It's been an annual ritual for longer than I care to admit: summer weeks on the rocky coast of Maine. Much of the appeal, as with any tradition, is its changeless character. The precise times for high and low tides change each day, but in a predictable fashion. Although my children have grown from toddlers to adults — as old as I was when I first took them to Maine — the magical tide pools in which they used to splash are everlasting. The world might be going to heckhell, but summertime in Maine remains forever constant — "true north," both literally and metaphorically.
Until this summer.
Anticipation morphed into apprehension starting in March, when the local government of a Penobscot Bay island near my coastal cabin voted to ban all visitors, even seasonal residents who owned property there. The North Haven Select Board's order stated that "people who do not reside on the island full time may not travel to the island due to the significant increase in risk associated with the transmission of covid-19."
Although that order was soon rescinded, the governor declared that all out-of-state visitors would be required to self-quarantine for 14 days. Mainers' cordial, symbiotic relationship with so-called "summer people" now took on a wary, fearful tone. With my car's Virginia license plates, I might as well be Typhoid Mary.
Even getting to Maine would now prove daunting. Typically, I would take two days to drive from my year-round home in Virginia (often longer if caught in traffic turmoil around New York City or Boston). Spending the night somewhere new and different en route was part of the ritual, especially when the kids were young. So it was that we enjoyed leisurely and memorable hours at places like the historic Mohonk Mountain House in the Hudson River Valley and the Red Lion Inn in the Berkshires.
As with flying or taking a train, however, the prudent coronavirus protocol is to avoid motels and hotels. But the biggest deterrent to driving a car up Interstate 95 and the Jersey Turnpike is something I never heard of before (and never wanted to think about): toilet plumes. Because flushing toilets release a cloud of aerosol droplets that can contain the coronavirus, public restrooms are primary places to be avoided.
As a man well-practiced in relieving himself discreetly behind trees and bushes, I'm not as concerned as my wife, Pat. So on the morning of our departure she makes a point of not drinking her usual multiple cups of coffee. We also bypass the big communal bathrooms at the interstate rest stops. Instead, we take exits that lead to either secluded wooded areas or off-the-beaten-path gas stations with single-occupancy bathrooms.
We manage to make it to Maine with only three pit stops. Unusually light traffic (because of the pandemic?) means the 615-mile drive takes a little less than 11 hours. At least another hour is needed, upon arrival at the cabin, to unpack the car bulging with groceries and other provisions to see us through the 14-day quarantine.
Those two weeks, as we settle in for the night, stretch out interminably before us. Will being sequestered in just one place — inside this tiny, extremely rustic dwelling — turn claustrophobic? Or worse, be the setting for a Stephen-King-like horror story?
Dawn breaks the next day around 5 a.m. Maine's northern latitude translates into summer days filled with roughly 16 hours of daylight. How could all that time possibly be filled? It's a question that occurs now only in retrospect. In the moment, just gazing out the cabin windows at the ocean seems enough, more than enough, to fill the longest day. Relaxing after a long drive doesn't yet feel like a quarantine.
As Pat and I open all the cabin windows to listen to the waves breaking against the rocks, the scent and taste of the salt air seem especially meaningful. "We must not have yet caught covid-19!" I can't help but remark, for one of the first coronavirus symptoms is said to be loss of taste and smell.
On the horizon 11 miles out is Monhegan Island, inspiration for some of America's best-known artists — Robert Henri, Rockwell Kent, George Bellows, Edward Hopper, Jamie Wyeth. In my mind's eye I can see their work. And is that a mermaid I hear singing?
I don't ask Pat, who is in the other room organizing her art materials to embark upon a series of seascapes. Will it be pastels and paper or oils and canvas? While she's painting, what book should I read? Perhaps the bestseller I bought last year but was too busy to read, Jenny Odell's "How to Do Nothing?" Such are the difficult decisions that must be addressed under self-quarantine.
But one decision I will never have to make is which cable news show to watch, for I vow not to hook up our TV service. Unplugged, tuned out: a two-week quarantine keeping "the news" out and the virus at bay. After all, escapism is what a cabin in Maine should be all about.
Having no notion of social distancing, the chipmunks seem less timid than in summers past. So, too, at night, the skunks. No doubt they are happy that fewer "summer people" are sharing their habitat. "So cute!" Pat invariably exclaims each time a chipmunk scampers from shoreline rocks to shrubs of beach rose.
The ubiquitous presence of chipmunks in Maine I once took for granted. Now, with quarantine-imposed, laserlike focus, I want to learn everything there is to know about Tamias striatus (Eastern chipmunk). A well-worn Audubon field guide, unearthed on the cabin bookshelves, serves as the departure point for my exploration.
A couple of times each day, to prevent cabin fever, Pat and I join the chipmunks outside and go for walks along the rocky shoreline. As long as we don't go where other people are, we don't violate Maine's CDC quarantine guidelines. Specifically, we're to avoid bars, restaurants, retail businesses, gyms, pools or any kind of shared facilities. You're on your honor; Big Brother isn't watching.
(Residents of Northeast states can now avoid the Maine quarantine altogether. And residents from other states can, in lieu of the quarantine, provide proof of a recent coronavirus test. "Know before you go," advises the website Maine.gov/covid19. Maine's restrictions seem to be working, as its coronavirus death, hospitalization and positive-testing rates remain among the lowest in the country.)
Pat sets aside a few hours each day for her consultancy work with Zoom calls and emails. But the most satisfying work is using our hands to tackle the long overdue project of repairing and repainting the cabin deck. Even just "puttering around" can suddenly seem profound. The most routine of household chores, like vacuuming, are reincarnated in a shelter-in-place setting — no longer layered in the dust of too much information, no longer something "to get over with" to have time for "more important" things.
What could be more important than finding and discarding the nests of field mice who overwintered in our cozy cabin's drawers and kitchen cabinets? Their pellets of poop can harbor a virus, too, often deadly when aerosolized. Not the coronavirus, but the hantavirus. Not chipmunk cute.
With invisible agents of death lurking all about, you don't need the thrill of adventure travel to sharpen the senses. Just softly swaying in my Adirondack rocker while gazing at the undulating sea outside the window seems, counterintuitively, as consciousness-raising as my long-ago attempt to summit Mont Blanc. There's renewed appreciation for what I have in being alive — and what could be lost.
Staring at the ocean can actually change your brain waves and put you into a mildly meditative state, so I've been told. I can attest my blood pressure drops. And the color blue has been shown to be associated with spikes of creativity. Since Pat's now a painter, maybe I can become a poet. At the very least, a poetry reader:
But one looks at the sea/As one improvises, on the piano. Those words are from the fugue-like "Variations on a Summer Day," by Wallace Stevens. He wrote it in the 1930s while vacationing near this very spot. Also from that poem: Words add to the senses … the eye grown larger, more intense. As I read, my rocker moves in easy, iambic rhythm with the waves.
The days move rhythmically as well, undisturbed by the discordant noise of politics, heat advisories and social media. A literal "new dawn" marks the beginning of each day as the sun peeks over the ocean vista. A light-diffusing fog sometimes softens the sun but is typically burned off by midmorning to reveal a vivid bluebird sky. The prevailing winds bring crisp ocean breezes that keep temperatures cool and mosquitoes away.
Time moves so slowly toward autumn you're unaware that the sun sets a bit farther south on the western horizon each evening. When night finally falls, the pitch-black sky, unpolluted by artificial light, exposes the vastness of the Milky Way and the smallness of even a pandemic in the scheme of things.
When the quarantine ends, Pat and I treat ourselves to an outdoor dinner at the local lobster shack. We talk about how each day has blended so easily into the next, the way summertime is supposed to be. The quarantine reminds me of school vacation when I was a boy, when the summer seemed to stretch out endlessly before me. It would never end, and then it's over.