Good Morning, America

By Marshall S. Berdan
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 22, 2005

On the morning of my 49th birthday, my wife rouses me dark and early. A purplish smear has just started spreading itself upward across the eastern sky, and if I hurry, she tells me, I can still be the first to see the sunrise. Not just the first in our family of four, mind you, but the first in the entire nation. That's because we had gone to bed in the sleepy Way DownEast town of Lubec, Maine, the easternmost town in the continental United States.

I fumble into my clothes, then hop into the car for the 10-minute drive to the West Quoddy Head lighthouse, which stands atop Quoddy Head, America's easternmost point. I am in time to beat the sun -- but not an even more disheveled, even more aging hippie from Vermont who has apparently spent the night in his equally disheveled and aging mustard-yellow VW van. I'm as upset to see him as he is to see me, but we manage to exchange a few pleasantries before staking out opposite sides of the squat, horizontal red-and-white striped lighthouse to watch the sun gloriously emerge over New Brunswick's Grand Manan Island, nine miles offshore. I take some consolation in knowing that at least I have claimed the eastern side.

My inspiration for journeying all the way out to this -- the tattered thumb of the Maine mitten, about 110 miles northeast of Bar Harbor -- had been its cartographical extremity. But once we had left the Bar Harbor and Mount Desert Island crowds behind, I began to realize what a truly inspired choice it had been. This is real DownEast Maine, a sparsely populated, predominantly working-class area of small farms and craftsmen -- the way the touristy Mid-Coast used to be 30 or 40 years ago. And there is more to distinguish northeastern-most Washington County (aka "America's Sunrise County") than just its location. As the guidebooks are quick to point out, it is larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined. It is also home to the highest tides (up to 28 feet) in the continental United States and the vast majority of Maine's wild blueberry barrens.

Alas, time and the limited durability of our twin 4-year-old daughters prevented us from fully exploring the many natural wonders of what is now known promotionally as Maine's Bold Coast. But it didn't keep us from seeing all the highlights, natural and man-made.

My dawn's-early-light experience complete, I make my way back to our motel, stopping briefly to chat with a pair of birders who have set up telescopes overlooking the tidal flats bordering Lubec Narrows. With an average mean tidal difference of 17 1/2 feet, there is nearly half a mile of freshly exposed mud and grasslands for shorebirds to exploit.

Feeling hungry myself, I gather up the family and we make our way to Murphy's Village Restaurant for blueberry pancakes and muffins. We'd eaten dinner here the night before while a trio of local musicians had fielded requests from the standing-room-only crowd in the main dining room.

By now it's barely 8 a.m., so we take advantage of the time difference (Atlantic vs. Eastern) to drive across the humpbacked FDR Memorial Bridge to Campobello Island in New Brunswick, where the Roosevelt Cottage -- a three-story, vermillion-colored, 34-room gambrel mansion overlooking Passamaquoddy Bay -- has just opened.

This is not the cottage where the young FDR spent his summers (that was torn down), but the one his widowed mother, Sara, bought for him, his wife Eleanor and their children in 1909. It was here, in August 1921, that the 39-year-old failed vice presidential candidate succumbed to poliomyelitis after a day of hiking and picnicking, followed by an invigorating swim in the brisk bay waters. For years, it was thought that that swim had triggered FDR's attack, and our sixtyish local tour guide Betty recalled how her own mother had forbade her to go in the water. Today, however, it is believed that the future president contracted the crippling disease at a Boy Scout camp in New York that he had visited several weeks before arriving at Campobello and that the waters of Passamaquoddy are perfectly safe. Perhaps so. But at a chilly 51 degrees in the middle of August, why take the chance?

In any case, we have a rendezvous with navigational destiny at the East Quoddy Lighthouse, Campobello Island's other marquis attraction. Unknowingly, we have timed our arrival perfectly: The lighthouse, which sits atop a rocky islet off the northern tip of the island, is only accessible at low tide -- and even then, via a series of steep metal ladders that traverse a rocky, slippery beach. Built in 1829, the lighthouse sports a giant St. George's Cross.

It is almost noon, and the dawn's promise of a brilliant summer's day has been broken by thick gray clouds and a thin, swirling fog. The latter, however, proves to be ideal for an easy, hour-long hike back at majestic Quoddy Head State Park. The path leads us along the edges of dramatic, 50-foot sea cliffs -- the multicolored lobster buoys riding the dark swells far below -- and then through equally eerie stunted forests of wind-bowed pines.

Back in Lubec, we hunt around for someplace still serving lunch. In the 1950s, Lubec (named for the northern German port) had been America's sardine capital, with more than 20 canneries. The last one closed in 2001, taking with it much of Water Street's commercial vitality. But the sprawling wooden mansions of those once prosperous fishing captains have been converted to B&Bs, and Lubec now maintains a summer tourist trade, anchored to the SummerKeys adult music camp.

We finally find a restaurant, Phinney's Seaview, overlooking Cobscook Bay, and naturally, I order sardines. As the herring swims, Eastport is only three miles north of Lubec, but our overland journey there requires a 43-mile drive around multi-tentacled Cobscook Bay. Located on Moose Island (a causeway yields access from the Maine-land), Eastport contents itself with the title of America's easternmost city, a somewhat curious claim since Eastport has fewer year-round residents than its cross-bay rival.

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