In August 2015, the travel publication Wildsam sent Dean Russell on a two week tour of unknown New England. Dean set out aiming to learn more about New England’s relationship with the elements, from lighthouse operators and lobstermen to fish processors and micro-farmers. He also found time to climb his favorite mountain, find a new favorite one-screen moviehouse and learn more about antiquing than he probably ever cared about knowing. Final tally on trip mileage? A total of 2,499 miles. “I have no idea why I didn’t just drive around the block for the extra mile,” Dean told Wildsam.
CUTLER, Maine – The tide was almost too low by the time we made it to Cutler. Terry and Cynthia Rowden waited in the harbor with the motor idling. Cynthia was holding a pizza. Cold by now. They waved us down to the landing where we shook hands and crawled into the flatboat. Michelle went first.
The Rowdens had been keeping Little River Light on and off for years. Terry was from Michigan and the lighthouse was what brought him to Cutler as a Coast Guardsman in the 60s. Quoddy Light, north about 20 miles, was his original post, but he switched with another guy who had just bought a sports car. You can't drive a sports car on a 15-acre island. Plus, a little while into his stay, he'd meet Cynthia, a local girl. They'd get married. And Terry wouldn't get reassigned to Vietnam like the other guy.
On the ride out to the island, we could see most of Cutler. It was a good town--a lobstering town. In the early days it was a vacationers' town, but most people don't come that far north anymore. Cynthia pointed to a few buoys marking lobster traps that belonged to their grandchildren. Terry pointed east to a gray sliver on the horizon. Canada.
Michelle and I had been driving all day through traffic. Acadia was a mess of sedans and shuttle buses sponsored by L.L. Bean. Punk rock teens riding bicycles with their dads. On Little River Island, there was just Terry, Cynthia and a single doe. Cynthia said she must have swam out during low tide.
The lighthouse tower, built back in the 1800s, is about 3 stories tall and shines out into the Bay of Fundy. Its walls are several layers thick, made of brick and steel. Its white coat and green trimmings match the keeper's house just a few feet away.
The Rowdens went to bed early, so Michelle and I had dinner outside. Just a pair of IPAs and a Subway sandwich we picked up at a gas station outside Machias. We talked about the places we'd been. The places we missed. The people. We watched the rocks and fir trees turn from red to gray to black as the sun set.
On a clear morning, Little River Lighthouse is one of the first places in the continental United States to see sunrise. That morning, the clouds had set in. Thick. Michelle looked a little sad. But we stayed out on the rocks long enough to see the rising sun cut through, making wild streaks of red and gold.
We drank coffee with Terry and Cynthia, keeping warm by the living room pellet stove. They told us stories about their youth. About the days when all it took was a name to pass customs on Grand Manan. About the ice cream and kitschy t-shirts they used to buy down in Bar Harbor. About the old Cutler rowing races and the boy whose jeans blistered his backside. Terry came in third.
They told us to walk the island. The Boy Scouts cleared trails that cut back and forth and over the coast. It wouldn’t take long. When we were ready, they'd take us back.
It is hard to believe that one will always remember a place when they are just passing through. On the road, things turn blurry. Notepads get left out in the rain. Names get forgotten. All one can hope for is that the good places stick. Through a story or a smell or a vague feeling that is so singular it has no name.
When we finished, we walked to the docks. Terry was waiting in the boat with its motor running. We passed our bags over the gunwale.
Michelle pointed to a smack of white-cross jellyfish, each one about the size of a baseball cap. They were many and they glided through the water around us. Their bells moved in and out. Slow, like deep breaths. In and out. Pushing. Always moving.
I sat down in the bow. Michelle and Cynthia in the stern. Terry untied the cleat and turned us toward shore.