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99 Problems (But a Beach Ain’t One)

August 7, 2013

Today was looking like a dud right from the beginning.

The morning was to be spent in Portsmouth, NH, which is both right on the ocean and right on the border between NH and Maine. Our first stop was the Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse, which is located within Fort Constitution State Historic Site. First I made a wrong turn, then we were supposed to take a little bridge that was closed for repairs, and before we knew it our 10-minute drive to the lighthouse had become a half hour. We finally arrived at the entrance to the state park, only to find out that the park, like the bridge, was closed for maintenance today. Grrrr!

The bright side of our futile detour was that we got to see a lot more of Portsmouth, which has some ugly parts but a quaint downtown and some gorgeous little bridges and islands and out-of-the-way spots. The New York Times Travel section had a feature on Portsmouth this past weekend, and it was fun for me to recognize a few of the restaurants, bars, and other recommendations from the Times as we passed them. One thing the Times said was that you haven’t seen Portsmouth until you’ve been to Strawberry Banke, which is a mostly outdoor museum that comprises several historic and replica buildings populated by costumed actors playing colonial townsfolk. It’s like Colonial Williamsburg’s little brother. But the Hamster and I have already been to Colonial Williamsburg, so we decided to ignore the Times and visit a submarine instead.

USS Albacore

The USS Albacore is a retired 1950s-era submarine that, despite never having seen battle (in fact, it was never even outfitted with weapons), played a significant role in America’s military history. The Albacore was an experimental submarine stationed in and around Portsmouth that allowed the Navy to test out new hull designs, new engine designs, and lots of other technology, all of which became the basis for U.S. submarine design for decades to come. Not only did we get to go inside the submarine, but they encourage touching, so we also got to lie in bunks, peer through the periscope (we saw the nearby highway) and push and pull all kinds of levers, switches, telephones, etc.


And as we explored, we listened to audio recordings of original crew members telling stories about their time aboard. I had expected everything to be pretty small and cramped, but I had no idea just how small and cramped. The galley was smaller than the kitchen in my first apartment, the waterproof hatch doors required me to scrunch down to half my size, and the sub holds more than 30 “beds,” none of which actually fit me. Heck, they barely fit Sam!

Hamster in a submarine

I mentioned this to one of the museum caretakers, and he told me that Navy submarines today aren’t much roomier. The bunks are the same length (6’1″) and active-duty sailors who have visited have told him they’re about the same distance apart, too. It’s so easy to think of the Navy and picture vast ships and endless oceans, but apparently it’s no place for claustrophobics.

The submarine tour went quickly so we were right back on schedule for the day, which gave us time to make a fun little stop on our way up north. Soon after we crossed into Maine (state #44 for me, 41 for Sam), we stopped for a few minutes at a small public park in York Harbor called the Hartley Mason Reservation, after a dead guy who left money and land to the town under the condition that they permanently turn it into a public “pleasure ground.” Located on a hill, it’s a beautiful little park with bright green grass, colorful flowers, and stunning views of the ocean and beach below. But the reason we wanted to visit (aside from it being directly on our way) was a sculpture, roughly four feet wide, of … people playing in a park.

Pleasure Ground

It’s definitely an usual kind of statue but the fun part was how closely it mimicked reality in that people in the park and in the statue were sunbathing, reading, and playing with a dog. It was so adorable!

The park was so pleasant that we were tempted to picnic there for lunch, but it was on the early side and we were hoping to have lunch somewhere even more picturesque.

I don’t know why the Cape Neddick Lighthouse in York is also known as the Nubble, but I do know that it’s high on everybody’s list of things to do in Maine. And since it was, like the little park, basically on our way, we couldn’t resist. Yes, I know it’s the bazillionth lighthouse we’ve seen and/or tried to see in the past week. I don’t know why, but I just love lighthouses, and so does Hamster. Maybe it’s their heroic purpose, maybe it’s the idealistic vision of one lone light keeper vigilantly tending to his charge, maybe it’s their location right next to water and often rocks, or maybe it’s that they look like the offspring of a silo and a Christmas tree who fell in love. Either way we’re fascinated, and we’re not done visiting lighthouses. Maine alone has 67 of them, so we have some work to do.

Nubble Lighthouse

For such a highly rated lighthouse I kind of expected to be able to go inside, or even right up to it, but the Nubble sits on a tiny island that’s not open to the public. There is, however, a little park that includes the rocky cliffs directly across from the lighthouse, which offers great close-up views and, of course, a gift shop. It was on those rocks that we stood, first gaping at the lighthouse, and then eating our picnic lunch. The day, it seemed, was turning in our favor.

Up next was one last crack at the beach. I know, I know, beaches haven’t gone so well for us in the past week. The best we’d done was a beautiful but insanely crowded beach with frigid water. But I got a tip that Goose Rocks Beach in Kennebunkport is not only a great beach but also secluded and therefore not very crowded. And the GPS said it was only 40 minutes away, so we figured it was worth a try. We’d be there by 1:30 or so, spend a couple of hours soaking up the sun and the salt, and then be on our way. Only … it didn’t quite work out that way.

The first problem was the traffic. There’s basically one main road that goes through a bunch of cute little coastal towns in southeastern Maine. That road is only one lane in each direction, but it was moving along pretty nicely until we got to a town called Ongunquit. Suddenly we slowed to a crawl, and I couldn’t figure out why. Ongunquit, Maine at 1p.m. on a Tuesday should not be where we get stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. But for more than a mile, that’s exactly where we were. Exasperated and confused, I pulled off the road into the Ongunquit Chamber of Commerce, where a very nice woman let us use the bathroom and explained that all the traffic was due to an intersection that was coming up in about a half mile and always seems to clog everything up. Back in the car, we crawled along, wondering if she could possibly be correct and reading every word of every roadside advertisement. (In case you’re interested, Clay Aiken is starring in “Joseph” at the famous Ongunquit Playhouse. If you’re going, just make sure to leave early to allow for traffic.)

We finally got through that perilous intersection and eventually made it to Goose Rocks Beach. But our trouble did not end there. Street parking near the beach was scarce, but it didn’t matter because there were signs everywhere announcing that parking on all streets is for residents only and requires a permit. I figured I would once again have to spend a lot to park in a lot, but there were no lots to be found. I couldn’t believe I came all that way and sat in all that traffic to not go to this beach. Inspiration struck: I would pay a resident a few bucks to let me park in his or her driveway. Lots of doors and windows were open all up and down the stretch of road near the beach, so I didn’t think finding a willing partner would be difficult. I was wrong. House after house had front doors left wide open but nobody was home. (They were probably all at the beach, those bastards.) After a few tries I finally found a guy in front of a house, but he was a hired painter and the owners weren’t home. A few more tries later yielded a nice couple who were perfectly willing to let us park but had no more room in their driveway.

Sigh. We left Goose Rocks Beach without ever having even seen it.

I was surprised that Sam didn’t seem to mind very much, and in fact was even more upbeat than usual. Like he does on every road trip, he’s been “collecting” state license plates, and this time around I even printed up a pictorial checklist for him. He’s got only 10 left, and he even saw an Alaska plate back in Cape Cod. The missing states have been coming slowly, though, so he decided to spice things up and proposed a new game: we would try to name what residents in each state are called. s we went through his checklist we knew some, guessed at some, and made some up (ex: people from Michigan are called Mishuggana). I told him authoritatively that people from Massachusetts are called Massholes, which he had never heard before and actually believed for a second until he realized what I had just said. (In case you’re wondering, here’s a full list of the real names of each state’s residents.

Before we knew it we were at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, a natural salt marsh that was very pretty but was pretty disappointing in terms of wildlife. During a mile of hiking all we saw were a squirrel two chipmunks, and a handful of small birds. Sam was excited about the chipmunks but I was starting to lose steam. The good news was that because we didn’t spend any time at the beach we were way ahead of schedule. So much so that we were able to get to our next stop, Old Orchard Beach, before 5p.m.

Old Orchard Beach is both a beach and the town in which the beach resides. It’s like a much-lower-key version of Coney Island or Myrtle Beach or the Jersey Shore, with lots of little shops and restaurants and bars and a not-that-small amusement park along the beach and dozens of tiny no-name motels lining the road behind it. I originally had no intention of going to the actual beach there because I figured it would be too crowded and trashy. But there was still a couple hours of sun, and we found parking, and after the disappointment in Kennebunkport I figured it was worth a try.

The beach at Old Orchard Beach turned out to be exactly the beach we’ve been looking for all along. Plenty of soft sand, some waves, no rocks, and water that was reasonably clear and not terribly cold. Better still was our timing; by the time we got there the lifeguard was gone but so were most of the people, and we had plenty of room to spread out and enjoy ourselves.

We dropped our stuff on the sand and headed right into the water, where we bounced around and rode waves for a while before the sun started to get lower and the water colder. Sam buried himself in the sand, which was much easier than usual because there were plenty of big holes already dug by people who had been there before us.

It took a week and a bunch of tries, but we finally had a great beach experience, and in the place I least expected.

After heading back to the car and changing into dry clothes we walked down to The Pier, which is the center of all the Old Orchard Beach touristy-ness. It was pretty much exactly what you’d expect of such a place: T-shirt shops, pizza counters, loud bars, henna tattoos palm readings, pay bathrooms, a live band singing about Jesus … OK, maybe not EXACTLY what you’d expect. Anyway, Hamster and I had a brief argument about whether to spend $20 renting a side-by-side tandem bike that looked kind of like the Flintstones’ car, but otherwise we had a nice time strolling and gawking as the sun went down.

[Side note: Going to the beach during a road trip present many logistical challenges. At home, we put towels on the seats and drive home in bathing suits and then shower and change. On the road this is not an option. We’ve got a full car that we’d like to avoid covering in sand, but we have nowhere to change. So we’ve worked out a system that’s not easy but does the job. First I shake out our beach blanket and towels and dump them in the trunk on top of our luggage. Then we sit in the car with the doors open and our feet outside the car, and we brush of our feet. Then we take turns changing inside the car, which is super uncomfortable in every way. We seal our wet bathing suits up in Ziploc bags, throw them in the trunk, and hang them up in the bathroom hours later when we finally get to whatever motel we’re staying in that night. Meanwhile I spread out the towels to dry overnight before folding them up and putting them back in the beach bag for tomorrow.]

It was at about this point that we realized we were starving. We headed back to the car and started driving up I-95 toward Portland, where we’d be staying for the night. We were hoping to find a rest stop along the way where we could grill dinner, but there was nothing. So when we checked into the Super 8 I convinced the manager to let us grill in the back corner of the parking lot. It wasn’t the most beautiful place we’d been all day, but 10 minutes later we were eating burgers and reminiscing about a weird but very satisfying day.

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