Monday, June 30, 2008

Day 2: Powered by Pork

When in doubt, and when facing the glorious but strenuous climbs through Acadia National Park, always . . . always . . . finish your slow-cooked pig.

Day 2: Mt. Desert to Ellsworth's Patton Pond, via Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor.

Another 50 miles today! 49.5 to be technical. We're now sitting in front of a fire at our hard-fought campsite, which finally appeared like a mirage about 10 miles outside of Ellsworth, almost all uphill. Painful, frustrating, and a little bit scary with the Route 1 traffic whizzing by. Advantage: trucks.

But we persevered.

Tonight's campground, Patton Pond, is a little more Beverly Hillbillies than last night. It's on a chucked-up gravel path nearly a mile from the main road, with signs posted in the shape of cartoon squirrels that read, "Patton Pond: The Good Life!" or "Keep Going: You're Almost There!" An Elvis impersonator ("the Elvis Guy") is scheduled at the lodge at 8pm. He's following an ice-cream social that will bring all the families out of their RVs to grab a chocolate sundae.

After our long trek and thwarted attempt to find a store that sold wine, I walked over to one of the RVs to see if I could buy a beer or two from their summer stash (most of the RV folks at these sites are "seasonals": they park their rigs for the duration of the summer and arrive heavily appointed). No beer, they said, but they handed me two individual bottles of tiny wine and two more of Smirnoff Ice and refused to take a penny. Good things will come to you for this, I said. They were our sweethearts of the campground.
Of course this might have been some kind of cosmic payback for John's good deed of earlier today, fixing the chain of a smart, charming retired couple from Michigan who we met at the top of the carriage roads of Acadia (car-free gravel roads created when the park was the Rockefeller family's personal playground). This lovely husband and wife had bought brand new bikes for the trip, but one of the first hills chewed up the chain of their gleaming Giant hybrid. John was able to break out his tools and get them back on their way. A good thing, too, because the paths were magnificent--all tree and brook and wildflower, sweet songbirds and wily chipmunks.

If I could transplant one small piece of Maine to Chicago, or one small aspect of this trip to every future vacation of my life, it'd be those gorgeous views, those breathlessly triumphant climbs, as we flanked the perimeter of Acadia's Eagle Lake. I've probably never seen a place so still.

We picnicked most of today, which kept our costs low. Bar Harbor, for all its tourist schlock, has a thriving grocery co-op, where the young son of one the cashiers was promoting an innovative free-water operation. He passed us a secret note with the words "Water: free!" written on it, then showed us the paper cups and plastic pitcher he'd set up on the side of the building. When we told him we had plenty of water and he should save his for the truly thirsty, he asked us to pass the note around to our friends so they'd know about this special offer. Umm, ok, we started to say, realizing the truth would be much more complicated, but he got distracted by some neighbors walking by and abandoned his post to follow them down the street.

We loaded up on Thai noodles, local greens, and fresh bread. Our nearly perfect lunch was taken at a small shelter at the entrance to Folly Farm, a family operation advertising strawberries and spring peas. We sat on the steps and looked out over the wide expanse of buttercups and honeysuckle. At least two cyclists rode by along Rt. 1. One grinned from ear to ear and the other, toting a kid carrier, gave us the kind of thumbs up that said, "Gosh I wish I'd thought of that" or "I'll be back tomorrow with a picnic of my own."

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Day 1: Powered by Ignorance

We're back to Chicago now just 4 hours after a glorious, challenging, hilly, rejuvenating, and -- if I can slide into earnestness for just a second -- life-affirming cycling trek through coastal Maine. Rather than trying to lodge all the worthy details into a single entry, I thought I might record my travel journal entries from each day of the trip. Ideally I'll post one per day for the next 8 days, but be patient with me if a busy schedule forces a lag here or there. Without further ado, here is Day 1:

Had we known what was coming--the height of the hills, the speed of the semis passing along Route 1, the aches and pains, the mosquitoes--we might never have done it. I'm so glad we didn't know what was coming.

Day 1: Brewer to Mt. Desert
Just over 50 miles today! The longest ride I've ever done in a day, this one chock-a-block with hills and stunning scenery, even if a bit foggy here in the northeastern terrain. I'm writing from the Atlantic Brewing Company's Knox Bar & Grill, where half a plate of pulled pork is staring me down, daring to be eaten. We'll see after a sip or two of Coal Porter, which has big shoes to fill after the pint of ginger beer (each batch brewed with 20 pounds of fresh ginger) I just finished. Both are brewed within sight of the table we're occupying at the moment. This is our reward after a long, exhausting, but also exhilarating day of riding.

We found this place on the recommendation of the friendly staff of the Mt. Desert Narrows campgrounds, which we'll be calling home tonight . . . as will thousands of mosquitoes. Thank god for Deet. On my hands, face, and feet. I love you, Deet. I want to be your best girlfriend and take you to the Sadie Hawkins dance, then get frisky in the back seat of your Chevy Malibu. But I digress . . .

Unforgettable moments today included the two deer that pranced across the road directly in front of us, with a clomp clomp clomp reminiscent of clydesdales. And a sojourn to the little town of Ellsworth, childhood summer home of our new Chicago neighbor Matt, but also safe haven for sub-par haddock sandwiches at promising enough seeming diners. Oh the sorcery of the touristy diner, just waiting to disappoint. But the town itself was sweet and walkable, with a lovely grocery co-op selling heaps of local produce and other provisions perfect for camping. We stopped for coffee at a groovy cafe, and most of the locals here seem to be avid cyclists, offering all kinds of free and valuable advice about routes not to miss, and also those best avoided.

Reaching Mt. Desert today was an unprecedented physical victory for me; never before have my feet pedaled a half-century of miles. The climbs were grueling, but the rewards took the form of giddy downhills and beautiful scenery around every knot in the road. The woman at the Mt. Desert area welcome desk was true to the spirit of her desk, even calling a campground or two for us to inquire about rates. But we followed our noses to the wonderful site where we'll sleep through what we hope are false reports of thunderstorms. The sun's actually peeking out after a gray and misty afternoon, so maybe we'll get lucky.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Two-wheeling through Maine

I'm immortalizing the way our deck planter looks today. I won't see it again until the end of June, after John and I have completed our 300+-mile bike trek through coastal Maine (legs . . . hurting . . . hills . . . mocking).

Hey, tomatoes and jalapenos, I expect petite yellow buds when I get back: tiny promises of salmonella-free salsa with some salty chips. And you, zucchini over there, track down your usual hiding places. This year I will find you before you're the size of cudgels. And yeah, the rest of you, you jaunty annuals and aromatic herbs, just keep up that photosynthesis. I look forward to your 'After' photo in July.

(Is it apparent to the world that I'm counting the minutes? Vacation, spirit me away from urban fatigue. Give me at least one sunny day at the ocean, one buttery lobster roll at Red's Eats in Wiscasset, and a collection of muscles that exceeds expectations).

Full reports with photos to follow -- hopefully from the road, but if not in early July. Take care in the meantime and enjoy the longest day of the year!

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Super Pollo, we hardly knew ye

This place was a boarded up building with no windows when we moved to the area seven years ago. Our former alderman had denied rehab permits over a spat with the owners, but once she was unseated in 2003, the owners prettied up the place and paved the way for a new restaurant.

We tried to support them. We really did. They specialized in skewers and served about a dozen varieties, though they were out of most menu items most of the time. I remember an Asian shrimp kabob I ordered once for 12 dollars: it ended up being six small shrimp, a couple of grape tomatoes tacked on to each end, and a teaspoon of soy sauce in a plastic cup on the side. John repeatedly tried to order the eggplant skewers but they were always 86'd, so he'd end up with cold tofu on a stick. The place was gone in 6 months.

Since then, three different owners have given it a stab: an awesome Colombian chicken joint where you could choose sides of yuca con ajo, black beans, tostones, sweet plantains, or your standard rice and pinto beans. They even got a nice write-up in Time Out Chicago. We discovered this iteration too late, alas. They were "closed for vacation" a couple weeks later.

They reopened after a hiatus "under new management." This crew decided to keep the chicken but get rid of all but the rice-and-beans side, and they replaced the sweet and wonderful 60-something server with a listless teenager who looked like she'd rather be sticking pins in her eyes than taking your order. I think they lasted 3 months.

So imagine my surprise recently when encountering a friendly, natty guy named Jorge emerging from the building. Sure enough, he was the new owner and had big plans: not just the roast chicken and some resurrected sides, but a complete vegetarian menu with even a handful of vegan options. This was cause for hope and celebration. I went on opening night with a vegan friend and had a decent taco dinner. Two days I went back for a tasty lunch of chicken enchiladas verdes. But guess what: after just 4 days of being open, the sad little "Closed" sign you may notice in the window was posted. It's been there ever since.

I guess I have to accept it: the building is cursed. But it won't keep me from blithely heading back for whatever wacky dining scheme comes next: Fruit pizza? Make your own sushi? Potatoes in the shapes of presidents' heads? I'm there.