Tuesday, August 26, 2008


From Maine Diane and I traveled northward until we reached the border of a great unknown vastness. The locals call it home. Some Americans call it the fifty-first state. All call it Canada.

On this trip across America we have gotten used to being strangers in our native land. Even so, we find that this fifty-first state is unlike any of the others. We don’t know what to make of it. Take the cities, for instance. From a distance they look like big American cities. This is St. John, New Brunswick.

But up close they’re much smaller. To my trained eye, St. John’s could pass for a mini San Francisco, CA.

Except that the men are more brave, the beasts are more ferocious…

… and the rivers run backwards.

Yup. We’ve seen it with our own eyes.

And now so have you. So it must be true.

Which is to say that Canada is a strange place that overflows with possibilities. Anything can happen. It’s a scary and yet freeing sort of sensation. It’s as if this place invites to completely reinvent ourselves. A hands-on visit to a Museum of Industry allowed us to try a few new personas on for size.

Diane got on the Ball as a hard-working gal in a chocolate factory…

… while I cast myself in the dual role of loud mouthed know-it-all union boss…

…and artless dodger.

Not that I have an experience with unionized labor or anything.

Regardless, this much is certain: The farther we go into the unknown wilds of this great white north, the more drastic we will change. There’s no telling who we will become; and there’s no telling how.

Maybe we won’t stop until we reach the top of Nova Scotia. Just looking at the map we can tell that’s a long way from here. All there's left for us to do is get in the bus and go.

Sunday, August 24, 2008


Neither Diane and I are obsessed with food. We like food. And we really like good food.

The question then, is, what makes food good. Is it the anticipation—planning the menu, devising the seating chart, acquiring new tableware? Is it the pursuit of ingredients—the hunting trip, the fishing expedition, the gardening safari, the shopping trip? Is it the preparation—the refuge of the kitchen, the pleasure of helpful companionship, the heat of the labor itself? Is it the dining experience—before a campfire on a windswept mountain top, in a microbus beside a city park, by candle light with a view of the Eiffel Tower? Is it the quality of the food itself—the flavors, the textures, the presentation? Or is it the aftermath—the satisfaction of fullness, the afterglow of good company, the glory of accolades received?

Of course, good food is all of these. But because Diane and I are traveling through Maine, the palate narrows considerably until it is a taste that trips down the tongue to tap two counts on the teeth. Lob-ster. Sweet, sweet lobster. It is a common crustacean at two pounds even on the ocean floor. It is money in the trap. It is red-hot screaming in the steamer. But on my table it is always Lobster.

Lobster. The most splendid offering among Maine’s many wonders…

…the red-shelled treasure that shines brightly in a sea of yellow drawn butter. You can always count on a Maine writer for a fancy prose style.

Which is to say, it wasn’t just any sort of lobster we were after. After all, you can find lobster everywhere. In Maine, it waves at you from the roadside, credit cards accepted.

It’s pooped out in a McStyrofoam pile under golden arches…

…it’s even churned into a frozen treat.

I know, I know. It’s all lobster. Indeed it is. But it isn’t necessarily good lobster. Please understand that our LobsterQuest was not about sitting down to a simple tourist meal. Please understand we were after something to remember long after the lobster itself was gone. Please believe me when I say we are not obsessed with food.

The quest began in Portland, ME. It’s a sizeable city on the state’s southern coast. It features a fine European-style downtown, replete with cruise ship docks and all of the usual tourist trades.

We had a fine time in Portland, ME. But it didn’t have the sort of lobster we were looking for. So over the backroads we traveled, zig-zagging our way northward along the jagged coastline. The daily board of fare consisted of upscale seaside tourist towns, competed with rustic resorts…

…strange blueberry farms…

…and even stranger engineering wonders.

This bridge’s split granite cribwork is designed to allow the swift tidal waters to flow in and out of the bay year round. It is held together only by gravity and the graces of good fortune, and is said to be the only one of its kind in the world—I think for good reason.

Once safely beyond these troubled waters, we finally encountered a bonafide back roads lobster shack phenom.

But upon closer inspection Red’s did not have the lobster we were looking for. The specialty here is the Lobster Roll—a fold of toasted white bread stuffed with a lobster-mayo salad. This concoction is a Maine institution. For those among us who travel with the herd, by all means, step right up. For those rugged few who blaze their own trail, it’s best just to move along.

It wasn’t long before we found a bayside campground. At the ranger station, we learned that a local fisherman would deliver live lobster directly to our campsite. It was a tempting offer, but we passed on it. Not only were our kitchen pots too small, but the experience would just like getting a pizza delivered to our doorstep.

In an attempt to distract me, Diane navigated us to the fabulous tourist town of Bar Harbor, ME. And make no mistake, in high season distractions abound. But they’re good distractions.

Diane took me for a sail on a four-mast schooner, this despite the fact I have been known to get motion sickness from time-to-time, but only when traveling by car, plane, boat, train, tram, trolley, bus, rollercoaster, merry-go-round, swing set, surfboard, or bicycle.

But don’t let my expression fool you—I loved the sail. I even made it through with my innards intact.

What’s more, we even got our hands on the lines help heave-ho the sails.

But once back on dry land, reminders of the object of my desire were everywhere.

Tired out, wrung out, spun out, worked out, we again took to the open road. It was clear that this little lobster quest of mine was a folly from the start. I scanned the road side for any old lobster pound. Lobster is lobster. It doesn’t matter where you get it and it doesn’t matter how.

But before we sold out, before the fog bell tolled, Diane spied a little sign of no particular consequence.

I didn’t want to stop. I didn’t care to stop. But Diane insisted, so stop we did. No one came out to greet us…

… at least not right away…

This is Robert. He is a salty fisherman and skier turned seafood distributor. He told us about the difference between new shell and old shell lobster (he prefers new shell). We told him about traveling from Oregon to Maine by microbus. He told us about the seaweed trade to the equine industry—apparently discerning race horses prefer kelp for breakfast. We talked about family and skiing in Lake Tahoe and the icy winters of Maine. He showed us how to choose a lobster by size and weight.

We told him that we didn’t have a pot big enough to steam the lobster; he offered to steam this most worthy lobster for us…

… right up in his office.

A fine lobster meal turns out to be a rather simple affair. You don’t need a trap full of food. You don’t need a fancy prose style. All you need to do is find a pot. Add some water. Apply some heat. Get a few sheets of yesterday’s fishwrap. Put yourself in good company. Find a suitable seaside spot. Do it right, and the result is destined to be delicious.

Even if it makes you a little bit crazy.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A Day in the Life

The question most people ask us is this: “What is your typical day like?” They usually come at it in three different ways:

“How do you plan your time?”
Our answer: We don’t.

“Where are you staying tonight?”
Our answer: We won’t know until tonight.

“Where are you going next?”
Our answer: Good question. Do you have any suggestions?

We don’t mean to be flippant. We’re answering truthfully. After all, we live in a microbus, live cheaply, and mostly leave our travels to chance. What follows is a typical day. You’ve been warned.

7:30 A.M. Rochester, NH. – Sidestreet
We wake up inside the bus. We’re parked on a now-quiet street across from a municipal baseball park. It’s an overcast morning. It might rain. It might not. A huge hedgerow separates us from the neighboring houses. Because we got here after dark last night, we couldn’t tell really tell what sort of spot it was. It turned out to be a good one that hid us in plain sight—one of our favorite locations. A group of league softball players drank and shouted at each other from the bleachers late into the night. But once they left, the neighborhood quieted down. We’re lucky there’s no little league games this morning, as I’m pretty sure it’s Saturday. The lady sweeping the sidewalk in front of her place gives us a wary look as we depart.

8:20 A.M. Rochester, NH - Downtown
Because of where we parked, we didn’t have the luxury of making coffee in the bus (we live by the backcountry hiker credo: Leave No Trace). We drive around town looking for a coffee house. Our choices come down to a Dunkin’ Doughnuts and a local bakery that, inexplicably, won’t open until 9. We choose the local bakery. From our parking spot, we watch a heavy set couple wheel about in their wheelchairs. We look at them. They look at us. The streets are otherwise empty. I understand now why the bakery opens late and I wonder why Diane and I need to have coffee every morning. The skies look like they might clear off completely.

9:15 A.M. Rochester, NH – Le Petite Bakery
The coffee’s pretty good and the apple tart is terrific. I jot down a few ideas in my notebook about the Shaker museum-farm we saw yesterday. I’m still not sure what to make of it. I know I’m going to say more than a few passing words, though what I want to say, and how, is unclear. I write: Mike & Diane as Shakers in dramatic play, re: Henry Miller? I circle this. We decide to go to the beach in New Hampshire. According to our Rand-McNally road map, the only park with camp sites is the Hampton Beach State Park. It’s on the southernmost point of New Hampshire, so that’s where we’ll go. We decide on the back roads we’ll take. This map has only been wrong once, and that was way back somewhere in California.

10:00 A.M. South of Rochester, NHNapa Auto Parts
The bus is exceedingly reliable. It starts every morning. It runs all day. And it leaks motor oil. This problem is the bane of my existence. For now, the best fix I’ve got is to add a bottle of stop-leak every 1,000 miles or so. I see an auto parts store and make an impromptu stop. I buy the stop-leak, pour it into the crankcase, add a half quart of oil, and cross my fingers. It’s either this or an engine overhaul, and we’re a long way from home.

10:40 A.M. Highway 125, Southbound.
Even on the back roads west of Dover, NH the traffic feels heavy. It must be Saturday, in August. I wonder what the beach traffic is going to be like. Then again, after the relative empty back roads of NH and VT, maybe what I take as heavy traffic isn’t all that heavy. We see a McDonald’s and stop for a bathroom break. A pack of Boy Scouts troop past as we park. One of the Scout Leaders stops to ask me questions about the bus. I really have to take a leak, but I hold it and grind through my patter with a smile.

11:05 A.M. Seabrook, NH
It’s not just me. It’s Saturday and the traffic is heavy. The signage that should point us to the beach is non-existent. The locals who drive the back roads must not need road signs, but we do. We stop for gas and to ask for directions. While I’m filling up, Diane asks directions from an unreasonably tanned dude on the other side of the pumps. I can’t hear what he says, but he points us in the opposite way we were headed. He wears the logo of the Gloucester, MA fire dept. on his t-shirt and he seems absolutely certain of himself. Going against our better judgment, we drop back into traffic and drive in the opposite direction that our map seems to indicate. We’re looking for Hwy 88, which we’ll take right to the ocean. We can’t miss it.

11:15 A.M. Seabrook, NH
It’s five blighted lanes of corporate chain stores, stoplights, and traffic. After miles of this, we have yet to lay eyes on the fabled Hwy 88. Then, inexplicably and unexpectedly, we cross into Massachusetts. We pull over onto a wide shoulder. Traffic surges past. I think we missed the turn. Diane doesn’t think we did. We engage in a spirited discussion. We decide to keep going.

11:18 A.M. New Hampshire / Massachusetts State Line
We drive no more than 50 yards, round a blind corner, and come to the Hwy 88 intersection. GloucesterMan was right, we couldn’t miss it. He just neglected to mention having to cross into Massachusetts first. We get on Hwy 88, our spirits brightening. The sun is out. The air is warm and we have the windows down. I begin to jabber about how many lobsters we ought to have for dinner. Diane, weary of my schemes, reminds me of the cod fillets we have in the cooler.

11:40 A.M. Hampton Beach, NH
We enter into a blustery, full-sun sort of sandy beach community. The water looks hard and cold. Condos crowd the beachside of the main road, seafood shacks and trinket shops line the other side. We cross a bridge and immediately find the State Park. We can see the entire park in one eyefull since it only consists of one giant grassy campground and an ocean beach. It’s bounded by condos to the north, shops to the west, and a swift-moving ship channel to the south. Giant RVs are everywhere. All of the hook-up spaces appear to be taken, but I see empty picnic tables and plenty of open spaces in the grass. It looks like we’ll be paying good money to do little more than park on grass near a beach. But we’ll be within walking distance to a number of lobster shacks. I tell Diane that I really want to stay at this park.

11:55 A.M. Hampton Beach State Park, NH
We pull up behind a late 1980s VW bus with Quebec plates. Glad to be at the end of the day’s drive, Diane and I make our way into park office. Inside, we find a pudgy French-speaking Canadian and a thin, wrinkled face Park Lady locked in argument. He speaks in French and she speaks in English. Another man, maybe another camper, acts as a translator. We finally gather that, for some reason, the Canadian isn’t going to get a spot he reserved months in advance. I think that maybe we’ll get a hook-up spot after all. The bewildered Canadian departs and we take our place before the counter, all smiles. The Park Lady behind the counter droops, glad to be rid of her French-speaking problem. It’s clear she wants a cigarette. Diane brightly inquires about a camping spot. The Park Lady grimaces and tells us that even though it’s Saturday, some non-hookup spots are still available. We claim one of these spots. Everything goes well enough as she checks us in. Then she asks me: “What sort of vehicle are you driving?”

“A ’71 VW microbus,” I reply proudly, fully expecting her to swoon at such a glorious revelation.

Her face immediately pinches into the sourest of looks. It is as if she just caught a whiff of the world’s smelliest hippy. Then she laughs in disbelief and, without a word, begins to delete our information from her computer program. “You can’t stay here,” she says flatly. “That last man, that Canadian, was in a VW bus, too. He can’t stay here, either. And he had reservations.”

The Park Lady then proceeds to tell us how, because our VW bus doesn’t have a built-in toilet and tank, we aren’t allowed to stay in New Hampshire state parks. As far as the state of New Hampshire is concerned we are a biohazard.

But all is not lost. The Park Lady give us directions to a state park just across the border in Massachusetts. She is pretty sure they will take us.

12:45 P.M. Hampton Beach, NH
We drive south along the coast. Once in Massachusetts, the clear skies and lobster shacks give way to crummy row houses, crumbling streets, and a tangle of overhead power lines. I give up my lobster obsession. The town eventually peters out, the power lines disappear, and we find the park. Or at least we find the park entrance.

We wait in line for about a half hour. The line never moves. Not even one car length. A new RV arrives every few minutes. We think this scene is bad until we imagine what the campground is going to be like. Though clouds are gathering on the western horizon, the skies above are clear. The air is warm. The day is still young. We decide that the beach is the place to be. So we do the only sensible thing: We force our way out of line, turn around, and drive back to into New Hampshire.

1:45 P.M. Hampton Beach, NH
Past the Hampton Beach State Park, we plunge into summer beach resort chaos. The air is cooked with the stale burn of old fry grease. People swarm the sidewalks. They spill out of restaurants. They stagger out onto the sandy asphalt streets. They sprawl on the porches of ticky-tacky rental houses that are crammed right up to the saltgrass that marks the beginning of the beach. The energy level is wicked-good and the vibe is festive. We love it. However, not a single parking spot is to be found. So we make room for one that sort of hangs the nose of the bus out into an intersection. We’re less than two blocks from the beach. We gather up our beach wear and get within a block of the beach when we notice that the crowds are hurrying away from the beach.

We don’t know what to make of it. Then we hear the wail of sirens. We look skyward. Off to the southwest, the high white and fluffy clouds have turned black and cold. In fact, they are coalescing into a single angry mass and descending. We debate whether or not to go to the beach anyway—we’ll have it all to ourselves until the rain hits. Then Diane says the magic word, “traffic.” We hightail it back to the bus. If we don’t get out now, we’ll be locked in a traffic jam for hours.

2:00 P.M. Hampton Beach, NH
Traffic is already bad by the time we squeeze our way onto the road. But everything moves along in its own way.

2:45 P.M. Hampton, NH – Hwy 1, Northbound
We make it out of Hampton Beach as the skies let loose with thunderous fury. Lightening bolts crash directly overhead. I slow the bus in order to see the road more clearly. As best as we can tell, we’re not only tracking in the direction of the storm but we’re moving at the same speed of its leading edge. We can’t safely turn around, there’s no good place to pull over, so we just keep going.

3:45 P.M. Portsmouth, NH.
Not knowing what to expect, we roll into the only town that matters in these parts. We’ve never been here and we’ve never considered it as a destination. It seems like a fine place, one that we might like to see when the weather clears, if it ever does.

Because of the weather and time of day, we decide that we can either ride out the storm in the bus, languish in a coffee shop, or go to a movie. We decide on the latter, though we have no idea where a movie theatre might be. We roll up to the first Stop-n-Rob we see to ask directions.

4:10 P.M. Portsmouth, NH. – Stop-n-Rob
I keep the bus idling (to keep the heater on) while Diane goes inside. Through the foggy windows I watch her talk to a heavy-set man or woman—I can’t tell exactly. It’s all smiles and good humor. Diane is amazing that way. After what seems like forever, Diane comes out and gets back in the bus. She holds a small sheet of paper, the front and back crammed with the tiniest scrawl I’ve ever seen. These are our directions.

4:30 P.M. Portsmouth, NH. – Backstreets
We wind through the unfamiliar back streets of Portsmouth. The movie theaters are attached to some sort of mega mall on the outskirts of town. At first the directions hold together perfectly. Then what should have been a traffic circle is instead a three-way intersection. Pressed by traffic, I quickly choose what I think is the correct turn. Diane disagrees. Our discussion is spirited. Traffic moves swiftly. And before we know it we’re at a T-intersection and have lost the bead. The rain is hammering down. I pull into the parking lot of a grocery store so we can look at the city map in our AAA book. Out of nowhere, an early 1980s microbus pulls up along beside us, the window already down. A dude leans out as far as the rain allows.

“Can I help you?” he asks, thinking that we’ve broken down.

Not believing our luck I gesture to the map splayed out on the steering wheel in front of me. “We’re just trying to find the movie theatre.”

“Oh,” he says, clearly disappointed he can’t really help us. “That’s just up the main road there, a half mile at most. It’s at the mall. You can’t miss it.”

Famous last words.

4:40 P.M. Portsmouth, NH. – the Mall
He was right, we couldn’t miss it. The meganess of this mall is astonishing. It just goes on and on and on. What’s even more incredible, the parking lot is packed. The closest spot we can find to the theater is another lot over, and that’s saying something. The rain has let up some, but that’s not saying anything. As we race to the box office, we pass a security guard hunkered down in his little jeep, marker lights on and the windows a bit foggy. It’s obvious that no criminal or cop in their right mind is out in this weather. I have a good idea what this says about us. A quick scan of the marquee tells us that the only show available to us is “Mamma Mia!” We’ve come too far not to buy tickets.

7:00 P.M. Portsmouth, NH. – the Mall
The parking lot has emptied out some. But more importantly, and more amazingly, the skies have cleared. And it’s still early. As for the movie, what’s there not to love about a love story as told by ABBA love songs and lovingly sung by the likes of Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnon and set on a lovely Greek island? The best part of the movie, for me, was the Greek island itself—Diane and I actually lived on the very island for two months in 2004 where this movie was shot. It was fun to recognize the set locations. It was kind of like being there again, except with a pop music soundtrack.

7:35 P.M. Portsmouth, NH. – The Island
With clear skies comes clear sailing and clear thinking. Since it’s dinner time, we hunt around town for a suitable spot. We take aim for the waterfront, as often times we’ll find city parks there; and where there are city parks there are picnic tables and trash cans. Portsmouth does not disappoint, and in fact it exceeds our expectations. Instead of a waterfront park we are presented with island that’s been designated as a city park. Though we don’t find any picnic tables, we do get the best view in town.

We decide that this place is better than any Greek island. It makes me want to dance.

After the show, Diane makes dinner as she always does. It isn’t lobster, but it is a three course extravaganza of corn on the cob, collard greens infused with bacon, and pan-seared cod with red baby potatoes. How Diane creates dinners like this, day-in day-out, on a single burner Coleman stove kit in a microbus kitchen is beyond me. Maybe that’s why she’s the cook. I just know that I’m a lucky man. I tell her this. Repeatedly.

8:40 P.M. Portsmouth, NH.
With dinner over, dishes cleaned, and the sun down, it’s time for our evening stroll. We discover it to be a typical waterfront, filled with the usual suspects – fishing boats, old sloops, and assorted pleasure craft.

Shoreside, we stumble onto a grassy park and, inexplicably, an elaborate stage play already underway. We settle in with the family crowd to behold “The Beauty and the Beast.”

After the show, we two-step through the colonial old town streets of Portsmouth, swapping ABBA song-bites with a dash of showtune pizzazz, my beastly tenor propped up by Diane’s beautiful soprano. As it turns out, love triumphs and good prevails. Always.