New York Times Travel: Tackling Maine’s Rugged Side by Bike
The New York Times – By Eric Lichtblau
OUR ragged band of bike riders pedaled down Crooked Lane in search of a rest stop. In front of an old stone barn, amid a pastoral setting that is part Rockwell and part Cézanne, Harry Owen and his dog Rufus were waiting for us.
Harry, a spry 85-year-old with a Mark Twain mustache and a wit to match, waved us onto his lush green farm. Then he gave us a tour of the place: the historic barn where he keeps his 1929 Ford Model A roadster pickup; the veranda where the Rockefellers across the way would sit and visit after picking blueberries; the fields where 10,000 heads of lettuce once grew.
A transplanted Mainer via Alaska and upstate New York, Harry has been giving these private tours to two-wheeled travelers each week for the past 10 summers. And each time, he says, he still feels like an excited kindergartner at show-and-tell as he recounts all the stories, like the one about the local bankers laughing off his $17,000 loan application to buy the 64 acres a half-century ago. (It was recently assessed at $2 million and is on the National Register of Historic Places.)
My wife and I visited with Harry last summer for an hour or so as part of our six-day bicycle trek through Acadia National Park, a coastal oasis in eastern Maine that is one of the country’s 10 most visited national parks. Each day, the two dozen riders in our group would log 25 or 30 miles, sometimes more, to every nook of the park: down the rolling green hills that hug the Atlantic; up the rugged granite mountains; over the carriage trails and cobblestone bridges that John D. Rockefeller built; around the inlets and on to the Jordan Pond House restaurant, famous for its vistas and its popovers. The rugged Maine landscape was as spectacular as advertised. But as memorable as the scenery for me were the rest stops our tour leaders arranged for us — each one a slice of local lore.
One day it was “the Lobster Lady,” who wakes each day before dawn to check her traps for her haul. At the end of a blissful ride around Little Cranberry Island, we stopped at her rickety fishing boat as she told us how generations of family had labored long hours to sell the clawed prey to wholesalers for perhaps a few bucks each. (We would later pay 10 times as much to have the lobsters broiled and served on our plates at nearby Bar Harbor restaurants.)
At another stop, in the parlor at an inn overlooking Northeast Harbor where we stayed, a Maine historian recounted the great fire of 1947, which started in a cranberry bog and ripped through the coast, destroying summer cottages and grand hotels alike.
And then there was Harry, who promised to retell as many stories about goat herding, Rockefellers and antique Fords as we had time to stay for.
“We really try to capture the local flavor,” said Anne Earnhardt, who led our tour with her husband, Tony, “because the stories and the people are really what help make the place so magical.”
But local color, of course, was only part of the equation. The other half was pedaling through sometimes mountainous terrain. Being only recreational bikers, my wife and I were initially worried that we would be joining a posse of serious riders in Italian bike jerseys.
VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations (vbt.com) runs a less-costly alternative to higher-end bike tour operators like Backroads (our trip was $1,900 a person), promising an easy-to-moderate biking challenge, with flexible trips to accommodate a range of biking abilities and interests into October. And while our trip did include a few ardent riders (one guy had logged more than 50 trips in various locations from Europe to Utah), there were also many other casual riders like us, most in their 40s or 50s, some of whom were reuniting with fellow travelers they had met on previous VBT trips. Most inspiring was a Long Island woman in her 70s who had just survived cancer and was determined to ride through the glorious Maine coast in celebration.
For most of the trip, my wife and I would ride with a small group toward the front of the pack for 10 or 15 miles, up hillsides and past lush meadows, then take a break for an hour or so and start a second leg. The tallest challenge for me sat 1,532 feet up atop Cadillac Mountain — one of the highest peaks on the northern Atlantic coast, a glorious spot where the sun first rises in America for much of the year.
From the start of our trip, Cadillac loomed for our whole group as a distant dare, as we debated whether to attempt it. We knew we would reach its base midway through the week, and anyone who wanted to try riding it was welcome. During a lunch break after a tough morning ride, the moment to decide finally came, as Tony signaled that anyone wanting to tackle the mountain should follow him. The more level-headed opted out, leaving only a few of us men. Tony, a muscular, fire hydrant of a man in his 60s, gave us the watchwords for the trip: “Slow and steady.” Don’t worry about speed, he said. Keep your energy up, make it to the top, and cruise down the backside.
I broke ahead with another rider, a New Jersey lawyer who was also in his mid-40s, and we ascended the mountain in a dizzying loop of figure eights. Up and up we climbed. Below us, fading in the background, we could still hear Tony as he trailed another rider in our group, a doctor from Northern California a decade older than us. “Slow and steady,” Tony implored. If you’ve read “The Tortoise and the Hare,” you already know how the story ends. Barely a third of the way up, my legs had turned into spaghetti. I was forced to stop for a few minutes to catch my breath, grab for my water bottle and search in vain for a gear below “1” that might make the steep incline more bearable.
I got back on my bike, but after a few more turns around the mountain, I was back on the side of the road. Except this time, Tony and the previously lagging rider were edging toward me, slow but steady. After 45 minutes or so, and several more roadside stops, I made it to the top in a daze. Tony and the Tortoise were already there, of course, taking in the panoramic seaside views.
As I wrung out my sweat-drenched shirt, I spotted the pair sipping mojitos with little umbrellas in their ice-cold glasses, served by waitresses with Hawaiian leis around their necks.
I was later assured that, in fact, there are no bars or establishments of any kind at the top of Cadillac Mountain and that this must have been a mirage, the jealous delusions of a dehydrated bike rider. Indeed, by the time we got back on our bikes and began cruising down the back of the mountain at speeds of more than 30 m.p.h., the vision had passed.