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A Separate Peace
Monhegan Island, Maine, Is Happily Detached From Time and Trouble

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post staff writer
Sunday, September 11, 2005

We had just walked down the plank of the ferry, chilled from the bracing winds, the kids drenched in sea splash from pretending to surf on the bow of the Elizabeth Ann for our 11-mile trip, pitching and rolling, to Monhegan Island.

The day was already unusually cool and brisk for Maine in the summer. So, as a pickup truck took our bags up to the Monhegan House, where we would be staying for the next few nights, we herded the kids into the nearby Barnacle Cafe for hot chocolate. (I was ready for one of their killer lattes.) Looking out the window, my 6-year-old son, Liam, spied a man with a bushy, iron-gray beard and a tattered baseball cap fishing off the dock.

"Hey," he said. "That's Jim!"

He raced out the door, the screen banging behind him, flung himself down to the dock and practically hurled both himself and Jim into the bracing water below.

Jim was a first-grade teacher from Massachusetts. We didn't even know his last name. But on our first trip to Monhegan Island the summer before, Liam had become enamored with his calm manner, his kind eyes and the way he listened respectfully to kids. Liam had even written Jim a letter in his uneven first-grade script, but we hadn't known where to send it.

The two picked up right where they had left off. And this, more than anything, was what drew us back to this place.

Yes, Monhegan Island is beautiful. Yes, it is a mecca of sorts for artists, notably three generations of Wyeths, who have been so taken with the island that they've built cottages and seemingly painted every sea-carved cliff, lupine-studded meadow and lobster pot. Yes, nature lovers come and wax poetic about this unspoiled, "mystical" whale-shaped island, with 600 different species of wildflowers, 100 kinds of birds and some of the highest cliffs in all of Maine.

But for harried, urban working parents of two kids under 6, we had discovered, completely by accident, that Monhegan Island offered us something else: a taste of unhurried village life.

The island is one mile wide and 1 1/2 miles long. The few roads are wildflower-lined dirt and gravel. There are only a handful of cars -- pickups owned by the hardy lobstermen or golf carts for the resident artists. (About 75 people live on the island year-round.) For the first time, we could loosen that invisible tether that runs from hawk-eyed parent to oblivious child. We could allow the kids to roam. And we could breathe.

The island is crawling with kids in the summer. In the evenings, youngsters quickly get to know each other rolling down the hill in front of the Island Inn, climbing trees next to the Monhegan House or starting improptu baseball games. (Our kids befriended a girl from New York City named Leah on one such evening.)

But now that school is starting up again and summer vacation winding down, Monhegan Island becomes a little quieter, especially during the week. The two big inns stay open through Columbus Day, though some smaller rentals welcome visitors year-round. Holden Nelson, owner of Monhegan House, describes autumn on the island this way: "Birdwatchers, painters, nature lovers and hikers. Weekends fill up, quieter during the week. Bright, crisp and sunny days and cool nights."

That evening, my husband, Tom, and I wanted to eat a typically amazing dinner at Monhegan House's airy, art-filled restaurant and enjoy the view of a lush meadow in the now warm evening. But the kids wanted nothing of the sort. They fidgeted. They squirmed. The 4-year-old, Tessa, began rolling on the floor under the table, my stern counting to three having no impact whatever.

"We want to run around outside," Liam said, explaining the obvious. At home, with visions of nuts and creeps, lurking danger and forlorn children on milk cartons -- and remember that lady who left her kids in the car to pick up her dry cleaning and they were carjacked? -- I never let the kids out of my sight. "You must always be able to see me!" I say to them in crowds. Or at every turn in our city life, "Wait for me to cross the street!" To my daughter, who no longer wants to share a bathroom stall at busy movie theaters, airports or rest stops, the command is, "I must be able to see your shoes!"

But on Monhegan, the answer is simple. "Okay. Go."

Out to Sea

We came out on the porch a half-hour later after our peaceful dinner and sat in a couple of the white wooden rocking chairs to finish the wine we'd bought earlier at the North End Market (Monhegan Island restaurants don't serve alcohol, but you can bring your own). Tessa was dancing on a big rock, her "Mermaid Rock," singing and immersed in her own imaginary world. Often as clingy as a barnacle, she didn't notice us.

Liam was running around Monhegan House's grassy lawn that serves almost as the village green, scaring up a game of tag with some other free-flying kids, then racing to climb the tree next to the art studio on top of a nearby knoll.

As the sun began to set, golden and glowing over the harbor, Jim strolled by with his fishing rod. "Hey, can I go down to the dock with Jim?" Liam asked. Again, the answer was easy: "Okay."

We discovered Monhegan Island the year before, traveling by the seat of our pants. We knew we were going to end up on Mount Desert Island in Maine, two-thirds of the way up the coast. We knew it would take a couple of days to drive there. And we had no idea where we would stop along the way. We read about Monhegan Island in a guidebook on I-95 somewhere in Connecticut. "Offshore idyll," the book said. We were game.

The name Monhegan comes from the Maliseet Indian and means the out-to-sea island. The Monhegan Museum, up the steep hill to the lighthouse, displays Native American artifacts dating thousands of years.

A plaque next to the white one-room schoolhouse, where year-round residents send their young children to learn, commemorates the landing of Capt. John Smith in 1614. Smith, one of the founders of the Jamestown settlement in 1607, had been sailing from Nova Scotia to Rhode Island -- an area he dubbed New England -- scouting for ideal places for a new kind of self-reliant colony based on farming, fishing and trading with the Indians, rather than on get-rich-quick and exploitive schemes. He had picked Monhegan Island as a perfect spot -- though storms later wrecked his ships and dashed his plans.

The island has been settled continuously since 1790, primarily by fish and lobstermen. Artists began making their pilgrimages to paint in the clear, northern light in the 1880s. By the 1950s, Theodore Edison, son of the inventor, amassed enough property to keep the island's 130 cottages limited to the sheltered harbor area. The rest of the island is preserved in its "natural, wild beauty" by the Monhegan Associates, a nonprofit corporation he founded. The untouched part of the island is now webbed with 17 miles of footpaths and hiking trails to places such as Christmas Cove, Pebble Beach and Squeaker Cove.

We stayed at Monhegan House, built in the 1870s, and loved it. The rooms feel like ones your grandmother might have made up for you, with wispy white gauzy curtains. The communal bathroom and showers are on the second floor. "It's rather like summer camp, isn't it?" a dapper British painter in his sixties said as we passed each other, toothbrushes in hand.

Evenings we spent out on the front porch, rocking under the splash of stars, listening to the waves, the wind, the murmur of voices and the tink of metal against mast from the boats anchored in the harbor. Or we'd sit in the lobby near the big stone fireplace and read, play Stratego or cards, or build with blocks. Liam and Tom got into a long conversation about Scotland and the legendary rebel William Wallace into the wee hours with Hoy, an artist visiting from there.

Last year, we moved up the road for a few nights at the Trailing Yew, "one of New England's last genuine 19th-century-style summer boarding houses," our guidebook said. Family-style dinner in the main house is included in the room price. Only the main house has electricity. We read "Tom Sawyer" to the kids by kerosene lantern every night.

The Trailing Yew is also where we met Jim, one of many regulars and artists who come and stay much of the summer. (This year, we got his address.) And Carol, an art teacher from New York and a Monhegan regular, whom the kids adopted after finding her sketching the cliffs of Burnthead on our hike out there one sparkling afternoon.

Village Life

On Monhegan, village life definitely has a quirky flavor. There are art classes, ecology talks, bluegrass concerts, sensory awareness walks and artists' studios to visit. One side of the weathered cedar Rope Shed serves as an all-purpose bulletin board for everything from lost sunglasses to Saturday-night dances to massage or hair-braiding services. Even the real estate ads have an only-on-Monhegan feel. One read: "If the world system becomes unglued, this is the house you want to live in."

I joined a group of meditators at 7 a.m. at the library. The kids went to story time in the afternoon there. We built fairy houses out of pine cones, twigs and dead leaves in the Cathedral Woods, ate pizza and ice cream at the Novelty and watched the sun set over Manana Island across the harbor, sitting on the Adirondack chairs on the lawn outside the stately Island Inn while the kids rolled down the hill.

At Swim Beach -- which because of the frigid water is more suited to quick dips and splashing -- there is a communal plastic tub of sand toys, and everyone seems to know to put it on the rocks above the high tide line each night. One hot day, the kids dug huge holes in the sand for their "hot tubs" while I searched for pale blue and green sea glass -- bits of old soda and beer-bottle glass worn smooth by years of tumbling in the wind and waves -- and talked to a local lobsterman. He explained that the Maine legislature in 1988 created a special 30-square mile conservation area that is only open to Monhegan Island's tight-knit community of lobstermen. When the island's six-month lobstering season begins on Dec. 1 on Trap Day, everybody lines up on the dock according to seniority and helps load the boats. Their motto: No one goes until everyone goes.

This year, we bought watercolors and pencils at the Lupine Gallery, hiked down to Lobster Cove and handed out paper. I gave up and started to read, and Liam left to explore the tide pools and rusty hulk of the D.T. Sheridan shipwreck, but Tom and Tessa kept at it, with framable results.

Walking back to the village, we stood to the side of the road as a frail-looking, white-haired woman roared past in her golf cart. She stopped short when she came upon a burly lobsterman and smiled brightly. "Hi, Frances," he said coyly to artist and resident Frances Kornbluth. It's a small village and everyone knows everyone, whether it's a guy who sets bait in lobster traps or a well-known artist.

That evening after dinner, our last night on the island, Liam announced he was running off across the village to the dock -- as he did a couple of times a day now. Tom wanted to paint on the Monhegan House porch, saying something about getting a pile of bright blue buoys right. And Tessa and I, per our custom, stopped to look in on the live lobsters in the tank at the Fish & Maine restaurant before strolling to Swim Beach. We said we'd all meet there at sunset.

The invisible tether connecting us as a family stretched wide and easy. Tessa raked the sand with a stick to tend the "crops" she was growing on her farm, and I wrote her name. Then, one by one, we came together again, and watched in silence the miracle of a pink sky.

For a photo gallery with additional images of Monhegan Island and the surrounding area, go to www.washingtonpost.com /travel.

Brigid Schulte, a reporter on The Post's Metro desk, last wrote for Travel about the Oregon coast.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company