If you watch any American road trip movie, you know that driving across America is a quirky journey on backroads through towns full of fascinating characters. This, of course, is a lie. Traveling across America, for most of us, involves barreling down interstates at 80 miles per hour, with an occasional stop for gas or fast food served by teenagers who don’t look much different from those in the place we just left, or the one we’re going to.
For this trip, we barrelled even faster than usual, because we wanted to leave North Carolina at 9:00 Friday night and arrive out our Maine vacation rental home by Sunday morning. We would end up driving about 1200 miles in under 36 hours. We stopped in Staunton, Virginia for about 5 hours’ sleep, got up at 7 on Saturday and were on the road again by 8. Then it was Dunkin’ Donuts, rest area, Citgo, Arby’s, rest area, Exxon, and finally our arrival at 8:40 in Bangor, Maine. We didn’t see America so much as pass it.
In Bangor, we had to eat dinner, shop for a week’s worth of food on our island, and try to get some sleep before heading out early again to catch a 10:30 ferry 100 miles away in Bass Harbor. The Bangor motel we had chosen via the internet, though ostensibly a member of a National Chain and therefore assured to be of High Quality, was in fact a dump. The outdoor balconies were populated by shady characters smoking cigarettes and looking thuggish, and the rooms smelled of Wal-Mart air freshener. But the beds were firm, and the air conditioner, though all the labels indicating how to adjust it had been worn off through years of use, worked, loudly. We went to sleep to VH1’s “I Love the ’70s” (where, paradoxically, most of the celebrity commentators were too young to remember much of the ’70s).
Getting to Swan’s Island, which took us just a few hours on Sunday morning, by contrast, was much more like the road trips you see in the movies. We took two lane roads whose speed limits oscillated from 55 to 25 as we drove through quaint little towns, all the way to Bass Harbor, where, as mentioned, we didn’t want to miss our ferry. Finally things were starting to slow down.
The ferry dumped us on Swan’s Island, 40 minutes away from the mainland, with no bars, or liquor stores, or even street signs. There are few roads on the island, which is only about 4 miles long, and clearly the locals view street markers as an unnecessary extravagance. After driving randomly back and forth across the island for 30 minutes, we soon realized there was no way we were going to find the house we had rented, and returned to the ferry terminal to beg for directions. Neither of the two women working there recognized our house’s address our the name of the owner. Then finally the younger clerk remembered that this had, in fact, been a place she was considering for her wedding. “Oh that place,” she recalled, “it’s a beautiful home with one of the best views on the island.” But she didn’t recall enough to give us instructions on how to get there. Now somehow the older woman remembered it too. “Oh, I know where that is. It’s just past the fire station, and then you bear left, and right. It’s on a loop road, you see.” I tried to repeat the directions to her, and she finally sighed. “Oh, it’s no use. I’m going to church now anyway, so you can just follow me and I’ll take you there.”
And so we did, and so we found our house, less than a mile away from the dock on a road we somehow hadn’t noticed before. It is a lovely place, the sort you sometimes see from the ferry and wonder if it’s possible to rent. It has a huge back yard extending all the way to the beach and a nice big deck, sunny in the morning and shady in the afternoon.
Later that day we returned to the ferry terminal to greet our co-renters, my brother and sister-in-law and their three little girls. A cheery old lady with dark glasses and a blind person’s walking can stood by our van trying to hitch a ride as the cars drove off the boat. No one picked her up, and our family didn’t show up either — we had met the wrong ferry. It seemed the polite thing to do to offer her a ride, so we did, and she chattered at us as we drove, pointing out the hollow where the turkeys live, the buildings that used to be museums or restaurants, and the quarry that’s good for swimming. In a few minutes we arrived at her house. “Can I ask you your name?” I said to her as she hopped out of the car.
“Josephine Swan,” she replied.
“Of Swan’s Island?” I asked.
“Naturally,” she smiled.
Swan’s Island, I learned when I returned to our house, was originally known as Burnt Coat Island, until it was purchased by Colonel James Swan in 1783. Josephine Swan must have been descended from — or married a descendent of — him. This family had lived on this island for over 200 years. Now, over the next six days, we’ll try to get to know it.
Here are a couple of pictures of the place we’re staying: