Escape from Route 1

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, August 1991
Escape from Route 1

How to achieve modified rapture on the coast of Maine
By John Skow

Back in the late 1930s, people who hadn't owned a car since the Crash of '29 talked wistfully about "pleasure driving," a term not heard since. Later, packagers of woodsy vacations spoke of the "wilderness experience" (i.e., how thin they could slice the outback before it disappeared). Neither phrase has anything to do with throwing a couple of bikes on the roof rack and driving to Maine.

Which, nevertheless, is an exercise that can be what W. S. Gilbert called "modified rapture." The modified part is the driving. Whether you are escaping from Massachusetts or New Hampshire, sooner or later you have to grind up Route 1, a pretty but narrow seaside track that is permanently clogged by elderly flatlanders in RVs. This leads to a lot of gesticulating from vehicle to vehicle, and to fevered fantasies about bumper-mounted anti-tank missiles. (This is, after all, coastal New England, where there is no longer any such thing as the open road. Just accept that you're going to be furious on a regular basis, and enjoy the view, which is what brought everyone here in the first place.)

Now to the rapture, or at least to some very enjoyable biking. After you have reviled Winnebagos through Bath, Wiscasset, Rockland, Rockport, Belfast, and Bucksport, the road finally clears out a little, leaving you with a few decisions to make. To the north are more inland bike routes that you could cover in three or four days; to the east, there's Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island; and best of all, to the south there's a broad, bay-lined peninsula that separates two of Maine's most scenic areas, Blue Hill Bay and Penobscot Bay.

Bike routes in a moment; first, the matter of lodging. The choices here run from open-air to cheap to snazzy. If your preference is the blue-blazer and silk-dress crowd, there are plenty of "clubs" or bed-and-breakfasts in Castine, near the town of Penobscot, and in Bar Harbor. On the other hand, if snazzy is what your require, you probably aren't a serious road-tripper (and certainly not a serious biker, since they're all in Colorado). As for camping, the two large campgrounds in Acadia are where all those RVs are headed. (Their owners wrote several weeks ago for reservations, and you, of course, did not.) Which leaves you with one option: cheap. Find a motel in Bucksport or Ellsworth. And don't fret if the room isn't perfect; you aren't going to spend much time there anyway.

Now on to the cycling. Here's an equipment note: There are some pretty steep hills ahead, though nothing that requires too serious a bike. In fact, as far as I can tell, nothing east of the Mississippi requires a truly thoroughbred bike, fat-tire or skinny, but that is the view of a certified grouch. All that you need are 12 speeds and good, solid, one-and-a-quarter-inch tires, the way God intended.

On the first day, especially if it's a busy weekend, drive south, away from Route 1 through the town of Blue Hill into the relatively peaceful boonies between, say, Blue Hill Falls and North Sedgwick. Ditch your car by the roadside. Take binoculars (those funny-looking black birds are cormorants), a road map, some water and any good-for-you snacks. (At nearly every crossroads, there is plenty of junk food and drink.) Now just ramble. Get yourself lost. The roads hereabouts are narrow but well paved, hilly but not mountainous, and used mostly by locals in pickup trucks. (You are dressed not in superbiker Lycra, but in decently grubby shorts and a T-shirt, so the citizenry won't hoot much.) The towns are tiny; water, both salt and fresh, is everywhere; and a private roost for eating lunch and watching boats is a matter of stepping a few feet off the road. Amuse yourself by playing rural-home shopper, making fantasy purchases of lovely saltwater farms. Then, at Sargentville, the big question arises: Do you cross the high and handsome bridge to Deer Isle and pedal south for a few miles to Stonington, or loop back to the car after a tour of about 25 miles? Either way, plan to find a lobster joint, nothing too posh, when you return to Blue Hill.

Next day it's off to Mount Desert Island in Acadia National Park. Pick up a map at the visitor center and do the 27-mile loop road over the island's high spine. You won't be alone on this ride, but the views make it worth eating some exhaust. If you are tuned like a violin string, there's also a steep, 3.5-mile side-grunt up Cadillac Mountain. One version of this route goes by Otter Cliffs, a spectacular place to practice rock-climbing moves of all degrees of difficulty, from 5.1 to forget-it. You may find Outward Bounders from Hurricane Island there, too, earnestly achieving self-respect through stark terror.

On Day Three, if you're still with the program, drive your car north to a seven-mile path at the tip of the Schoodic Peninsula or back toward first-day territory and any of the half-dozen loops that you still haven't done near Penobscot Bay. By now you are in great shape, so blast by the Lycra laggards turtling along on the commercial bike tours. Feel the burn. Think deeply about the beer. Ponder the evening's first lobster.

Then ponder the drive back home. Though the psychosis along Route 1 threatens, there are ways to beat it: Load up on coffee and leave at midnight. Hit Freeport at 2 A.M. and see whether L.L. Bean really does stay open all night. You can always use another forest-green chamois shirt, if only for the next time you decide to have a "wilderness experience."

John Skow wrote about the blue herons of Prince Edward Island ("Secret Pilgrims") in the June, 1991 issue of Outside.

Copyright 1991, Outside magazine

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