Looking Backward, Leaping Ahead – Travel Planning

 

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Where it all began – Summit of Kilimanjaro, July 2011

I couldn’t miss at least one allusion in the title to that rarest of days last week – leap day! One does wonder if anything that happens on that day really counts – or perhaps all the events of leap day fall into some alternate universe that contains only four days each year, or that takes four years to create a year….but enough of such ruminations.

It’s time for a brief retrospective and for a glimpse into future trips. It will be five years ago July that J and I summited Mt. Kilimanjaro – an experience that, as cliched as it sounds, changed our lives forever. Call it mountain fever – or as a friend puts it – mountain head, we couldn’t wait to reach another summit. That trip led to Mt. Hood, the Grand Canyon, the Inca Trail, Mauna Kea, Mt. Elbrus, Mount Washington, the Ecuador volcanoes including Cotopaxi, Pico de Orizaba, and even the little known Puzzle Mountain in Maine.

And a lot of these trips remain to be written about, especially Kilimanjaro. This blog was born when we decided to go to Russia to climb Mt. Elbrus in 2014 and I thought it would be a convenient way to update friends and family. Little did I know that two years later I’d still be blogging.

So what’s on the horizon, both near and far? Well, in the short term, we have a visit to the swamp coming up in about three weeks – that is, a weekend in New Orleans. It’s only one of my favorite places of all time, and of course is home to daughter S (who has wholly rebelled against being referred to as daughter #2, Dr. Seuss allusions notwithstanding). And we follow that with a trip to Boston, more specifically Cambridge and Somerville, where daughter A and a 30th year law school reunion await. Ironically, we were preparing to climb Kilimanjaro when we attended the last reunion and I still remember our visit to Eastern Mountain Sports.

The mid horizon reveals the Whisky Trail in the Scottish Highlands, and there will be much more to come on that. We’ll see if I develop a taste for scotch as part of the training for that hike. It may not be a “summit” per se, but the last day is an ambitious 17 miles. And that will be followed by a week in Scarborough.

As for the distant future – I think there are still more mountains in me. Perhaps another attempt in the Cascades – Rainier may have my name on it.

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The Real Mysteries of Puzzle Mountain, Maine

Looking up toward Puzzle Mountain
Looking up toward Puzzle Mountain

Mysteries surround Puzzle Mountain, which was the site of last weekend’s Maine adventure.

After a successful rampage through the L.L. Bean clearance facility, we started the journey northeast to the weekend home of N’s parents. It’s a lovely old farmhouse near the Appalachian Trail. And on the way – the mysteries begin.

9. How does Google maps pick its prescribed route from point A to point B? ¬†Somehow we found ourselves taking a one lane road dotted with potholes through multiple small towns. Extremely scenic, but I’m sure there was a more direct route.

8. What’s a bean supper? Every small town in Maine seems to have one on Saturday night.

7. What are confederate flags doing in Maine? That was a really weird one to me. Here in the south, we spend a lot of time working to take them down, but they seem to be going strong up north.

6. How many ways can you cook apples? Daughter A is an expert pie maker (a skill she did not inherit from her beloved mother) and brought a delicious apple pie up to Maine, which she somehow carried on an Uber ride to a train station, on a train to Portland, and on our trip in N’s Previa up to Northwest Maine. She returned to Boston with another two bags of apples, picked fresh off the tree. Unclear what can be done with a hundred or more apples.

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5. What mountain ranges can you see from Puzzle Mountain? We set off fairly early on Sunday for our trek up the mountain. It was a short drive to the trailhead, and the leaves were at their peak color. The trail climbs fairly steeply in sections, but is interspersed with enough flat sections to keep it interesting. The first part was all birch forest, pale yellow leaves set off against the peeling white bark of the somewhat spindly trunks. Finally, we came to an opening in the woods and could see across the patchwork valley to the White Mountains of New Hampshire and other unnamed ridges.

Birch forest
Birch forest

4. Where were all the people? It was Columbus Day weekend (or more correctly, Indigenous People’s weekend), and I would have expected at least some other hikers, if not the raging crowds we’d faced on Mt. Washington last year. But except for one other group who only made it to the first peak of the mountain, we saw absolutely no one.

Mount Washington in the distance
Mount Washington in the distance

3. Where did the blue blazes go? Most of the trail is nicely maintained. But after we reached the second and highest peak (a whopping 3100 feet), we took a loop trail down that was considerably overgrown. At one point, coming out onto a rock outcropping, it simply petered out into a tree. Although there were some remnants of blue paint on the rock, and a very misleading cairn, it turned out the real trail was in a completely different direction. And it turns out that daughter A’s belief that always going left was the right answer did not work.

2. Which way is down? Now, this seems like a question with an obvious answer. But not so. The descending trail seemed to have as many uphill parts as down, and at one point I was convinced we were corkscrewing ourselves around the mountain.

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1. Where is Puzzle Mountain? Some mysteries are best left unsolved. And I promised our hosts that I’d help keep it hidden!

Starting the Puzzle – Portland, Maine

Starting the puzzle.
Starting the puzzle.

From the top of Puzzle Mountain in Maine we could see the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the peak of Mt. Washington, which we had summited exactly 364 days before. But all good mysteries need plot development before they are solved. And Puzzle Mountain is no different.  Our story starts on Friday, when we left Orlando at the ungodly hour of 7 am to travel to Portland, Maine, via JFK.

This mini vacation was what has become our annual fall trip to New England to see daughter #1, also known as A, and boyfriend N. Despite her tropical upbringing, this visit A explained that two winters in Boston had inured her to the hardships of snow and she no longer needed the down jackets her father and I donned as soon as we experienced under 50 degree temperatures. (To look at us, you would hardly think we were climbing glaciers three months ago or planned another ice related climb in January.)

Mysteries always start with a blast from the past. This one began with a passing suggestion on Facebook from an old friend from high school, whom I had not seen in 36 years, to let her know if our Maine trip would take us into Portland. So what could be more natural than to message her from the plane (hey, free wifi on JetBlue – although free bags are a thing of the past) that we would be landing in two hours.

Once we arrived at Portland’s small, moose themed airport, we received the best travel advice we’ve ever obtained from an airline representative. We had no assigned seats for our return flight on our Travelocity booked tickets, and thought we should try to get them in advance at the airport. Turns out, all that was available for no fee were center seats scattered throughout the plane. But, the customer service representative assured us, if we simply bided our time, all those empty $50 extra leg room seats would have to be given to those of us seatless passengers at no extra charge – and so they were.

In Portland, we didn’t follow the millennial pattern of taking Uber to the AirBnB. Yes, it was an Air BnB booked by the daughter (we were rejected from the one that had chickens but this one had enough unusual art to make it interesting), and instead took a taxi because we felt sorry for the driver. But after he couldn’t find the address we had second thoughts.

In any event, after enjoying the artisanal pastries left by the proprietress of our two bedroom flat, we walked a few rainy blocks to the mead tasting room. How else could one possibly start off a Maine weekend? There we met up with L, last seen in the summer of 1979, and managed easily to catch up on 36 years of kids, careers, and marriage, not necessarily in that order.

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After tasting six varieties of mead (who knew?) – ranging from dry to apple to lavender to chai – we ventured into Portland proper. It’s not a big city, but has maintained a charming downtown, with retail shops, galleries, restaurants and bars, and an amazing number of not very expensive jewelry shops selling lots of hand crafted jewelry. Apparently there’s a long jewelry making tradition in New England. Again – who knew?

L then took us to MJ’s Wine Bar, where we met up with her husband. Daughter’s boyfriend also arrived, following a long drive up from south of Boston.

Another mystery. Thursday, at a restaurant in Orlando, I’d been offered the last glass of Malbec in house. Friday, at MJ’s, the same thing happened. There has to be a message.

Next day, following a very seafood oriented dinner – at the presumably now-Malbecless Dave’s Restaurant – we sampled more of Portland’s wares. Breakfast was Hilltop Coffee, a small coffee shop with excellent egg and cheese sandwiches a couple of blocks from our Air BnB in the arts area of Portland.

Portland, Maine, reminded me much of Portland, Oregon, with well kept gardens, two story clapboard dwellings, and lots of coffee.

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We then walked down to the waterfront park, which houses the USS Portland monument. It was a chilly morning, but beautiful, and the view from the big old Victorians facing the waterfront must have been marvelous. The yard sale at one was particularly interesting and I’m sure A will treasure her one egg skillet for life.

Next stop was the Portland Art Museum. Although small, there is an excellent permanent collection, but we especially enjoyed the “You can’t get there from here” exhibit, featuring Maine artists. The installation of the bathtub and TV video of aging hippies rowing their way through ocean waves particularly spoke to me. It was also fun to lie on our backs on mats on the floor and look at the video screens of the sky moving overhead at one of the more interactive pieces.

After a trip to the sock shop (who doesn’t need a pair of fall socks decorated with marshmallows, hot chocolate mugs, and fireplaces), lunch was at the original Otto’s, a Portland pizza tradition. The Allagash saison draft beer didn’t hurt either.

But by then it was almost 2, and if we wanted to make it to the Mecca of outlet shopping, it was more than time to leave for LL Bean, in Freeport. Gear and work clothes are important. Freeport was packed. It’s a bit incongruous to find quaint B&Bs mixed with new outlets – I suppose one can enjoy organic muffins and spend the rest of the day bargain hunting for clothes made in China. But after inadvertently entering through the gun and ammo building (who knew how many varieties of camouflage there really are) we managed to help prop up the economy in the outlet store – and at least the Bean Boots I bought A were actually made in Maine.

It speaks for itself.
It speaks for itself.

And that purchase brings intrepid shoppers and tourists alike to what will be the next blog post – rural Maine, confederate flags, and where in the world is Puzzle Mountain.