Reprinted from the Comments (my first guest post)

The green hair was so distracting that I didn’t notice she was wearing seven layers of clothes. She laughed at me and said she remembered every fellow who gave her something new (as it would fix her problems which never really did go away) and who did I think I was to unlock all her secrets anyway?

“I’m here to help you breathe on your own,” I told her as we fumbled for the buttons. 

Getting undressed from seven layers added on after so much time is something you do from the inside, ( a person is always bigger on the inside if you think about it) and I could feel her trembly laugh as she became who she was from a younger self. This was a woman with scars. Old ones, the kind that come with a story even if you can’t remember what it was or who she was with.

-Written by Joe Niemczura

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The Soul of the Unity House

They tried to fix her hair over and over again, but it settled on an unmistakable shade of green. At the very least, they could have kindly matched her eyebrows as a blonde but no, a bright auburn in perfect arches as if she was forever caught in a moment of surprise. A tan brought out the whites of her eyes, yet her skin was already so pale and freckled, why a tan over that?
Her clothes, bought from desirable labels, an attempt at sophistication, either exposed a little skin on her front and back or were purchased several sizes too big…..

The MOFGA Section of the Hills-to-Sea Trail

When we bought our house in Unity last month, I knew the Hills-to-Sea trail would be close by, but I did not realize it would be a half-mile down the street.  Our house is on the other side of Crosby Brook Road from the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners’ Association (MOFGA), and the edge of MOFGA is part of the official Hills-to-Sea trail route.  

When first encountering the Hills-to-Sea trail map and driving by the field considered the MOFGA trailhead, I was trying to wrap my head around how it fit into the grand scheme of this trail system from Unity to Belfast. At first, I thought the trail to MOFGA would be considered a spur trail, but from looking at the map at http://www.waldotrails.org/unitytrail.html, it became clear that it is part of the official route.  The northern terminus for the Hills-to-Sea trail is in downtown Unity.  Coming from Unity or Freedom, you can indeed easily opt for an short alternate route and avoid the official route that swings through MOFGA, but why would you want to?

I have only had the time to make a loop out of the MOFGA inset of the map: Berry Road to the Alternate Route to Sandy Stream to MOFGA to the Berry Road.  Last Saturday night, my husband and I finally slept for the first time in the 15-passenger van that we purchased last fall with the intention of crashing in it while we were working on our house.  Early in our relationship, we discovered my husband becomes so involved in projects that he likes to stay up until the wee hours of the morning wiring electrical whereas I konk out around 10pm.

When I woke up Sunday morning, sunlight streaming into the van from every direction, I decided to head out on a walk while my partner slept more.  New to the property, I am interested in walking in every direction: down the railroad tracks to Thorndike, up the railroad tracks to the Amish store, but most of all, over to the section of the Hills-to-Sea trail.

I knew I could walk up Berry Road and avoid the crossing of Sandy Stream, and per usual, I had not committed to a concrete plan where I would go from there.  Being my mother’s daughter, I even found Berry Road to be of interest simply because I had never been down that way before. My mother spent thirty years of her career as a visiting nurse driving the back roads of Somerset, Kennebec, Hancock, and Penobscot counties, and she taught me the joy of making the pages of the Delorme come alive.  She lives for the scenic route, often at the expense of the underside of her car, and she would occasionally veer off down a back road when driving with my sister and me.  “I have been down this road before–well, partially been down this road–well, my friend told me about this road.”

Berry Road is classic Waldo County pastoral, agricultural fields in use with an RV or something else for sale here or there.  Well-marked as part of the Hills-to-Sea trail the whole road.  At the top of the hill, I came across a sign directing me to Freedom if I headed South and Unity to the north.  To outsiders these names may be strange, but I have known these town names my whole life and been driving through them, swimming in them, stopping at their general stores.

Then and there, I decided I would loop back to MOFGA via the Sandy Stream crossing.  I had crossed waist-high water before, with my father I had forded a river notoriously discouraged by the MATC, I could handle this stream crossing.

I briefly walked on the alternate route before it veered off to Unity, and I headed towards MOFGA.  I felt a little in awe that I could walk to downtown Unity some day.  To me, I felt even more excited about our move to Central Maine because of this newly developed trail system practically in our backyard.  The new trail system was not the fine stonework of Acadia.  For the most part, it was the understated pleasure of walking through a hardwood forest and trying to remember from dendrology which tree was releasing these fluffy fruiting bodies that would sporadically coat the forest floor like a shedding animal.

In heading towards MOFGA, I crossed a field high on a ridge and had a Sound of Music moment.  It was my only true view of the day, a bird’s eye view of field after field of the working Maine landscape.  Perhaps the tourists of Acadia would be unimpressed, but I felt so much gratitude that I had to start singing THAT song.  “The hills are alive…..”  At the same time, I felt transported back to the sections of the AT in southern Virginia, where the trail maintainers install little steps to climb over fences you cross so many fields and usually you are crossing the fences under the watchful gaze of cattle.  No cattle in this particular field on the Hills-to-Sea trail though.

From there, the trail meanders it’s way through the woods to Sandy Stream.  For all who may worry about the stream crossing, fear not.  It felt quite tame in my book, they had even placed stepping stones across the stream that were just barely under the surface of the water.  I opted to take my shoes off and enjoy the pleasure of the cool water on my toes.  Once I reached the other side, I hiked barefoot for a bit, in touch with the wild rugged quality of my childhood.

When I emerged from the woods to the field near Crosby Brook Road, I felt acutely aware that all the alpacas at the farm next door turned their long necks and stared at me.  Awwww.

I know so many who attend the Common Ground Fair and say, “I wish this happened 365 days a year.”  The Hills-to-Sea trail is the answer to that.  The Hills-to-Sea trail pulls you into that working agricultural landscape in all seasons, and that is a tremendous gift for all of us who need a reprieve.

The “Wherever-I-Can-Find-a-Parking-Space” Roulette

I had a commitment first thing in the morning in Bar Harbor and another at 2pm, so I figured I would hike and swim in the interim.  I had my sights set on the west side of Pemetic, on that opfork where you can either climb on ladders through the Lemon Squeezer of Acadia or scramble up steep granite faces.  When I pulled into the Bubbles parking lot on this sunny Thursday at 11am, not a parking space to be found.  Slightly disappointed, I headed to the Bubbles Pond parking.  No luck there either, or at the pull-off near the North Ridge of Cadillac.

I was not in the vast wilderness of Somerset County any more.  This was all part of the social hiking experience that is Mount Desert Island.  I decided I would be happy climbing anything with a parking space.  I eagerly pulled over at the turn-off by the North Ridge of Champlain simply because it had room for my Honda Fit.

Yesterday, I only saw a man and his dog on Bigelow.  I can handle that much solitude, and all the risks that come with that much solitude.  Especially on a main artery like the AT, if .something happened to me as a solo hiker during this time of year, assuming I stayed on the trail, someone would stumble across me within 24 hours.  I am more vocal than ever with my husband and mother about my whereabouts.  I look back on some of the things that I did not tell anyone that I was doing in my twenties, and I think I was lucky nothing ever happened to me.  More cautious in my thirties, I sign into every register, I leave my cell phone on, and I trust in God.  I love the mountains like my husband loves playing with electricity: we both venture into realms that slightly scare the other but we would never deny each other the supreme joy that accompanies potential danger.

In contrast, I encountered another hiker within two minutes of setting foot on the trail in Acadia.  He pointed out the lady slippers ahead on the trail, and I thanked him for sharing.  Who knows if my eyes would have been so intent to notice if he had not been there.

I encountered at least twenty others on Champlain, all enjoying the strong breeze on the exposed ridge line.  When people ask me where to hike on the island, I should just say, “climb a ridge line, any ridgeline” for the most comfortable conditions and most spectacular views.

No doubt, sharing the views did not ruin them for me.  It is what I have always said about this island.  I love it in all seasons, all times of day, as crowded as it may be, even when I cannot find a parking space.

“What have you done lately?”

I stopped carrying maps.  I still own a collection covering the bulk of high points along the Eastern Seaboard, but I am lending them to a hiker-friendly vacation rental on Mount Desert Island.  Pathetically, I have memorized the elevation profile of the AT and its side trails in Maine.  When I want to go anywhere else, I can consult my trusty Delorme and apps on my phone.

For full disclosure, I have not been out in the woods much in the last two years.  I fell in love with a house, and then a man, and I gave up everything to secure those two important lifelong investments.  This summer, I seek to reclaim what comprised my everything that I gave up, or as much of it that I can.

My island house–the house that had been left for dead, the house that needed to hear a radio again and the patter of little feet and have meal after meal cooked in its kitchen, the house that needed to be fussed over–is funding my hiker bum lifestyle.  It is surreal.  I clean it a couple times a week, mow the lawn, and in return, that house gives me the freedom with my time and the money to pay my bills that I have always wanted.

I still have sporadic commitments, I cannot climb something every day of course, but I slip away as often as I can.  I am still a devoted wife in the evenings and weekends, but my daytime is my own and I refuse to spend it inside.

This morning, I debated between Sugarloaf and Bigelow.  I have never taken the side trail from the AT to the summit of Sugarloaf, but out of consideration of my Honda Fit, I did not know if I wanted to traverse the hairy Caribou Pond Road.  I hopped in the car and drove in the direction of Anson without making a firm decision.  Instead of heading to Kingfield, I turned at the Long Falls Dam Road, Bigelow on my mind.

Just as I have relationships with my now two houses, I can talk about Bigelow like the mountain is an old friend.  My father loved Bigelow first, and he passed that on to me.  We may have attempted the Fire Warden’s Trail as a family when I was still in a stage where I was afraid of heights.  However, my first true memory on Avery Peak happened when I was fifteen and my dad and I were traversing from Caratunk to Stratton.  I remember having the summit to myself, napping as I waited for my father at the top, and both of us vowing to have our ashes scattered there.

Today was a blue sky day much like that day 17 years ago.  No doubt I struggled more today than I did that day, more than any other time that I have ascended the mountain even though my load was light.  My hiker legs are a mere memory, and I stopped more frequently than I ever remember.  I gave myself permission not to summit if I ran out of water or stamina; I do not force myself to push on death march style any more.

Heading up the Safford Brook Trail and connecting on to the AT southbound, even struggling, I loved every boulder.  That section of the Bigelow range is littered with the largest erratic boulders I have seen of all of my hikes in New England.  I marvel at them every time.  A couple are slanted in such a way it creates a little shelf you could sit under in a rain storm.  I remember day-hiking there once, and a northbound thru-hiker was making a second breakfast of ramen and instant mashed potatoes under one of those erratics.

Even though I had given myself permission to turn back, I did indeed summit Avery Peak.  I wanted a selfie with the sign, but it appeared to be removed and I settled for a photo shoot with Flagstaff Lake in the background.

Damn, I felt proud of myself.  I read an article this spring that has been haunting me.  It said we are suppose to be saying to ourselves, “Nice job on your past accomplishments, but what have you done lately?”  It made me sit up to read that.  I consider myself to have made the most of my almost 32 years on this planet, but who cares what I may have done 10 years ago?  I am trying to concern myself the most with today.

Today I did not need a map.  Today I felt like an athlete on one of my favorite mountains in the universe.  Tonight I will sleep well.

“A Star on the Edge of Night”

I like you best as an escape hatch to anywhere else I want to go, far or near. With you, all the possible adventures feel within reach, Baxter a little more than an hour, the island an hour flat the way I drive, the Bigelows and Tumbledown and the Mahoosucs a hop skip and a jump down Route 2. You hold an enviable place in the Delorme, and when it downpours, I prefer to admire you from the distance of a map than try to navigate your streets.
You are raw and gritty, as pure as a water sample of the Kenduskeag. For a transient looking for a fix or college student seeking out the opposite sex, you provide more options than Caribou or East Machias or Palmyra.
You are the epicenter of food seasoned but not spiced, of portions planned for someone recently emerged from filming Naked and Afraid. People from away may consider Portland the foodie capital of the state, but the Eagle’s Nest, the Friars’ Bakehouse, that place Mary Hart runs out on the Coldbrook Road, damn! In this regard, I revere you, I know which side of the Kennebec the true culinary talent lies.
Yet, to spend an entire day in your city limits, I feel like I am trapped at the airport or a bus depot or train station, tired of my reading materials and contemplating destination cities on the board that I never thought I would want to go. Buffalo. Virginia Beach. Charlotte.
Change my mind. I am so willing to give you a piece of my heart, I just need more reasons.

Visit

Four days away from my house and I expected it to be bitter and resentful. I expected to fumble with the lock, open the door, and have the walls say “why have you forsaken me?”. Yet this place that I have created has all the best characteristics of myself, warm and exuberant, a little overwhelming as it hit me with everything I love at the same time.
“Would you like a cup of sweet and spicy orange tea out of an oversized mug from a friend moved away but never forgotten? Let’s see what is on NPR, and sink into a leather chair far more comfortable than you could ever afford, and pull out a map, and plan tomorrow’s tromp through the woods.”
I stand at the threshold of coming here less and less. I am fine with the freedom of time and money that gives me. Yet when I am here, it feels like the contents of my soul incarnate, chicken imagery watching over me from every corner.
I flip-flop between how much poultry should be on display for visitors, and at this particular moment, I pull out a little more. I set the table with hand-sewn feather napkins, a wedding gift from a friend. I keep another piece of chicken pottery above the microwave, intended for dips but I like cracking my eggs against its sturdy sides. I finally find a place for framed fiber art from Bangladesh, a lady chicken tender and her flock. A college roommate sewed me a chicken potholder, not thick enough she feared, but I use it any way.
When I leave, laundry basket after laundry basket carried back out to the car, chicken pot pie properly prepared in a fully-equipped kitchen, the chickens keep watch over the house and welcome weary travelers who have arrived in this far-flung corner of the universe.

Hitch-Hiking Through Hancock County….

August 2012

I only pick up hitch-hikers who remind me of myself in my early twenties, young adventurous types. That particular August morning, the two female hitch-hikers near Sunrise Glass fit the bill. They looked like they could be sisters, two very hipster sisters in their early twenties. They were both petite with hair shorn so that it was only a couple inches long but no garish make-up.  Each had a 60 liter backpack, not yet dirty or dusty.  They clearly had not been living out of them and had not traveled far yet.  I could tell they were not down-on-their-luck hitch-hikers.  They were clearly well-raised, probably from out-of-state.

I made a split-second decision while waiting to pull onto 1A.  Forget working out at the gym, I would much rather help the hitch-hikers.  I felt worried about their chances of catching a ride otherwise. At that time, drivers headed onto 180 from Sunrise Glass could be headed in any number of directions, either out towards Otis or towards Eastbrook.  Since I had a couple of hours before I had to head to work, I wanted to help them get as far as they needed to go.

I made a u-turn and pulled over in the parking lot behind Sunrise Glass.  The women looked at my car, with that “wow, did-we-actually-get-a-ride?” expression, and then they dashed across the road.

“Where are you headed?” I asked.

“Right now we’re trying to get to Route 9, but we will go as far as you can take us.”

“I will take you to route 9, I do not have to work until 10 on the Island.”  Then, I drove a Toyota Echo that averaged 40 miles-per-gallon, so I did not mind the distance. Besides, I thought that they would have better chances being picked up on Route 9 next than anywhere in-between.

They threw their backpacks in the trunk.  One sat in the passenger seat, and the other arranged herself around the rake and shovel on the backseat.

Once we had arranged ourselves in the car and taken off, we realized that I looked familiar to them and vice-versa. We exchanged stories, me first, me ever open and trusting to the right vibes.

Freshly turned twenty-seven, I lived at a sweet little cabin within walking distance of Beech Hill Pond and the best blackberry patch that I have ever found in Hancock County. I worked seven days a week on Mount Desert Island, a 45 minute commute (only worth it because of the cheap rent), gardening during the week and produce at Hannaford during the weekends. We decided we must recognize each other from the produce section, where I encountered every socioeconomic class in Bar Harbor, including College of the Atlantic (COA) students.

They had recently graduated from COA, and they were hitch-hiking to somewhere in the Maritime provinces for a homesteading skills conference. In my head, I contemplated hitch-hiking across the Maine-Canadian border, something that sounds braver than anything I have ever done.

Even with my eyes on the road, I could tell theirs were focused out the window. We passed blueberry barrens as far as their eyes could see, houses with so many additions and repairs and porches that the original structure appeared indecipherable, trucks and tractors and four-wheelers and snowmobiles that did not currently work but someone had not given up on them, vegetable gardens neatly weeded and watered, confined and unconfined animals.

“We have never been out here before, we have not really left the Island.”

“Well, welcome to the rest of Maine! There is hunting season out here in November so be careful.”

“This is so cool! It is so beautiful! Too bad everyone we know lives in Bar Harbor!”

This is the part that has haunted me for years, this is the part that compels me to remember and write about these hitch-hikers years after they may or may not have crossed into Canada. I re-live and experience this story every time someone says to me that they do not understand someone of an opposite ideology. I always want to shake them and say, “Really? This state is filled with political diversity, you should leave your little wedge and experience the rest of it.”

It was not my place that morning to be any more than a driver. When we arrived at Route 9, I pulled over at a visible spot and helped them unload their bags. I watched them stagger with their bags on their back as they walked down the break-down lane, and then returned southward in Hancock County.

Mission accomplished: I had given them all the help I could with their journey.

To My Valentine

I did what I always wanted to do as a little girl but never thought I would do as a grown woman: I married my knight-in-shining-armor. Our first date was less of a date and more of a rescue mission in which neither the damsel-in-distress nor McGyver wanted to say good-bye. I became in awe of him from the moment he agreed with me that my rental car turned out to be a lemon, and it has become a bottomless pit of awe ever since. Every time I wake up next to him, I think he looks like a big angel with perpetually messy hair and a strong sturdy build that mirrors my own….until he wakes up and he is all boy: we go into the cell phone store and he just wants to take every phone apart, his eternally sparkling blue eyes light up a little bit more when discussing anything with an engine, he just wants more time to putter around in his lab. With all of his interest and abilities to save the world, he has hands that could be insured for a million dollars.

Carrying a Chicken down the Aisle….

My husband wanted to marry me at the Mount Desert Transfer Station where we went on our first date.  During the week before my wedding, I wish that I had fulfilled his request simply because it would have been effortless.  I had chosen and planned a very DIY affair at the community center in town, a hall whose dark wood reminded me of a Swiss Chalet.  Friends and family had come forward to offer to cater, bake the cake, provide music, and officiate, among other things.  I had been shopping all the 75% off sales after Christmas, and I fully intend on using any leftover heart doilies for Valentine’s Day. 

I had the ingredients for a memorable event, but alternating between holding back and letting loose the tears,  I could not hide my doubts about it coming together.  I kept asking the people around me, “Is a week before too late to decide to have one of those $20000 weddings?”  Sadly, yes, yes, it is.

My only consolation were my three chickens, recent gifts from a friend who could no longer keep them.  Two of the chickens were Buff Orphingtons, big burly ladies who wanted nothing to do with me.  The other was a Bard Rock whom I called Naughty Girl in part because she tried to escape on our second day together.  I had to chase her around my unfenced yard until I slid and caught her from behind like I stole second base.  She would be the first to come to the coop door, the most interested in trying new food.

The chickens were the only living creatures in my life immune to the wedding frenzy.  I had always identified with chickens and thought of them as my spirit animals because they were such a balance of nervous “the-sky-is-falling” concern and “i-found-a-worm” joy.  It struck me every time I checked on them that afterwards, I felt calmer, in a better mindset to tackle the day.  Unquestionably, they function as therapy birds in my life; why not carry Naughty Girl down the aisle to keep me calm on my big day?

I started to seriously consider this on the Wednesday before we wed, and I floated the idea to see what everyone else says.  The general reaction was “you can’t be serious?!”, and I took that as a personal challenge, like hiking Katahdin in a dress.  My then-fiancé, a poultry lover like me, said, “Whatever makes you happy”.  The majority of people kept telling me the same: “This is your day….”  I decided I would try bringing Naughty Girl to the dress rehearsal on Saturday before I committed to having her part of the show on Sunday.

I frequently load her and her roommates into a dog carrier to visit my then-fiancé, so she was not fazed by the trip to town or being carried down the aisle.  I decided my lovie would pet her before I placed her in the dog carrier positioned on the stage, a prominent place to watch the proceedings.  One of my friends would be the chicken handler to pick her up at my house before the ceremony and sit in the front row in case she pulled her escapee act.

All of that being resolved, I needed to decide what to do with my amaryllises that I had expected to carry on my bouquet.  My friend in Russia sent me even more white lilies and red roses.  I decided to bring all the flowers I had leftover to my hairdresser on Sunday.

I explained to her about Naughty Girl.  The idea that we had concocted two months prior would no longer work.  “Just throw my bouquet in my hair.”  She braided my hair in a couple places and then swept it all back into a lopsided bun that served as a nest for amaryllis and lilies.  I sat in the chair already wearing my nana’s thirty-five year old red-white-and-blue sweater.  “You look like a Norwegian bride!”

I loved the way that I looked with the sweater over my aunt’s wedding dress.  Most definitely a country bride, nothing extravagant yet head-turning nonetheless.

Naughty Girl, even with a necklace of roses, did not upstage the bride.  She did start to squirm as “Til There Was You” started to play, but she, and I, made it down the aisle without me crying or her flying to the rafters.  In fact, she proved to be a well-behaved guest.  I only wish she could have signed the marriage license papers as a witness.