This year we celebrated the Fourth of July in very traditional ways. Because this is 2021, and we are just beginning to transition out of the pandemic mode, the commemoration felt extraordinary. Freed at last from months of isolation, we rejoiced to be able to gather with friends and with strangers in merrymaking and festivities. It was a true Independence Day. Like celebrations often do, it brought to mind other times when we commemorated this particular holiday differently than usual.
Last July, this blog featured one of those occasions, the year Jay and I spend the Fourth of July in the Ukraine. This year my mind spins back to July 4, 1976. That year we had chosen to spend our holiday on Mount Desert Island, the largest island off the coast of Maine.
up north & down east
A one-week layover in a small cottage along the island’s southwestern coast, near Tremont, had been our first visit to Mount Desert. My husband, our three-year old daughter Kristy, our eighteen-month-old daughter Carrie, my sixteen-year-old sister Beth, and I had already journeyed north from our home in Chicago to Montreal and Quebec City. We had then headed south toward New England. After a week on the road, we took a break and met up with friends from Chicago, the Forsythe family They knew about the island because the mom, Mary Florence, had a brother who lived near there.
Being on Mount Desert swept us into an entirely other culture. Both Maine and Illinois were part of the USA, but there the similarity ended. It didn’t even sound to us like the folks spoke the same language. The little fishing villages of Tremont formed the “quiet” side of the island. For us that was quiet, indeed, since even “busy” Bar Harbor was a far cry from the noise and hustle of Chicago. The entire island is only 54 square miles (Chicago covers 234 square miles) yet every mile of it offered a fascinating new discovery.
nonstop views and vistas
Most breathtaking is Somes Sound, a fjord-like body of water that runs five miles inland and divided the east and west sides of the island. When we stood at the inlet and stared up at the soaring cliff, towering over the water like sentinel giants, even the little children were awed into silence.
At the other end of the pleasure spectrum was Jordan Pond. The “pond” is a glacier-formed tarn with exceptionally clear water, but swimming isn’t allowed there. And although we could have rented a canoe, that didn’t sound like a safe decision with two such young children in tow. What we did learn to love was tea on the lawn of the Jordon Pond House. We could almost feel we had been transported to England, but the delicacy to which we became instantly addicted were popover so light they melted in your mouth.
true land’s end
Of all the places on the island, the one that intrigued me the most was the summit of Cadillac Mountain because, while there are twenty mountains on the island, this one at 1,530 feet (466 meters), is the highest point along the North Atlantic seaboard. That makes it the first place in the United States to view the sunrise.
To celebrate this phenomenon, every year on July 4, many of the citizens of Mount Desert Island as well as hundreds of visitors make it a point to be on the summit at the crack of dawn on Independence Day. Our visit was a long after this momentous event, but with the wind blowing so fiercely that I held my daughters very tightly as I took in the great expanse before me, I vowed to return for July 4, 1976, the 200th year anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
return to eden
Our return trip turned out to be the first vacation that Jay and I took alone since our first child had been born. With great excitement I planned the romantic getaway to one of the most beautiful places I had ever visited. This time instead of ram-shackle cottage among the sea grasses, a lovely old inn, high above Somes Sound would be our home for the week. I had planned the trip with great exhilaration. Yet, when it came time to actually hug and kiss our children goodbye, I almost couldn’t get into the taxi that would take us to the airport. We were leaving them with two trusted, known caretakers, but, at the last minute, it felt very scary to walk away from them.
a difference in perspective
My anxiety was not much allayed when after checking into our room at the venerable Asticou Inn, we went down to enjoy dinner in the dining room. Dinner was included in the American Plan price of the hotel. The maître stepped up as we entered. “I’m sorry, sir,” he said, “but a suit jacket and tie are required for the evening meal.”
“But I am formally dressed,” asserted my husband. He wore a “leisure suit,” a new evening apparel for men that had become all the rage that year.
“Your outfit does not meet our dining standards,” the host insisted. And we were not allowed to dine there.
We had to find another place to eat that evening. We checked out the following morning. Gypsies that we were, we were very fortunate to find an opening at the charming Grey Rock Inn, a much less formally run Bed and Breakfast quite close to Somes Sound. After enjoying a lovely cup of tea with the inn’s proprietress, I finally began to de-stress. It began to look like our quest for a romantic getaway but work out after all.
fogged in, but not bogged down
On our first trip to Maine, the skies were bright and clear. The sunshine was brilliant. That didn’t happen this time. But fog and rain didn’t stop our fun. We took several long hikes. On the one day the fog lifted, we went sailing on the Sound. Finally, the focus of our trip came up.
The next day would be July 4. We took a long afternoon nap, ate dinner and headed up the dark mountain where the festivities started at midnight. The fog became increasingly dense, but we found a parking spot and good seat. We watched the islanders perform folk dances around the bonfire. A bevy of local bands belted out enjoyable patriotic tunes.
Throughout the night the fog hung low over our heads. By quarter to four in the morning, it began to lighten up. We became hopeful that the fog would clear and the sun would burst across the horizon in glorious color. For seventy-five long minutes, the crowds peered into the gloom. Every once in awhile someone would claim to have seen a light, but it was never confirmed. Finally, a stalwart guy, dressed in full Scottish regalia, came to the microphone. It’s five a.m., folks,” he announced, “the sun has risen.” He began to play the bagpipes on his shoulder.
the sun does not rise
We looked at one another in disbelief. Nothing had changed. It wasn’t even a little bit lighter than it had been at four a.m.
“My Lord,” I said to Jay. “We came over a thousand miles to see the sun rise on the third century of the American Experience – and it never rose. This does not bode well for the next one hundred years.”
I now look back at the almost half century that has come and gone since we stood on that mountain. I feel a bit like my words were tainted with prophecy.
“The vast possibilities of our great future will become realities only if we make ourselves responsible for that future.”—Gifford Pinchot