Schoodic: Pink Granite, Fog, Fishermen, Moss
FEATURE-November + December 2009
Written + Photographed by Jonathan Levitt
I’m driving up the spine of the coast, driving from western Massachusetts, driving with the heat on and the windows down. I’m driving with dog hair in the car, Bruce Springsteen and The Kinks in the car, peanut butter and banana peels in the car. I’m driving until I run out of bridges.
Gouldsboro is the end of the line. The eastern edge of the Schoodic Peninsula, the eastern edge of Hancock County, the eastern edge of the United States.
Darthia Farm. Border collie dogs in the old snow. A farm apprentice job is up for grabs. Here come the farmers, hard hands, white hair, wet wool, rubber. For 30-something years, they have worked the land with horses. They grow all of their own food. And they cut wood to heat the house, they twitch it out of the winter woods with horses to heat that old house, the wizened old farmhouse perched just so, across from the big red barn.
It is a sunny, merry farm, and in the sunniest spot, there’s a little peach tree. All around the homeplace chickens that run free, and a meadow for sheep, and indigo that is so pretty and flax that is even prettier, and every kind of tomato, and all of it slopes down to the tidal mudflats and pink granite shore of Gouldsboro’s West Bay on the Schoodic Peninsula in the state of Maine.
The Schoodic Peninsula is 30,000 acres of granite, quicksand heaths, thin meadows on saltwater farms, chickadees, blueberries, seaweed, driftwood, rugosa roses, lichen, blackberries, apple trees, spruce, cedar, and swamp maple. At Forbes Pond, you might see a black bear; at Jones Pond, you will surely see a jet ski.
Watch for the foxes, listen to the gulls, live in the little workingman houses, live in the big shingle summer cottages on Grindstone Neck—“Philadelphia on the rocks” they call it—and the Grindstone Inn burned to the ground in the fifties; now, where it stood, there are tennis courts.
And boats. Near the Winter Harbor Yacht Club, a fleet of knockabouts— fancy sailing sloops known as the Winter Harbor 21s—but also, all around the Peninsula, there are working boats in working harbors: in Corea, in Winter Harbor, in Prospect Harbor, and in Bunkers Harbor. Lobster boats mostly, but draggers too. The fishermen tend to their traps and to the bottom in Frenchman’s Bay to the west, in Gouldsboro Bay to the east, in the open Atlantic to the south, out and around the islands. There are dozens of islands—Ironbound Island, Sheep Island, Stave Island, and Egg Rock.
Lunch with the farmers, then down the peninsula road 15 minutes to Schoodic Point. Along the park road, through sweet-smelling woods, past blueberry barrens and cobble beaches. Today’s sea is an old sea, an old swell, and the waves crash hard.
At the tip of the world is the end of Schoodic Point, a cascade of granite stuck with dwarf trees and pokey eagle and osprey nests. This is not a soft place. If you swim, Appodumken, the sea monster, the underwater devil, might get you. And Frenchman’s Bay looks more like Alaska than Maine. It’s bigger and nastier—the Atlantic as the Pacific. It is the angry side of the quiet old man, Grandpa in a rage. The air is cold but it’s warm on the rocks. I fall asleep.
I’m driving back to Darthia Farm, driving from Vermont, driving through the hot darkness. It’s the middle of the night. I walk through the woods to the apprentice house.
The house stands crooked and creaky, a damp hippie place, the outhouse right in the house, Molly Katzen books in the house, candles and garlic and sheepskins in the house, and the house is close enough to the shore to smell low tide. The other apprentices are sleeping. Empty wine bottles and melted wax on the dining table. My room is upstairs. A monk’s cell for me, but I’m no monk. And on my dresser, a note of welcome and a glass jar stuffed with snipped wildflowers.
In the morning, I wake up with the sun. It rises bloody over the bay. The farmers and the others are in the barn doing the animal chores. The others are two apprentices and a manager. They are all women, they are all beautiful. I stay four months.
Four salty, bug bitten, sunburned months. Clams from the mud, greens from the garden, bacon from the smokehouse.
At lunchtime and after work, we are nudists, swimming at high tide, through the kelp and rockweed, swimming at night, through the mermaid places, through the phosphorescence.
And we walk. We walk in the woods, barefoot over moss and roots. We walk in the fields, through tall grass and later through the sweet mowing. We walk behind the horses, we walk on packed paths to the pig pen, to the chicken coop, to the shore. At chore time we walk under dusty spider webs, we walk in the beams of the hayloft. To be alone we walk along the roads in the early morning—and we see the doings of West Bay Road, the dogs barking from their chains, ravens eating road kill, and the old lady who walks her cat on a leash.
We work on the farm. We harvest, nurture, husband, wash, slaughter, sell. At night we cook with what we have and what we can find nearby: baked beans, lobster stew, fried clams, grilled mackerel, boiled beef.
For five months I’ve been stuck in a kitchen in Philadelphia, working from noon until midnight, working inside, baking parmesan tuiles on Silpat-lined sheet pans, shaving raw artichokes, portioning John Dory. Lobsters from Maine are delivered daily. They come in a cardboard box—surrounded by rockweed.
And then one day it is September. Twelve hours in the car from where summer is really summer to where summer feels like it is hanging on by a thread of straw. Gouldsboro again.
There’s snow still on the ground. I’ve signed a lease for a cabin on Route 195—the Pond Road, an empty highway that cuts through the wild center of the peninsula. Signed the lease for what was the milking shed for a long-gone farmstead, for what is now a charming dump with no electricity, no running water, no screens for the windows, but the lease is $150 a month and it’s close to the ocean and far from the neighbors and there’s a woodburning cookstove.
We live with so many mice. Girlfriend hates the place. She’s working at a restaurant in Winter Harbor. I’m working on a farm in Jonesport. We live out of a cooler in the root cellar, bathe with peppermint Dr. Bronner’s in the leachy black pond up the Guzzle Road, get bitten up bad by bugs, drive to Bar Harbor to see movies.
I’m a beat reporter for the Ellsworth American. My beat is Schoodic. I live on another saltwater farm right next door to Darthia Farm. It’s a friend’s place, no rent but keep an eye on things.
Winter in the rickety haunted farmhouse. Strange dreams every night. There is a lot of snow. Then it rains. Then there’s more snow. My friend whose farm it is also owns a restaurant in town. The restaurant is closed. It’s a long winter. We raid the wine cellar, then the bar. We watch every season of The Sopranos. We hallucinate, we stand under the moon in the fields.
My friend and his girlfriend travel. They go to Antarctica and California and other places. I stay in Gouldsboro. The days are short.
A typical day: Wake up with the sun at eight-something. Make an elaborate breakfast: cod cakes or buttermilk donuts. Try to feed the dog sea urchin roe but she won’t eat any. Write a newspaper story: “Nazi Spies at Hancock Point Recalled Anew by Local Author,” “Roadwork Bedevils Traffic on Route 1,” or “LNG Is DOA.” Then, I make an elaborate lunch—chicken pot pie— or drive to Chase’s in Winter Harbor for crab rolls and clam chowder.
In the afternoon, I wander around. A red squirrel lives in the house and steals all my apples. And then it gets dark at four. Some nights I drive 40 minutes into Ellsworth on icy roads just to eat Thai food (very terrible Thai food) and wander around the Hannaford supermarket and look at magazines.
My friend breaks up with his girlfriend, shuts down the restaurant, moves to Seattle. I move to Portland. And then it’s like this:
Some afternoon some January.
Drive three hours to Darthia Farm. Sit with the farmer on his sleigh. Pack trails through the woods for twitching logs. Gossip about people in town.
Some morning some August.
Drive three hours to West Bay. The tide is in. Strip down and swim in the hot, mud-warmed salt water. Drink cold beer. Dry off in the wind.
Some afternoon some September.
Drive three hours to Schoodic Point. Hike the Anvil trail in the fog. Listen to the gulls and bell buoys. Find black trumpet mushrooms. Buy Peanut M&M’s at the IGA in Winter Harbor.
Some night some July.
Fall asleep in a back bedroom with a view of the farm and a view of the bay. See the moon rise. And there it is, sunlight at night, rising like the break of day as we all turn toward it.
Some night some September.
Fall blows in from the north. Leaves turn early in the bogs. Roast a chicken at the house on the bluff. Open the glass doors. Sit in the dark, listening to the tide coming in, the tide tosses the cobbles. The cormorants are quiet. Fall asleep under wool.
Schoodic, you horrible, beautiful renegade place. I love to daydream about you. I love to visit you. I’m so glad we live apart.