For all of its logging roads, dirt byways, snowmobile trails, and inspired scenery, Maine should be a top destination among mountain bikers, but it usually isn't considered such by the single-track set. A recent development could change that. The Appalachian Mountain Club has just launched camp-to-camp pedaling in the woods near Greenville. Based on its famous hut-to-hut hiking system in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the AMC's venture takes cyclists on a seventeen-mile route from its Little Lyford Pond sporting camp to its Medawisla property across old gravel logging roads. There are cushy beds on either end at the AMC's sporting camps (www.outdoors.org/lodging)
,where you can feel like you're roughing it but be well taken care of. Bikes can be rented for $25 a day at Northwoods Outfitters in Greenville (866-223-1380, www.maineoutfitter.com
). Get there before the rest of the world does.MUSICAlone in a Crowd
Like her 2003 album Arrive and her 2000 debut EP Firewater, Crowded Is the New Lonely (www.cdbaby.com)
keeps Sara Cox's wonderfully agile vocals at the forefront, propped up with warm acoustic guitar, husband Nate Shrock's resonant electric guitar tones, and subtle time-keeping. Nashville bred, Cox has honed a Maine kind of alt-country approach, thoughtful and wry and willing to delve into pure pop when a singalong is called for. Standout tracks include "At Home with Home," with plenty of naked emotion and a central melody line that's just impossible to get out of your head, and "Anger," where a ghostly guitar backs compelling vocals: "My little son says, 'I'm angry. It's so beautiful'/ I don't know what the hell that means." Cox can tell a million stories with a meaningless "da-da-da," but that doesn't mean you shouldn't pay attention to the lyrics. She has always been a songwriter first, and her ability to find meaning in the mundane - missing the school bus, a skinned knee - is here undiminished.BOOKSDark & Stormy
The heroine of Elizabeth Hand's new novel sees grimness and despair everywhere she turns.
Like photographic paper developing in a darkroom tray, Elizabeth Hand's latest novel, Generation Loss (Small Beer Press, Northampton, Massa-chusetts; hardcover; 265 pages; $24), turns into different things at different times. It starts as a character study of Cass Neary, a former denizen of the punk scene with a preternatural talent for detecting damage in others, but not a similar gift for empathy. She's a hard-bitten woman, in love with no one, least of all herself. Across a scar above her pubic bone - legacy of a late-night rape that further blunts her emotional range - Cass has tattooed the words "too tough to die."
Which doesn't mean, of course, she's got what it takes to live fully. Though debauched, Cass is singularly passionless. She spends her days working in the Strand bookstore, acutely aware of her fifteen minutes of fame - now twenty years in the past - as a photographer whose work was one part Sally Mann and one part Cindy Sherman. Which is to say that in her youth, Cass photographed dead addicts and herself dressed as the dead women of famous paintings.
Hand's novel morphs into a mystery when an old friend of Cass' arranges for her to go to an island off the coast of Maine to interview Aphrodite Kamestos, a famous photo-grapher known for her images of places where terrible things (like murder and sexual torture) once happened. Aphrodite is famously reclusive, living in relative seclusion on an island that hosted a commune/artist colony in the sixties and now houses little more than remnants of those days. No one has seen her work in decades.
Because Aphrodite's talents have always impressed Cass, she accepts the interview assignment and heads for Maine. Along the way, Cass notes numerous Xeroxed signs for missing teenagers, news stories of bodies washed up on the beach, and the general bleakness of the world into which she is headed, entirely unprepared. (Throughout the novel she slips around in her fashionable boots, no match for Maine's cold or terrain.) Driving past shuttered lobster shacks and the occasional house, Cass finally arrives at the virtually empty Lighthouse Motel, located on the edge of a working harbor, this fact not signifying life to Cass but instead more unpleasantness: bad smells.
At the motel, Cass encounters a "heavyset gothy kid with cropped hair dyed black, black-rimmed eyes, white skin beneath a flaking layer of pinkish foundation." Cass observes: "She had a stud beneath her lower lip and what appeared to be a bunch of three-penny nails stuck through one earlobe." By the morning, the gothy kid has gone missing, and Cass, as an outsider, is under suspicion. But it is clear she'd be under suspicion nonetheless. This is a Maine where the locals all know each other, and store clerks wear T-shirts that read: "They call it tourist season. Why can't we shoot them?"
Once on Aphrodite's island, Cass is drawn deeper into the twin mysteries of the disappearances and of the island's history. Aphrodite proves to be a ruined old drunk, barely worth study, but the island brims with clues to an untold story, while new characters and puzzles deepen the drama. As the book resolves itself into a thriller, Cass' behavior heightens the danger. Slugging Jack Daniels and popping pills throughout her journey, she recklessly walks into rooms where she isn't wanted, photographs things she shouldn't, offends others, and behaves badly. As unappealing as she can be, she's compelling in her intelligence and fierceness. In her sole allegiance - to art, to art of real vision - she prefigu-res the novel's central questions about art, morality, and exploitation. How far is too far when it comes to documenting damage? At what point does the desire to confront death become collusion with death?
Hand's novel is inventive, suspenseful, and complex, passionately felt, even if some of the psychology, especially toward the novel's end, might not seem thoroughly convincing. Still, Hand clearly knows the photographic world of which she writes, and she knows, too, the darkness in which she immerses the reader. She has a knack for description, whether that be of the photographic images that so fascinate Cass or the sea during a night storm. Leaving this book - and Generation Loss is hard to put down - is a bit like emerging from a drugged dream, one that is unsettling and weird but so vibrant and clearly wrought it feels more real than the waking world. Indeed, though you'd miss the tautness of Cass' language and the edginess of her first-person voice, one could easily see this book as a movie: a classic example of Maine noir.
-Debra SparkBRIEFLY NOTED
• In An Upriver Passamaquoddy
(Tilbury House, Gardiner; paperback; 160 pages; $15), Allen Sockabasin constructs both a primer on his people's history, language, and traditions, and a personal memoir. Filled with rare photographs, as well as a glossary that Sockabasin has created of Passamaquoddy words, the book is an invaluable contribution to Maine's cultural history. (Fans should also check out Sockabasin's beautifully illustrated 2005 children's book, Thanks to the Animals, which should be a part of every Maine kid's personal library.)
• A is for Acadia
(Islandport Press, Yarmouth; hardcover; unnumbered; $15.95) is a curious hybrid: part pre-schooler's alphabet book, part science primer for school kids. Mount Desert Island residents Richard Johnson and Ruth Gortner Grierson created the book as an A to Z tour of MDI, with stops along the way at "glacial erratic" (a geological formation found on the Bubbles), "kayak" (you probably know that one) and "zoophyte" (invertebrates such as the sea anemone).MAINE MADEGet Fleeced
The onset of truly chilly weather is still a few months away, but there's no denying the nip in the air that appears at this time of year. Still, that's no excuse to pack up the family and retreat to the great indoors. With cozy fleece on one side and silky nylon on the other, Bunnytail Blankets (207-725-8865, www.bunnytailblankets.com
) keep little ones warm and dry while you go for a sail on a cool afternoon or picnic in the shade. Avid campers Alicia and Henry Heyburn of Brunswick developed the product for their own kids, who now serve as adorable blanket models. Available online and at stores from Kennebunk to Bar Harbor, the blankets are made in Maine by home seamstresses. So pick one up, toss the kids in the jogger, and head out to explore all that late summer in Maine has to offer.GETAWAYOn the WaterfrontCastine is the perfect place to commune with Maine's maritime past.
Need a break from the beaten path? Then head to Castine, a waterfront community that has not neglected its briny roots. Four hundred years of history and a premier school for aspiring mariners define this fascinating little town tucked away near the head of Penobscot Bay.ACTIVITIES
In a town noted for its safe and easy walking, one of the best rambles is around the Maine Maritime Academy
's handsome thirty-five-acre campus (66 Pleasant St., 207-328-4311, www.mainemaritime.edu
). Even better, tour the school's training ship State of Maine (call first to be sure it's in port). To understand Castine's place in American history, take a self-guided tour of the military in-stallations, including Revolutionary War-era Fort George
on Battle Avenue and Fort Madison
, which dates back to the War of 1812, on Perkins Street. Get some context for it all at the Wilson Museum
(120 Perkins St., 207-326-9247, www.wilsonmuseum.org
), where prehistoric to eighteenth century artifacts, as well as the building itself, give a sense of life in old Castine.DINING
The most popular restaurant in town is easily Dennett's Wharf
(15 Sea St., 207-326-9045, www.dennettswharf.com
), with knockout views of the harbor, modest prices, seafood-centric fare, and a good selection of microbrews. If you're looking for a more refined dining experience, try The Castine Inn
(33 Main St., 207-326-4365, www.castineinn.com
), which features items like herbed risotto with red pepper juice reduction and white truffle oil, or scallops with spicy celery root puree and a cilantro vinaigrette. For pick-me-up snacks or hearty lunches, try Bah's Bakehouse
(26 Water St., 207-326-9510, bahsbhouse.com) for fresh-bread sandwiches, thick soups, and scones with various berry fillings. And if you're just looking for one of the best crabmeat rolls you've ever tasted, try the little, mobile takeout place known as The Breeze
(parking lot on the Town Pier, 207-326-9200), a local favorite since the 1970s.LODGING Castine Harbor Lodge
(147 Perkins St., 207-326-4335, www.castinemaine.com
) offers the best views of the harbor from a converted 1893 mansion with sitting porches galore. The conveniently located Pentagoet Inn
(26 Main St., 207-326-8616, www.pentagoet.com
) is just a short walk from the Town Pier and most other downtown attractions. Alternatively, if you want to be more removed from downtown activities, try The Manor Inn
(15 Manor Dr., 207-326-4861, manorinn.com) with its gardens, pub, dining room, and even yoga classes.SHOPS
Don't miss the Castine Variety Store
(1 Main St., 207-326-8625, castinevariety.com), an old-time, creaky-floor soda fountain and catch-all shop offering a little bit of everything. The nautically minded will while away the hours in Four Flags
(19 Water St., 207-326-8526), with its charts, books, and a variety of ornaments for any sailor. For upscale provisioning, from custom cut meats to rare fish and shellfish orders, stop at T & C Grocery
(15 Water St., 207-326-4818), which also carries wine and many local beers.