled back into the harbor and we returned to the dock. It was a lovely little cruise, and we were glad we had rescheduled it to such a beautiful day!

The parking meter was nearing the end of its time as we reached the car, but we made it. We needed another emergency grocery run and this time, it needed to be a good ole familiar Walmart. Thankfully, there was one on the mainland, within twenty minutes of us (one of very few in the state!) It was the first time we had left the island since we had arrived, and it was amusing to me how much like home Mt. Desert already felt. We stocked up on groceries, grabbed a nice light rotisserie chicken (I couldn’t stomach anymore seafood…) and scurried back to the warm, welcoming feeling of our hidden cabin. (Fun fact: Walmarts in the northeast are much more environmentally conscious than in the Midwest. They do not offer plastic bags. They encourage everyone to bring their own reusable ones. Thankfully, David and I already do this at home, so we were prepared!)

Now that we’re home, we are tidying up the cabin a bit, going through some photos, and munching on sweets. It has been a very long day and we are very sleepy. I can barely keep my eyes open as I write these notes. And of course, we both have lots of people trying to call and text tonight now that the news has hit Facebook about our engagement. We hope we can get to bed soon because we have more exploring to do tomorrow!

September 23rd – Hitting the Trails!

We thought we had earned a bit of rest, so we slept in until about 9 this morning. Then we microwaved a quick breakfast and sat down with our map and schedule to plan out the day. We were now encountering one of the downsides of having everything pre-booked…in our excitement, we had almost over-booked ourselves. We had tickets for a Windjammer cruise this evening, but by this point in the week, we are pretty tired of cruises. The ocean is nice, but we are definitely mountain people! However, as our tickets could not be refunded, we decided to just work around it. One more cruise wouldn’t hurt us any!

In the meantime, it was time to find a trail to hike and there are LOTS of them here! There were several that intrigued us, including both the Beehive and Precipice Trails, two of the most popular because of how thrilling they are! You have to be able to scale the cliffs on a system of ladders…which sounded terrifying to me (not that I was going to wimp out if David wanted to try them!) However, we both ended up agreeing to scale our thrill-seeking back a bit. Both of us are fond of finding the beautiful, underdog attractions that are often overlooked in favor of the regularly trodden places. Plus, we had really settled into a laidback, relaxed vibe for this vacation, and we liked the idea of keeping that up.

So, we settled for the Gorham Mountain Trail. It had ocean views, deep forests, and a few minor climbing zones while still being labeled a moderate trail that would only take a couple of hours to complete. Just what we were looking for! So, we threw some snacks into our backpack and set out for park. We got there around 10am and boy, was it BUSY! We thought about stopping by Jessup Trail for some more engagement photos, but there was not a parking spot to be found, so we kept going. We cruised on down to the trailhead we were looking for and spent some more time hunting for a spot to park. This park is incredibly busy, which can be frustrating, but it also well-marked and it keeps traffic moving efficiently, so it’s still not awful.

We got lucky and snagged a spot fairly close to the trailhead when another vehicle pulled out. We changed into our hiking boots and hit the trail with excitement! It has been a gorgeous day with cool temps and warm sunshine, and this trail was great! We started off on a gradual climb through shady forest, encountering a few short places of rock-climbing. There was a small off-shoot on the side called Cadillac Cliffs that ran alongside the main trail, but was a bit more strenuous for those seeking adventure. We ended up taking this off-shoot and spent some extra minutes doing some intense scrambling over boulders and even trying out a few short ladders, which makes for good practice for the more dangerous trails. I didn’t do too badly, if I say so myself!

Our small ascent of 525 feet was well-marked and very beautiful! The lower half was dirt trail through birches and maples that were flaring with autumn colors. As we climbed in elevation, the path became patches of exposed rock, and the dark green conifers took over the foliage. There were some beautiful cliffs, bluff walls, and ocean views along the way. After about an hour, we reached what we thought was the summit (turns out the summit was actually a little ways further up!) and stopped to eat a small picnic while enjoying the cool wind and the magnificent view of the ocean. Then we began picking our way back down, leaving the smooth rocks of the sunny mountaintop and delving back into the cool forest. The downhill portion was much rockier and it was very easy to turn an ankle, so we moved slowly.

At one point, we reached the Beehive Trailhead and were tempted to take it, but it would be an additional two hours of strenuous climbing. We were out of water and had a schedule to keep, so we decided to put it off for another time when we were better prepared!. Plus, we’re pretty happy with the relaxed hike that we accomplished! Eventually, we finally made it back down to the main road (my poor knees were very thankful!) and started the easy slope along the Ocean Path as we hiked back to the car. All in all, it took us about two and half hours, which isn’t bad for a gentle hiking day! We spent the rest of the afternoon cruising along Park Loop Road so David could get a brilliant time lapse video of it all. The sunshine, the cool wind, the sparkling ocean, the thick moss and shadows beneath the pines and birches…it all made for a lovely, pleasant drive.

We made a pit stop back by the cabin for a slightly heavier meal and relaxed for a couple of hours. This trip really has become all about kicking our feet up and letting our worries fade away. It’s been a long time since a “vacation” actually felt like a vacation and not just us constantly running or driving to the next item on the list. It had been so refreshing! On the downside, I discovered that I have a pretty decent sunburn across my back and shoulders from hiking, so that’s causing a bit of pain right now…but not enough to offset our evening as we grabbed some jackets and prepared for our evening cruise!

It was my turn to drive as we made our way through the madness of Bar Harbor yet again. We were heading to a different dock this time, one pier over from the Bar Harbor Whale Watching Company. This pier was for the Windjammer Cruises, as we would be taking a schooner sailboat to watch the sunset. Parking wasn’t quite as hard to find on this side of town, and it helped that a nice older couple gave us their spot as they were getting ready to leave anyway! We paid our frustratingly high parking fee for what we hoped would be the last time, then checked out the dock. We had a bit of time to kill, so we went for a short stroll along the water and wandered into the Bar Harbor gift shop for a bit before returning to the dock to take our place in line.

It wasn’t long before we were boarding the magnificent Margaret Todd! She was big and beautiful and seating was just simple benches wrapped all around the edges. Finding seats was not the mad scramble that it had been on the other tours. In fact, the whole tour itself was much more laidback. The crowd filtered in and we were soon on our way! The captain gave us a little information on the sailboat’s history, and then let us ride in peace, enjoying the natural ambience around us. Watching them lift the sails was more exciting than I was expecting, and it was impressive to look up at how huge they are from below! They also serve alcohol (although, we opted out this time, as it was too chilly to hold onto cold cans) and have live music!

The musician this evening was John Tercyak and his acoustic guitar playing and soft, folksy voice were a pleasure to listen to! He even stopped across from David and I to sing a love song just for us! It was such a wonderful experience that we actually stopped to buy one of his CDs later in the evening. And since it was a sailboat, the engines had turned off after leaving the harbor, so our boat was powered only by the wind in the sails. It was a slow, gentle rocking, and not nearly as cold as the other cruises had been! There was a sense of calm and quiet to the evening as folks milled about and chatted and Mr. Tercyak wandered around, strumming soft music. Then there was the glorious sunset itself, turning the sky red and gold as that fiery ball sank below the foggy mountains. The deep evening glow over the land and across our sails made for some of the most striking photos we have gotten on this trip!

David and I snuggled cozily through the entire evening, really soaking up how romantic and magical the whole journey turned out to be. We are so happy we didn’t cancel these tickets! We got to experience an authentic sailboat on an absolutely gorgeous night in what turned out to probably be our favorite ocean experience!

After about an hour, night was falling, and we returned to shore. We fought our way out of the busy Bar Harbor and bid it farewell, as we don’t expect to come back here anymore this trip. We headed for our warm, snuggly cabin, took some hot showers, fixed some chicken and rice for dinner, and settled in to play some games. It has truly been a lovely day. Tomorrow, we plan to head to the mainland and check out some more of the state of Maine!

September 24th – Our Maine-land Misadventure

We were up and around by 7am. We packed our bags with snacks, made some coffee, and set off into the morning for what turned out to be our most challenging day so far. All started off well though, with some good road trip music as we headed west, leaving Mt. Desert behind us for the day. We made a pit stop in Milo, at a Tradewinds Market. We had discovered that Tradewinds are the most common gas station in the northeast, and they also serve as pretty decent convenience stores with a surprising amount of grocery items.

We also knew that there was undoubtedly a Dunkin’ Donuts inside. We had been told ahead of time that DD was the popular coffee shop here, not Starbucks (and we barely saw more than two Starbucks the entire trip!) but it seems that the northeast worships Dunkin’ Donuts. They are attached to every building that one can fit, be it gas stations, grocery stores, even businesses! There are more Dunkin’ Donuts per town than churches! (Yes, I know how Midwestern that sounds…)

Anyway, with this knowledge, we stopped for gas, restrooms, and a hearty DD breakfast, including some iced apple cider because ‘tis the season!

However, some combination of this breakfast, our coffee, and our spicy chicken from the night before was not at all kind to our innards. An emergency bathroom break became necessary a short ways down the road and we began a frustrating and increasingly desperate scavenger hunt for a toilet. After having to pass by a gross, leaking privy and a one-stall gas station with a long line, we finally found a blessed Hannaford. Needless to say, this ordeal threw off our morning a bit, but we were soon on the road again and trying to make up for lost time, certain that the roughest part of our day was already behind us…

Our goal for today was to explore the Khatadin Woods and Waters National Monument, as well as Baxter State Park, home of the highest peak in Maine, Mount Khatadin. Both of these attractions are fairly close to each other, and our past experience with monuments and state parks led us to believe it would be a full day, but a simple one to explore them both. However, we quickly learned that such places here in Maine do not have the road quality and accessibility that we are accustomed to in the Midwest. Here, on the northern end of the state, we are on the edge of primitive land that has been unaltered and almost untouched since the Native Americans hunted these forests. There are no people out here to bother building anything for. Everything has been left completely to pure nature, it seems. The roads we were currently driving were some of the last in the state. Beyond this, any further west was traversable only by canoe and horseback.

Our main reason for coming to this area, aside from Mount Khatadin, was for the wildlife spotting opportunities, as it is supposedly a hotspot for moose and many bird species. At first, the distance from civilization seemed like a good thing if we were to spot the most secretive creatures. However, as we followed our Google Maps to the location we had it set to, a scenic overlook at the national monument, it kept trying to get us to turn onto some sketchy looking roads. Now, the pavement is nothing special either, as I have complained about before, but it was manageable. These roads however were gravel and dirt, and quite narrow. Still, Google insisted, and since we could find no other option, we hesitantly turned off the highway.

This road had patches of pavement, but was mostly gravel and potholes. Which is bad enough in a regular car, but Fiats are not made for gravel roads. They are not meant to be off-road at all. You can feel every rock. And when GPS kept turning us down worse and worse roads, we began to get very nervous. We realized we were in the midst of a labyrinth of logging roads! Rocky, uneven, and only meant to be traversed by off-road or high-clearance vehicles! There were no signs or warnings to indicate that these roads never let out anywhere, and our phone signal began to get spotty enough GPS could no longer track us. It was like the beginning of a bad horror movie.

Fiats are small cars, so we dragged against every rock and had little to no shocks to absorb any of the bumps. It was the roughest, loudest, and most tense drive we have ever made and there were multiple times we were sure we had bottomed out entirely. In several areas of road, we had to stop and eyeball the uneven ruts, unsure if the Fiat would get high-centered or not. We did NOT want to get stuck out here. The entire time we were never able to go much faster than 15mph.

When we did finally limp our way to the supposed overlook, it was more like a grassy path through a field that ended in a locked gate. There was no road and no overlook. I was so frustrated I was almost crying. There was no way the car could make it back the way we had come, as we had barely made it through once. We would have to try to find our way out through what the map called the “main entrance”. We spent several hours out there, inching along terrible roads and praying that we weren’t about to become one of those news stories about missing travelers. There had to be smoother roads ahead.

After a long time, we did finally come to a road sign that sounded familiar: Swift Brook Road. I remember reading that this was where the official loop drive for the monument was…which meant that it also led to the highway if we turned away from the monument. Which we did. This road was in a little bit better shape, and we were able to go about 25mph on it. We were both a little bummed that we hadn’t actually gotten to experience the monument much, but we were both so desperate to escape those roads, that we didn’t care a whole lot.

The only living thing we saw out there the entire time was two men camping beside a small pond that we stumbled across by accident. Both of which stared at us as if a blue Fiat with a Missouri license plate was the last thing they had expected to see (it probably was). We were so focused on staying safe, we never got to really look for any moose or birds, however, the fall colors that we saw there were absolutely stunning. There were several moments where we had parked to recollect ourselves and ended up taking pictures of how gorgeous the trees were. The untouched wilderness was so dense, and far more vibrant that anything we had seen so far! It was raining on and off all day as well, so although that added to our apprehension, it also added to the beauty of the day.

After about another hour or two, we made it back the pavement at last! Ironically enough, we finally found the official sign for the monument. A picture of that sign will have to suffice for this visit. We later learned that the National Park Service recommends following Route 11 to Medway and following the signs from there. Apparently, it is a much easier drive. We wish we had known that then, but that’s what trial and error is for!

So, what did today teach us? DO NOT attempt to drive on a logging road if you do not have a high-clearance vehicle! Of course, we wouldn’t have tried, had we known, so just know this…even if a road in Maine looks like a simple gravel road, it will probably become a logging road. The safest way to access the park is to follow the directions listed on the webpage for the National Park Service. Had we done this first, we probably could have survived the mild roughness of those roads. However, by the time we found the right place, we were too traumatized to risk it. This monument is apparently pretty new, so there is little to no development on it, and who knows if there ever will be, so all roads through it will probably always be gravel. Come prepared.

The drive itself was miserable, but we did get some splendid pictures of beautiful backcountry! And even more importantly, we have an epic tale to tell when we get home. Usually, it’s the days that don’t pan out quite right that make for the best stories! We’re sure it will be funny by then. And maybe one day we will return with a truck or a Jeep that can handle those roads and try exploring them another day!

By the time we were back on the highway, it was tipping towards evening. There would be very little time to explore Baxter State Park, and after studying the topography map, we realized it would probably be much the same as what we just escaped…all unmaintained gravel road. We were not about to do that again, so instead, we just started back towards the east. We thought we might try to salvage some of our hopes of spotting wildlife by visiting the Sunkenhaze Meadows Wildlife Refuge, just off I-95 on our way home. We would only have to pass through a town called Old Town to get there, which didn’t sound too bad…but it was also terrible. The streets have no rhythm to their design, the traffic was insane, and there was road work and car crashes at every single road I needed to access.

After about 45 minutes later than was necessary, we finally got there only to discover more exceptionally rough roads and no accessible views without a decent hike. On any other day, we probably would have been down for that. But not today. Instead, we just turned around, feeling very defeated, and slowly limped our way back. (Having grown up on gravel roads, I am very used to cruising along full speed in my Impala…but these roads were so bad, I would have thought twice even in my own trusty beast!) By this point, we were hungry, tired, and miserable. Evening was setting in, so we just called it a day and crawled back through the traffic and collisions of Old Town.

Eventually, we reached the interstate again and didn’t leave it until Bangor, where we saw a Longhorn Steakhouse that was easy to get to. After a 45-minute wait, we gorged ourselves on comfort food because we deserved it, and that was honestly the best we had felt all day. We had about one hour left to go and when we crossed the bridge back to Mt. Desert Island, it was like being welcomed home to a warm embrace. We had never been more thankful to see our cozy cabin. We did little more than throw our stuff down and crash into bed, we are so exhausted.

Today has just not been our day. But so far, the rest of our trip has been a splendid success, so I suppose our time was due. All travelers are destined to have a bad day once in a while, to keep things interesting. And to remind you that, at the end of the day, Life does not owe us anything. We are privileged to experience what is given to us, both the good and the bad. Sure it was a long, trying day of rain, wind, dangerous roads, crazy traffic, and vicious bowel movements…but we made it home. And we can wake up tomorrow and try again.

September 25th – Lazy Day

Honestly, there isn’t much to write for today. It’s a rainy, gloomy day outside right now…the kind that we love! We slept hard last night and let ourselves wake up slowly, letting the stress of yesterday fade. We kept the blinds up and the doors open as the rain fell on the dark, mossy forest. Occasionally, a bird will call out, its voice echoing eerily in the mist. We sipped our coffee and soaked in the peace.

Our literal plan for the day…was nothing. We had started this trip with so many activities planned and, since then, have almost made it a game of what ideas we can toss out to allow ourselves more relaxation time. We planned out our return journey home and shaved off a few big pit-stop ideas to make room for smaller stops and to allow for a slower drive south. Everything we subtract from our agenda for this trip is added back to our extensive bucket list. And from this bucket list, we were able to start daydreaming about all the future trips we would like to take…even where we might go next! (As is tradition for us to do!)

So, today was just that. A day for recuperation and planning. We played games and I wrote on some stories. We ate lots of leftover food and, as evening rolled in, we lit our last pine log and let the warmth of the crackling fire fill the room. The rain picked up for a while and we cuddled on the couch, happily dozing in and out. We haven’t really left the couch actually…and it has been wonderful! We went ahead and left a nice, long note in the guest comment book in our cabin too! We’ll start working on supper plans and showers soon. Then it will be time to start packing and tidying up the cabin a bit, so we can get on the road faster in the morning. Tonight will be our last night here and I know I speak for both of us when I say it came far too fast!

September 26th – On the Road Again

We were up early this morning, about 4:30, so we could finish packing and do the cleaning that was required to get our deposit back on the cabin. By 5:30, we were saying our fond farewells to our cozy little home away from home (only to return minutes later because we had forgotten our hats!) Then we were bidding a wistful goodbye to Mt. Desert Island as well as we returned to the mainland. We stopped in Trenton, just a few minutes down the road, at a gas station to restock fuel, ice, and groceries. I also grabbed some coffee and a breakfast sandwich (both mediocre, but the employee was friendly!) then we made a straight shot for the interstate.

Most of our morning was dark and rainy, with a brief moment where the sun tried to shine through, creating an eerie orangey-pink lighting. But the fog won out and all returned to the gloominess, which was actually quite nice. We were taking our time today, as we had planned our return journey in a way that meant we didn’t have to rush to be anywhere. So, we enjoyed our quiet, rainy drive and took scenic roads as much as possible.

We twisted and turned our way through small towns until we got to Highway 2, which would give us a backroad route nonstop all the way into New Hampshire. When we got to the border of Maine, the fog was starting to clear and we got some beautiful pictures of the mist drifting in and out of the mountains, over red and yellow fields. We were passing through the White Mountain National Forest now, and it was gorgeous! The colorful, round-topped mountains were just so pleasant to see, and we saw a portion of the Appalachian Trail as we drove past it!

We also went past Mount Washington, the highest peak in New Hampshire, although that peak was still shrouded with mist. There is an auto road you can take to the top, and it is one of the attractions on our bucket list, so we took a minute to look into it but there are strict regulations of what kind of vehicle and take the road, due to the severity of its steepness. Tickets were $40, but that seemed a bit more than we wanted to pay, and we were afraid to ask that much of the Fiat. There are all kinds of other tour companies and even the Cog Railway that also take you to the top, but most required reservations and are even more expensive. So, we will try again another day when we are better prepared with either pre-bought tickets or a heavy-duty vehicle!

We stopped at McDonalds for lunch, then crossed the river into Vermont. Oh, how we had missed this magical state! Within a single week, the trees had become even more vibrant than before! At this point, we turned onto Scenic Byway 100, one of the most popular drives for fall colors. There were wild apple trees everywhere, dropping their fruits all over the road. Clouds of red and yellow leaves spiraled down on us with every gust of wind. The sky was a glorious, cloudless blue and the sun was bright and warm! The hills rolled on endlessly, just waves of scarlet, orange, and gold. I started thinking of this area as the Hills of Fire. It was such a beautiful drive that there are no words, nor pictures, that can truly capture the magic of actually witnessing it.

The slope of the highway followed the hills, making for some steep inclines and declines…as much as 15% in one place! It seemed like there was a village at the foot of every slope, each one tucked into its own valley as you crossed the mountain range. It was nice knowing that there was probably always a gas station over the next ridge, but it was somewhat annoying that all those steep grades going downhill always ended with a stop sign! It was hard enough to get the Fiat stopped, we can’t imagine the poor truck drivers that come this way!

We passed through a handful of these sleepy towns with magnificent valley views, find an overlook here and there to stop for pictures. We also stopped periodically for gas, bathroom breaks, and snacks. (Fun fact: Vermont only has gender neutral bathrooms. And unfortunately, there’s usually only one stall per building. I’m fine with gender neutral, but give us two stalls at least so the line isn’t twice as long!)

By this time of day, our energy levels were crashing hard. An early morning, plus the heaviness of McDonalds food, compiled with what was already a sleepy drive made it so hard to stay awake! In fact, I ended up taking a short nap by accident! Eventually, we stopped so I could take the wheel for a bit and, as we entered the Green Mountain National Forest, we were starting to wake up a bit. Green Mountain was just as beautiful as White Mountain had been, but the hills were steeper and the road narrower. Rather than coasting through sunny valleys, here we were cruising through a shady canyon. At one point, we passed a waterfall that surprised us with how suddenly it appeared around the curve. Needless to say, we turned around and went back!

Moss Glen Falls was a wide and beautiful waterfall tucked between the hills and was shockingly close to the road! There was a very short boardwalk that led to it, so we couldn’t resist taking a quick peak at this grand and easily-accessible waterfall. We also noticed there was a van in the parking lot for the boardwalk that had several tables of syrup and pancake mix for sale! This was a recurring theme all throughout the state of Vermont, we were soon to see. Whereas Maine is crazy about their lobster, with lobster pounds on every street corner, in Vermont, the new drug is maple syrup. They sold it out of vans like this, in wooden stands on the edge of the highway, and even had syrup displays in gas station windows! It’s crazy!

After taking a few waterfall pictures (and perusing the syrup options, because why not?) we were back to rolling through the small villages. We were exhausted by this point, and ready to settle down for the night. Wilmington was our goal. It was the small town we had passed through on our way east, where we had gotten some cute bridge pictures. It was also very close to Hogback Mountain, which we want to go revisit. We had planned far enough ahead yesterday to pick out a motel and book a room in advance so we wouldn’t have to worry about vacancy.

As the sun was setting behind the hills, we finally rolled into town. We got to witness the beauty of golden hour as it settled over Wilmington as we made our way to one of the restaurants we had researched ahead of time. The Maple Leaf Tavern had sounded adorable, and it was! It was a cute little pub on the corner of Main Street, and it offered a wide variety of dishes at fairly reasonable prices. I tried the Surf & Turf Mac & Cheese (which comes with lobster and steak) while David tried the Maple-Glazed Salmon (almost everything on the menu has the option of adding maple syrup, if it isn’t already swimming in it). Both of our meals were really good and very filling!

Feeling much better now, we turned the corner and piddled down the street to our motel, the Viking Motel. I don’t think it was very “Viking” themed and it was definitely outdated, but it was cute and comfy enough to suffice, so we checked in and unpacked eagerly. My only real complaint right now is that there seems to be no way to shut off the ancient heating element and the windows don’t open, so all we can do to combat the steamy temperatures is to blast the window unit AC (yes, it’s like 50 degrees outside, but it’s about 90 in here!) I don’t think sleeping will be an issue though, regardless of temperature. We covered a lot of ground today, so we are feeling pretty accomplished, but we have even further to go tomorrow. As soon as I finish these notes, we’re going to plan our route for tomorrow, then it’s lights out for us!

September 27th – Return to Hogback Mountain!

After our early start and long road time yesterday, we let ourselves sleep in today. For coffee, we just brewed the New England brand present in the room (but used to much creamer in our attempt to use it up so it was WAY too sweet!). Our goal for this morning was to return to the Hogback Mountain store and go to the museum down below, but they didn’t open until 9 and 10 respectively, so we just chilled in the room for a bit.

Close to 8:30 we decided to try to find a gas station and some additional coffee to rectify our mistake with the creamer. However, this turned out to be much harder than expected. As great as the northeast is on some accounts, they are severely lacking in full-service gas stations and, even more so, a decent coffee shop of any kind. We did eventually find a single gas pump, but what we thought would be the building to buy ice and cheap coffee was just a repurposed warehouse for the neighboring Dunkin’ Donuts. We searched all throughout the town, but not a single “station” to be found. Just pumps. We decided we would have to search for these things in a town further down the road, but that wouldn’t be until we had finished our morning at Hogback Mountain!

When we arrived at the store, we took a moment to take in the valley below. It was quite a bit redder than it had been a week ago! Then we went in to find a map of the trails here in the valley, looking for a short time-killer since the museum still wasn’t open. And we were feeling refreshed from yesterday, so it sounded fun! One of the closest and shortest trails was to the Fire Tower at the summit of Mt. Olga, which worked out perfectly because David loves fire towers! And the hike was pretty easy. A few rocky bits, muddy patches, and a couple of steep slopes, but in about thirty minutes we had scaled the mountain through the serene forest. We even saw what we think was a scrape left by a moose (no actual moose, sadly).

It was a beautiful day with temperatures in the 60s, so that made this hike even more enjoyable! We did some birdwatching and came across the remnants of an old ski resort. We later learned that the Hogback Mountain Ski Resort was apparently one of the most popular ones in Vermont for decades before closing in the 80s when bigger slopes ran them out of business. Now the old, overgrown structures are like ghosts, still haunting the mountainside from a bygone era.

We made it to the summit with ease and made the shaky climb to the top of the fire tower. The views were totally worth it! There was a perfect 360 degree view from the top of the valley below, lit with the fiery colors of the maples. In the distance, the mountains rolled in gentle waves, some cresting into the clouds, all of them a blue haze in the distance as the rain clouds moved in. We admired it for quite some time, but the wind was getting cold, and we could feel raindrops, so we picked our way back down the mountain and were back at the gift shop about thirty minutes later.

We now turned our attention to the museum, which was only $5 per person. Most of this museum is about 5 or 6 rooms of taxidermy exhibits in questionable lighting, but it was quite informational. They had dozens of specimens of bird species, most of them familiar to us, and it was nice to study them up close. A lot of these we had never really seen, so it was nice to get an accurate look at colors and sizes! There were a few live reptile exhibits as well. We were impressed with the size of the museum. It felt like it kept going and going, getting deeper and deeper. Honestly, parts of it were kind of creeping me out, especially since David and I were completely alone, but it was still enjoyable.

On the third and final level, we came to the live bird exhibits. This museum was also a raptor rescue, meaning that they took in birds of prey that had been injured and could not be released into the wild. They had several owls, hawks, eagles, and a raven! Had an employee been present, we were told they could take the birds out for us to see better. Unfortunately, there was no handler there that day, so that was kind of a bummer, but we were still happy to get to seem them!

Then we climbed back up the stairs to the gift shop to look around some more. I did most of my souvenir shopping here, ending up with a bag of Vermont-made delicacies as well as another block of cheese, a roll of hickory smoked pepperoni, and a dozen apple cider donuts for myself! (Sadly, the donuts weren’t as good this time around, as they weren’t freshly baked.) By that point, it was 1pm, which was pretty off-course for how we had planned our route for today. The museum had taken much longer than anticipated, but we don’t regret it!

Thankfully, the store had fresh, hot coffee so we were able to fulfill that need. And just down the road a ways, we found a gas station that sold ice and there was a Subway next door for lunch! Fully fed and fueled, we set off on Scenic Byway 20, hoping to make up for some lost time. Although, our time schedule wasn’t hurting bad enough to go back to the interstate. It would save us time, but we were getting ready to pass through New York again. We had been on the interstate on our way through the first time and knew there were only boring views, congested traffic, and an unreasonable amount of tolls that wouldn’t tell us how much they cost. We opted for the backroad instead. The leaves weren’t changing here in New York quite yet, but there was still lots of lovely farmland and rolling hills that were a pleasure to experience. (And boy did those hills roll…they go up and right back down, just as steeply!)

One downside to our journey was the realization that we were no longer seeing signs warning about moose crossings. It seems we have left moose territory now, so no moose sighting for us it seems. Not this time, at least. I’m still very hopeful for next time though! But there was still much to enjoy here in the beautiful backcountry of New York. There were several overlooks for the vast valleys and forested slopes, and we passed through lots of small, scattered towns. One of them was made up entirely of antique businesses! The sun was shining, road trip music was playing, and we were still feeling pretty energized after our late start. We munched on road snacks and drove hard to make up for that lost time.

The sun was setting by the time we made a detour again. We knew we would be coming up on the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, which was easily accessible from Hwy 20. We were eager to squeeze in a little birdwatching, so we allowed ourselves this guilty pleasure! After our debacle in Maine, we were nervous about gravel roads, but these were as smooth and maintained as we had gotten accustomed to gravel roads being! So, it made for a lovely drive. It was a bit later than we would have liked, but we had just enough light to see about half the refuge still. Aside from a deer and a very large snapping turtle, we saw dozens of ducks and geese, as well as egrets, herons, a northern harrier, and a multitude of shorebirds. So, that’s still a pretty successful evening! And the wetlands made for some gorgeous photos as the bright red sunset reflected perfectly off the water.

Darkness fell on us quickly, so eventually we put away our identification apps and rolled up the windows (the mosquitos here are ridiculously thick! We were driving through swarms of them!). We cruised carefully through the back half of the refuge until we were back on Hwy 20. We found a gas station and reevaluated our plans. Originally, we had wanted to make it to Pennsylvania tonight, but my diet of road snacks has left me not feeling too great, so we decided to call it early. We are now getting settled in a Quality Inn in Hamburg, NY, just outside of Buffalo. Thankfully, we got a deal on the weekday rate and got the room for $70! This room is pretty nice, especially for that price!

We stumbled up the stairs and I took a hot shower and heated up some donuts for supper (probably not gonna help me feel any better). It’s almost 1am now, so we have got to try to get some sleep. We have about 15 hours left to go. We could break that into two more days of easy travel…or we could make ourselves completely miserable by trying to make a straight shot home tomorrow because we are too stubborn to call it quits. I have a bad feeling that I know which one we will end up doing…

September 28th – The Long Haul

We were out the door by 8am and I allowed myself a McDonalds McGriddle for breakfast (the first one I’ve had since the day we left for this trip!) I think it was deserved. Then we started west. We had managed to stay off the interstate so far, so we kept up that trend by taking Highway 5, a scenic road that skirts along the Great Lakes. The sky was cloudy, but no rain, so it was a peaceful, easy drive through the willow trees and vineyards of rural New York. Eventually, Lake Erie appeared beside us once more and we again marveled at its size as we drove. I remember thinking how similar it was to the ocean the first time I saw it, but now that I had seen the ocean to compare it to, I could see how different it really was. The way the waves move, the way they hit the shore, the lack of foam, and even the way it touches the sky are so different from the Atlantic in ways I can’t explain. I just feel honored that we had the opportunity to learn how to spot these differences.

To avoid the toll roads, we stayed on Hwy 5 all the way out of the state. Looking back at all the time we spent traversing New York, we were a bit shocked by the lack of noteworthiness of the landscape. States liked Colorado or Texas change drastically every hour, but the northeast is surprisingly lowkey. I guess we expected to see a bit more change in New York, but its mostly just rolling hills and farmland.

Eventually, we passed Barcelona Beach and were briefly on familiar roads, although we passed by the exit to the interstate that we had taken last time. We passed quickly through Pennsylvania, only getting a bit turned around in Erie, PA, as it was trickier to navigate than expected. Then, before we knew it, we were in Ohio once more. For the first time since leaving Maine, we veered back towards the interstate again, catching I-71 as it curved its way south. We had successfully avoided all the tolls! It was free sailing from here on out! We stopped for gas and fast food (I was in the mood for Chick-fil-A, and the nearest one was in Columbus, so I held out until then) and added a few smaller things to our list to check out another day, as there were some small parks and refuges scattered around here.

As for Ohio, there was nothing noteworthy to mention here either. We were back to the Midwest vibes with farmland and deciduous forest in every direction, all with a sad lack of color. It’s still summer this far south, unfortunately. We skirted Cleveland and Columbus both with little trouble and as the afternoon went on, set our sights on Indiana, which has now become one of my least favorite states. Mostly because of their road quality.

Every single road in Indiana, even the interstate, is rough and full of potholes. And traffic is backed up literally everywhere because of supposed “road work”. If they were actually working on the roads, I wouldn’t be upset, because they clearly need it. But every single time we got stuck in a construction traffic jam, it was only because the blinking signs told us to slow down or stop. There were no people anywhere. No machines running, no workers actually doing anything…just unnecessary congestion for vehicles. No wonder their roads suck. And Indianapolis was just as terrible as the first time, with traffic along the interstate being backed up for about 30 minutes due to road work and car crashes along the detour. So, we detoured even further, taking residential roads through the suburbs. It was slow going with lots of stoplights and, again, the roads are ridiculously rough and hazardous, but we made it through and only got caught in two minor traffic jams caused by more mysterious road work where no one was actually present. Needless to say, we were both pretty frustrated with this state by the time we got out of it.

We crossed into Illinois well after dark. Our determination to make it home was definitely taking its toll and we considered stopping for the night in St. Louis. But the idea of spending money on a hotel room when we only had four hours left just didn’t sit right with our stubborn natures. Plus, we were really looking forward to the comfort of our familiar bed. So, we miserably pressed on for the next several hours into the night. We frequently switched drivers now, allowing the other to take a thirty-minute nap before needing to switch again because we were just so sleepy. We had had to battle this exhaustion and darkness through the second half of Indiana, Illinois, and now Missouri as we finally passed through St. Louis.

The pitch blackness outside meant there was nothing to distract our minds to keep us awake. Our heads hurt too badly to think of things to talk about, so we tried making crazy plans regarding our wedding and future adventures, coming up with crazy ideas just to stay active. We played loud music and came up with our own silly little road games. We made only one more pit stop for a final tank of gas and enough food to keep us up for a while longer.

Those last few hours are a delirium dream of sleep-deprived giggles and blurry visions of increasingly familiar billboards. By about 3:30am, we were pulling into the driveway of our wonderfully welcoming home. Within half an hour, the car was unpacked, the cooler food placed in the fridge, and we were wrapped up snug beneath the covers. Although a drive like that is wretched at the time, one day it will be a fond memory and a fun story to tell…but not until we are recovered from it.

Epilogue

We took our time over the next couple of days to settle back in. We slept in and unpacked slowly. We cleaned and daydreamed about the adventure we had just returned from. As always, there was that jolting sense of reality when coming back from a long trip, when we try to remember how our lives worked before we left them behind. At least, we don’t have to part ways anymore. Our nights are just as warm in our shared bed here in our home as they were on the road, and picking up where we left off doesn’t feel as impossible when your lifelong companion is still at your side.

We already miss the simple peace and quiet of the northeast. The magical call of those colorful wilds still lingers in our dreams, and we know we will return to them someday. We have even been researching the price of living in Vermont! But until then, we have pictures to edit and an article to write! And oh, so many stories to share with our friends and families. Sometimes, that’s the best part. Even though we are no longer on the road, and we are far from these places that brought us so much joy…we can still relive every moment of it. We can keep these memories as vibrant and alive as if it just happened yesterday and, as we do, we are awakening the idea of adventure in the minds of those we share it with.

As I am finishing up this rewrite and adding this epilogue, it has now been a month since we got home from Maine. Sometimes, it’s hard to believe that all these amazing stories actually happened to us, and not some fictional characters in one of my books. It’s a thrilling thing to think about! Progress on the blog slacked a little bit because…well, life. Once we picked up our jobs again and our social lives and everything else…these magical memories get shelved for a bit while we grind our way forward.

But we never forget them. They are always drifting on the edge of our minds, quietly prodding us and reminding us that its time to go back out and keep living life to its fullest. That’s what all of this for…the daily grind is getting us closer to that dream of life on the road and the day is coming when our adventures will never stop!

Our adventure continues even now as we make plans for our next big event…our wedding! On top of everything else going on, every spare moment has been spent on ideas and schedules and meetings, all adding up to what will be our magical day in January, when our two lives will officially become one. And from there, our adventures will only get wilder, longer, and more filled with love and fun! And, of course, we will have a honeymoon to plan! Where will we go? We don’t even know yet! But stay tuned, and you’ll find out sometime next year!

Until then, just remember, we only have one life to live. So, get out there and live it!

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