Driving up the hairpin switchbacks on Cadillac Mountain, my chest hitched as I watched the morning light wipe away the dark.
It was a few minutes before 6am, and on my last morning on Mt. Desert Island, ME, I was determined to watch the sunrise from the summit of the easternmost point of the United States.
I'd driven up the mountain the day before for a dry run, to find the best viewpoint and be certain of my timing to get there while it was still inky dark. I wanted the effect in its entirety and planned on arriving at 5:30am.
It was a hot, bright day and I found the parking area a friend back in Massachusetts heartily recommended for taking in the sunrise. As I stood there regarding the massive rocks recede into the ocean, I heard a chipper drawl from behind me: "Excuse me, are yew from Jorja?"
I turned around to see a woman approaching me with a disposition as sunny as her butter-yellow t-shirt. She was smiling. I hadn't seen one of those on a stranger in weeks; her twangy Southern accent felt just as foreign and confusing.
I nodded and smiled back when I saw her face light up, and that's how I met Jean, a gift basket-maker from Alabama.
Jean was a welcome disruption to the chilly New England social atmosphere I'd been wending my way through for the preceding weeks. Once you get outside of New York, Northeasterners are so cold they shit ice cubes. I'll talk to a wall if it lets me, and I was disturbed by the utter disinterest people seemed to have in one another. (I assert New York City is home to some of the friendliest strangers in the world. If you disagree, I'd love to hear why.)
That's not to say my time in Maine was lonely or isolated. Just the opposite: I was staying with a good friend's good friend, in a home she cherished and was eager to open up to me.
The house was old with low ceilings and a kitchen inexplicably situated on the second floor; it was a former hermit's residence, and she was working multiple jobs to restore it. My heart sang for her perseverance and hospitality, both of which were boundless.
The same friend who introduced me to my host put me in touch with her mother, who eagerly showed me around the small villages, lakes, and rocky shores of the island after we met at Southwest Harbor's little library.
Tidepools and slippery sea grass.
She even surprised me with a delicious picnic lunch at the Charlotte Rhoades Park & Butterfly Garden. Monarchs with tracking stickers landed all around us as we walked along the garden path, their wings glinting in the sun against the glossy leaves.
The butterfly garden. I said yes! JK.
We set up our fare at a picnic table in the shade overlooking a lake. I realized with some alarm that this was the second most romantic date I'd ever had in my life and on this trip (the first being WaterFire in Rhode Island), and yet again with someone's mother.
PLU #1117? What?
That same warmth, the kind that evaporates the fog between two strangers who genuinely want to be kind to one another, lapped over me as I stood next to my car on Cadillac Mountain, taking in and returning Jean's easy chattiness. I was happy to hear about life on the road from the back of her and her husband's motorcycle. Once she gestured to it, I immediately recognized it as the canary-yellow, three-wheeled monster I'd taken turns passing and being passed by on the way up the mountain. Aha: she saw my Georgia plates and wanted to say hi to a neighbor.
Jean described how freeing it was to sit on the back of the bike, nothing between her and the road and the trees, having all the time she needed to take everything in and be with her thoughts and revelations.
When I explained I was driving around the country alone until my wheels came off (literal or figurative, whichever happened first), Jean reacted with the universal intrigue, pride, and horror that every motherly woman I've spoken with has shared.
She congratulated me on the timing ("You're so young! Now's the time!") and the scope of my adventures. I enthusiastically returned the sentiments.
Buoyed by each other's optimism, we parted ways after vowing to stay in touch and I headed off to take in Sand Beach (dead jellyfish!) and the rest of Acadia National Park.
Like Maine does.
I went to bed setting multiple alarms for 5am, then lied awake under the bloodshot, unblinking eye of insomnia until then. My eyes unglued themselves at the sound of the alarm, and I clumsily got ready, trudging off to the car in the full dark.
Punchdrunk with the hangover of the sleepless, my dry run from the previous day left me with wet eyes as I watched the sky lighten around me before I'd even reached the base of the mountain. The sun was reneging on a contract it never signed with my phone's weather app and was getting a twenty-minute head start on saying good morning.
I'd spent weeks imagining the sun cracking the horizon, setting the sky on fire for even just a second. And I missed it.
I pulled over at the best viewpoint I could get to quickly enough, maybe two-thirds up to the summit where I'd met Jean the day before. I sat on small boulder bordering the road and watched what turned out to be a pretty good sunrise after all.
My mind was bleary, but I thought about Jean for a moment, about her quiet aloneness on the back of the bike. I wondered how different this whole undertaking would be if I weren't alone. If someone could take the wheel sometimes.
I thought about this again as I pulled off the road and napped in my car for 30 minutes before driving eight hours to Lake George, NY. And again as I retraced my way back down Historic Route 1 to get to the big, boring highway that would carry me west.
I had taken that scenic northbound road from Portland, ME, a few days earlier, breaking off 95-N on a whim when I saw the words "Coastal Route" on a very small sign. My impulse was repaid with town after town boasting widow's walks, white paint in varying degrees of weathered fatigue, and the freshest lobster I've ever had (Wiscasset wins).
For the many veerings I'd chosen and ignored in the 1,500+ miles from Atlanta to Maine, I was glad my hands were on the wheel, setting and unsettling my course with each stop.
But sometimes, goddamn, it's a long way until the next nap.