By Sandy Lang
Photographs by Peter Frank Edwards
Five wheel-spinning days on an across-Maine ride through towns and countryside not often on tourist routes
The first questions come from the van driver from Schooner Bay Taxi as he transports us west from Belfast. We’ve booked a one-way fare. Are we sure we want to be dropped off near Sunday River resort, 20 miles from the Maine-New Hampshire border? And aren’t we worried about Tropical Storm Andrea? I nod and smile at each question. Behind me, our bicycles, helmets, and other gear are arrayed on the van’s floor. The latest weather forecasts are for the season’s first named storm to churn up from Florida to Maine by the weekend. But today is a sunny Wednesday, and for weeks now we’ve had these days set aside for a trip inspired by state-spanning cycling events like the annual Trek Across Maine ride from Bethel to Belfast.
I’ve asked the van’s driver for a drop-off at what I imagine will be a dramatic starting point. The Artist’s Bridge in Newry is a few minutes detour from Sunday River Road. We pass only one other car on the van’s approach to the wooden bridge that I’ve stopped to see before in the white of wintertime. Valley farmhouses and the ski mountains are backdrops that look ready for an artist’s paintbrush. On this day at the bridge, though, we’re thwarted from getting too close. What appears to be a film crew has the entire span blocked off with equipment, boxes, and tables. I see only a few people and little evidence of movie stars—no make-up chairs or fancy RVs humming. We don’t spend too long gawking. It’s been a three-hour drive since leaving our car that morning in Belfast, and I’m ready to ride. As our van transportation departs, I adjust my helmet and look up at the summery green face of the mountains. The only way back to the coast now, Peter Frank says, grinning, is to pedal ourselves there.
ON TO RUMFORD POINT
As a warm-up ride, and because we’re already hungry for lunch, we dip down to Bethel and its leafy streets of white houses and wooden churches. The Suds Pub is open, so we stop there for sandwiches in the downstairs bar that’s hung with old ski mountain signs. From there, our plan is to stay on Route 2, which for many miles follows the path of the Androscoggin River. Vehicle traffic is lighter than I’d imagined on the west-east thoroughfare. It’s not ski season and it’s not yet full summer. Maybe people are inside watching weather reports? At one point, I spot a butter yellow, mid-1960s Ford Mustang pulling into a driveway ahead and we follow and I call out a “hello.” After the driver parks the beautiful car—it reminds me of one my Dad once bought—he explains that there’s a western Maine hot rod club meeting at the house that evening. His wife emerges from the passenger side with a large plastic tub filled with what looks like homemade oatmeal cookies. Before they walk toward the house for the meeting, the Mustang man tells us that he found the shiny car for sale several years ago, stored in a barn by an owner who barely drove it. If we’re interested, he knows a car dealer a few miles away in Rumford who always has one or two old cars for sale. I thank him for the idea, but we’re all about bicycles this week.
Leaning into the handlebars and pedaling on, we make it to Rumford Point where the Androscoggin River makes an L-turn and a sand spit stretches out into the riverbed at what must be the point itself. Sunset is just a couple hours away and a family is fishing from the banks. From a bicycle seat, the glimpses keep coming of these great little scenes you’d probably miss from a car. On a two-lane road that rises into rural hills toward our first night’s lodging, we pedal around a bend and a baseball field comes into view. A little league game is underway. I smell hot dogs cooking at the snack bar. Kids are chanting “batter, batter, swing!” and “good eye, good eye” when a pitch is lobbed high and wide. Soft sunlight shines across the bleachers where family and friends sit, and we stop to watch an inning.
A few minutes later, we arrive at the driveway of the pastoral Perennial Inn and its late-1800s white farmhouse wrapped in porches. Beside it is a formidable red barn with a stone foundation. We’ve logged 26 miles on this first afternoon in western Maine, and Darlene Ginsberg greets us with an invitation to grab a glass of wine or bottle of beer. She’s kicked back in a patio chair on the back porch herself, and a couple of logs are burning nearby in a firepit encircled by Adirondack chairs. If you’re hungry, she says, the barbecued pork (from the farm’s own hogs!), potato salad, fiddleheads, and sweet corn will be ready soon. Since there are no restaurants within several miles, and we’re without a car, we’re lucky enough to be included in the hosts’ family-style supper. Everything is homemade by Darlene, who’s been visiting ski mountains in this part of Maine since the 1970s. She moved to western Maine in the late-1990s to work at Sunday River and later found the rambling Rumford Point house and hillside farm. The property’s primary attraction, for her, is the “peacefulness and the quiet. It’s amazing how noisy every place else is in comparison.” She now keeps horses, five or six goats, and a flock of chickens in the pastures and barn. Our bicycles are stowed inside that barn overnight, too.
Roosters are crowing in the morning, and we’re up early for a longer day’s ride. In a mix of clouds and sun, we hit some steep climbs and then the long coast downhill into the heart of Rumford, population about 6,000. The mill town’s wide waterfall is thundering, and we cycle around blocks of historic brick buildings downtown. It might not have been the best idea for our bike’s skinnier road tires to spin directly past the mill action, but they do. Rock grit and sawdust is strewn along the roadside, and trucks and train cars move in and out of the industrial workyards among pyramid-high piles of gravel and wood chips. We stop briefly on an overpass to take in the scene amid the roaring engines, action that’s as busy as a hive. “The view’s great if you like abstract and gritty,” Darlene had said at breakfast, when she recommended the route. “I’ve come to love it.”
WINDING UP TO WILTON
A few miles farther along Route 2 and the Androscoggin River is Dixfield, with signs proclaiming the 1,000-resident town “The Only One” in large letters. I learn that this proud declaration of individualism relates to the fact that no other town has the Dixfield name. We lean our bikes on a wide tree trunk at the Front Porch Cafe. Inside, curio cabinets and every inch of wall space is hung with country collectibles. Meatloaf is one of the daily specials at this locals’ gathering place. At the table in front of a fireplace mantle, a customer with “We the People” tattooed on his arm is talking about difficulties of the nation’s divisive politics. His neighbors are nodding.
The eastward route toward Farmington leads us past Grays Mountain, Law Mountain, and dozens of other named summits. We’re going up some of the biggest hills yet, and the storm is supposedly at our heels. Along the way, we make a speedy gas station stop for the hot dog special (the Maine variety, dyed fluorescent shades of pink red). We pass through East Dixfield and keep following Route 2. After 36 miles, it’s midafternoon, and we’ve reached Wilson Lake, west of downtown Farmington. We turn off the highway to follow the shore road that’s lined with cottages large and small. The town of Wilton is at the lake’s eastern end. A line-up of fishermen standing almost shoulder-to-shoulder is talking and casting lines into the water. I call out to one to ask what they’re fishing for, and he replies, “Most anything.” Maybe they are also angling for the late afternoon view. From the main street in downtown Wilton, the lake stretches out long and silvery toward western hills and mountains.
In Wilton, an old-fashioned hardware store, a small grocery, and the handsome Goodspeed Memorial Library are busy with people. And when we take a closer look, I realize that the large red building on a stream at the head of the lake is the Bass Building—home to the famous G. H. Bass and Co. shoe factory for more than 100 years. (Alas, the penny-loafer “weejuns” haven’t been made here since the 1990s.) Housed there now are businesses like Calzolaio Pasta Co., which is recommended to us by several people we meet. Customers from the town of 4,000 residents keep filing in. We join the crowd inside. A large table is full of women who are sipping wine at someone’s going-away celebration, and we see at least one couple that arrives without a reservation and can’t get seated. We find seats at the bar and order salad, steamed clams in a garlicky wine broth, and plenty of bread. Later, the innkeeper at the Wilson Lake Inn tells me about a Trek participant who booked a night at the inn instead of staying in the dorms in Farmington after his day of cycling. Before he finished his post-ride pasta that night at Calzolaio, he fell asleep at the table.
A mile’s walk from downtown, the Wilson Lake Inn’s waterfront lawn is edged with flowers, including mounds of irises, hostas, johnny jump-ups, and white hydrangeas. In the morning, the gardens are drenched with rainwater. It’s still drizzling when we pull on our wet-weather gear and make some quick route revisions that will, we hope, get us to our next night’s lodging before any deluge. Instead of pedaling into downtown Farmington for lunch, we begin following two-lane roads through the rolling countryside, passing cows and goats and handmade signs for “bunnies 4 sale,” and “worms .50 dozen.” We’re definitely off the Trek Across Maine route by now. Trekkers pedal some 60 miles a day in the 180-mile ride that includes overnights at the University of Maine in Farmington and at Colby College in Waterville. We’re traveling shorter distances each day, and using maps and GPS to guide us to each night’s lodging. Our daily decision-making is partly planned and partly made on the fly. Case in point: in Farmington Falls we ditch traffic altogether and follow an overgrown roadbed that’s been blocked to motorized vehicles. For at least a mile, we continue on unpaved portions past farmhouses before the pavement picks up again and then the road rises onto Cape Cod Hill for some of the prettiest scenery of the trip—fields of buttercups, tall wooden barns, and sweeping hilltop views without a car in sight.
Miles later and past New Sharon, we turn onto ME-27, also known as Mile Hill Road, for its thigh-burning climb. At Rome Corner, we stop to sip water and look around at an old Grange Hall that’s used now as an antiques shop. A few bicycles are for sale out front, and the shopkeeper, who introduces himself as George, is reading a Western paperback. He keeps the merchandise neatly arranged—sheet music, Maine memorabilia, all kinds of collectibles—and tells us that everything is for sale, including the newly-painted building. Then he eyes our cycles. “You won’t find the next several miles of road to be very good for bicycles,” he warns us. “It’s narrow and winding.” George is right. ME-225 to Oakland is often rough going, but we’re determined.
FISH CAMP AND UNITY
After that day’s 32 soggy miles, we roll to a stop at the Alden Camps, founded in 1911 and owned by a family with roots in the area that date back to colonial times. In the main lodge, the fireplace is going. Third-generation owners Carter and Martha Putnam show us around, leading us past the flock of heritage-breed chickens and down a lane through the woods to a two-story cabin on the shoreline of East Pond. We’ve come on a good night. Every Friday, the retro sporting camp holds a lobster bake—clams and burgers, too. The young staff, some wearing Colby College sweatshirts, has lit a fire in the covered outdoor cooking pit, even as the rain finally starts in earnest. Along with everyone else staying in the camp cabins, we hike up the hill to the barn for dinner. Other guests include about a dozen men on a fishing trip, and several couples who tell us they’ve been coming to the camp annually for years, or even decades. Cyclists are not typically in the mix of guests, Carter tells us.
That night, back in the dry haven of the cabin, we light a fire in the woodstove after dinner. The lake is frothy in the rain and driving wind, and sometime in the night I’m jarred awake by the sounds of calling loons, and then by the aluminum boats beating against the floating docks. This must be the storm. In the morning, we walk up to the lodge for vegetable omelets, bacon, and the latest weather report. We consider staying another night at Alden Camps to wait out the wind and wet weather, but by noon the wind has calmed, and we’re itching to ride.
Rain comes and goes as we make our way through the Kennebec River-edged city of Waterville. Here, we navigate through the most traffic we’ve experienced along the whole trip in the busy downtown of cafes, retail shops, and one-way streets. I make sure we stop for a vanilla malt at Gifford’s Ice Cream. The sun peeks through the clouds during the malt stop. Our day’s destination is about 30 miles away in Unity through broad stretches of countryside.
By late afternoon, we’ve made it to the Copper Heron, a bed-and-breakfast on Main Street in Unity. I’m ready to stretch my legs off of the bike, and after grabbing showers, we go for a walk on one of the downtown trails that connects with Main Street. For a couple of hushed minutes, we enjoy a chance sighting of a deer munching leaves in the woods. It’s barely raining now. We can hear the rumble of engines at the Saturday night heats at the Unity Raceway, a short track with grandstands at the edge of town. The liveliest dinner place in this 2,000-resident town looks to be Unity House of Pizza, and Peter Frank and I sit down there and order a pie. As other customers drive up for boxes of pizza, we talk of where we’ve been, and the 27 miles of pedaling we’ve still got ahead to return to the coast—another day of following the long rise and fall of hills, and spinning past the lupines and lilacs. Our Bethel start in the western mountains feels so long ago.
EAST TO THE BAY
On a (finally) sunny morning the next day, a sleepy Sunday, we push off from Unity and soon pass the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association windmill and barns. This is the state’s green heartland of organic farming. We stop for a water break and stand astride our bikes near the railroad cars and tracks in Thorndike. Mostly following Route 139, Route 131, and Route 7 through rural Waldo County, we pass few stores or other diversions and eventually make it to the curving Head of Tide Road and then High Street and the newly-paved Main Street in seaside Belfast. Downtown, flower boxes are full of blooms, and although no one on the street cheers when they see us or knows where we’ve been, I consider it a beautiful finish. Our route would have been an unlikely one even if we had kept to the Trek course, or were officially part of a throng of cyclists on a charity ride. But the next time another person asks—and they will; ever since the van driver, we’ve gotten questions—I’ll tell them that a small-town, Maine-spanning ride is extraordinary. Rain or not, I could really get used to this life. Uphill, downhill, and eastward, until we’re in sight of Belfast.