Monday, October 18, 2021

The Height of Land

Highway 17 rises in western Maine, winding up from the town of Rumford. The two-land road meanders and darts along the Swift River, which is a swift river, pouring and smashing and rolling over and around rocks on its way south. Traveling north on an autumn afternoon, Highway 17 provides a tour of leaves of all colors, green and then yellow and orange and red, all leading up to the Maine main event that day.

The Height of Land.

* * *

If you find yourself driving a rented Nissan pickup in rural western Maine, perhaps it’ll be thanks to college football as well. When Mizzou football scheduled a game at Boston College, at the time impossibly distant years in the future, I resolved to be a leaf peeper. New England is famous for its fall foliage, so I made plans to go to the game in Boston, then spend a week driving around western Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. 

Now, I’m not sure I’ve ever been able to really convince anyone of anything, but I gave the trip my best sales pitch to my friends. But with jobs and spouses and kids, spending a week romping around New England isn’t the easiest thing to do, even with a few years notice, but I knew I was going either way. And as much fun as I have traveling with friends, this would give me a chance to have a great adventure, to do something that helps me grow.

Solo travel.

It can be daunting to strike out on your own, to be responsible for all the plans, to face the mild little calamities and indignities of travel alone, to bear alone the pressure of deciding where to eat. 

But it is also living. It’s a thrill to learn about yourself and where you are going, to happen upon some beautiful moment by yourself, ethereal and dreamlike, and then either have that moment to yourself forever or excitedly tell loved ones about it.

If you can travel with friends and family, go for it. But if not, if circumstance and stage of life mean you go alone or not at all, then go and relish the opportunity. Yes, it would have been delightful to meander around New England with a wife or girlfriend and stay at fun bed and breakfast places. But even though you might have neither, New England is still up there, glowing with gold and red tress, the towering peaks of Colorado are still out there, the waves still smash on the jagged coast of Oregon, the sun still sets bright and perfect West of California. 

Go for it by yourself. Or text me and I’ll go with you. 

* * *

Boston was a thrill, old and historic. The roads all seem to weave and wander like old foot paths, ancient old Fenway Park was buzzing with energy for a game with the hated Yankees, and late in the game even with the Red Sox losing the crowd lustily sang the good times never seemed so good.

Mizzou did what I’ve seen them do in the Bluegrass region of Kentucky, and in Wyoming, and way out in the magical area of El Paso… losing in heartbreaking and horrifying fashion. Boston College scored a go-ahead touchdown, and their raucous student section erupted, cups of beer flew above and across the screaming horde, little palm trees of liquid popping up and descending amidst a wall of sound. The Tigers fought back and kicked a moon-shot field goal to force overtime, and I hugged strangers in black and gold. But Boston College won in overtime, and the crowd surged onto the field in delirious joy. It was time to get dinner in the Old North End, sleep, and then head for the country.

I drove through central and Western Massachusetts, snacking on Dunkin Donuts and listening to a Patriots game on the radio, as if attempting to see if the locals would accept me as one of their own. 

Over the next few days I saw incredible views and progressively more eye-catching and bright foliage, driving up the national treasure that is Highway 100 through Vermont and the Green Mountains, driving and hiking up Mount Mansfield and seeing by turns haunting fog and spectacular views to the valley below, and winding through the lofty and colorful White Mountains of New Hampshire. Each little town and stream and pond seemed to tell its own stories, leisurely lingering in the mind as some pleasant little nook of a building tapestry of autumnal New England.

* * *

Wednesday was Maine day. I sort of had a hybrid plan on my trip, planning destinations and things I wanted to see, but also leaving a little time to be spontaneous and allow for sleeping in should I feel the need. I was staying that night over by Acadia National Park to the east, so I had plenty of ground to cover, but I still wanted to drive up by the Height of Land, along the Rangeley Lakes Scenic Highway. 

One of the delights of this trip was many areas were fairly uncrowded and unhurried, and the journey to the Height of Land was every bit of that. I had Highway 17 up from Rumford largely to myself, stopping for photos here and there. I could have stopped right in the road numerous time and had minutes before anyone came along.

The trees grew brighter and brighter, closer and closer to peak foliage as I climbed. I turned off my podcast, wanting to focus fully on the moment at hand, the sights and sounds and feel. At one point the road bent left alongside a pond, yellow and orange and red trees standing like torches alongside the highway. This was a moment. The road climbed more quickly after that pond, like when a search for something elusive becomes more frenzied as the thing you’re searching for gets closer. Views opened up here and there to the left, with pulloffs, showing nice views of mountains and fall. But the big view was coming up.

Finally, I rounded a curve next to some bright red trees and there it was, a wide pulloff. I parked the pickup, slowly walked over to the edge, and I marveled. 

I looked in wonder at the Height of Land view, colorful trees mixed with evergreens, big cold lakes with seemingly haphazard boundaries, the looming White Mountains far off in the distance, storm clouds dropping rain far off on some of those mountains, a lifetime away but also right there with me. It was all right there with me, after a long and winding journey, and it was truly beautiful and peaceful, and I was moved to great emotion.

It was chilly and gray, as happens when October draws near in Maine, but I stayed and savored the view and the moment. It is a joy to know there are such places in the world, with so many big and little things to consider. A single tree can be special, and here were endless trees to enjoy.

In the course of my reflecting, I thought about how it would have been nice to share this view with someone I loved. My mind briefly thought about how cool it would be to come back here with the love of my life, should I ever find her, and that’s a fine thought to have. But also my mind quickly steered back from that, and I felt a strong call to just enjoy it now. I was there on that day, and that was enough. Savor, live in the moment, live in gratitude. I felt so fortunate to be there. 

Yes, I was there by myself, sharing the view intermittently with a few other spread out travelers. But I was there with God, and nature, and the vast swath of Maine stretching out before me. I was happy and content.