Cadillac Mountain (Acadia NP)

This entry is part 18 of 25 in the series Cruising With the Mothers

In less than five minutes, the doors to the bus opened again. I caught a glimpse of a bright green jacket, which went nicely with the red face of Betsy as she boarded the bus accompanied by the guide. No search party was required—she was located waiting in the checkout line in the gift shop, holding some postcards that portrayed scenes presently hidden by fog. Betsy has since assured me that she was fully aware of the departure time and was equipped with a time-telling device, and—she cannot explain the lapse. Such is the power of gift shops to mesmerize the unwary…

The bus was underway moments later, on our way to destination #2—Cadillac Mountain. Originally known as Green Mountain, the name was changed to Cadillac (in honor of a French explorer) when the national park was first established in 1919.

Maine has 14 mountain peaks higher than 4,000 feet, and at least 70 higher than 3,500 feet. Cadillac Mountain, at 1,532 feet, is just a bump by comparison. However, it is the highest point along the Atlantic seaboard in the US—in fact, it is the highest point within 50 miles of the eastern continental coasts between here and Rio. There is something magical about places where mountains meet the sea—think Eastern Caribbean, minus the heat. Pushed up to great heights by tectonic and volcanic forces, worn back down to mere nubs by ice a mile thick as it slithered toward Cape Cod during the last glacial period, the mountains of Mt. Desert have had a rough go of it.

Paths to the top of Cadillac Mountain have existed for thousands of years, and a crude carriage road to the summit was built in the mid-1800s. The paved road that winds its way to the top of Cadillac Mountain today is about 3.5 miles long and was officially opened in 1931. It has a few genuine hairpin curves and is fairly steep, but is generally well mannered.

There once was another way to reach the summit, a fact that seems to be little known—the Green Mountain Cog Railroad was only the second of its kind in the country (the Mount Washington Cog Railroad in New Hampshire was the first—if you like low-speed, white knuckle rides, try it). Built by a group of local investors, the Green Mountain railroad was constructed in the early 1880s. To provide access to this marvel of modern engineering, a small steamboat was carried over crude roads from Bar Harbor to a landing built at the northern end of Eagle Lake, which is situated at the base of the mountain. Passengers sailed up the lake to a rail station built on the eastern shore, where they boarded the train.

A new hotel and restaurant were built at the summit to complete the attraction, and the first passengers made the trip in the summer of 1883. Business took off, and the railroad made four trips a day during its first year. In 1886, business peaked when 8,000 passengers made the trip—demand was so strong that when the original hotel burned, a replacement was built in short order.

Beginning in 1887, a group of Bar Harbor merchants constructed an improved carriage road up the mountain. Compared to the $2.50 round-trip fare for the ferry ride and train trip, the new road’s ten-cent toll was an irresistible bargain. In 1891, the railway lost the lopsided competition and shut down. The steamboat ferry was scuttled to bottom of Eagle Lake and the two locomotives were sold the Mount Washington Cog Railway, where they remain in service to this day.

The hotel fell into ill use as a brothel—it was closed by authorities in August 1895 and torn down the following year. By 1896, only a bare swath of hillside, a row of iron rods drilled into the granite and an occasional piece of rusty rail remained as evidence that a train had once run up the mountain.

Our guide still offered hope that we would burst into brilliant sunshine at the summit, but as we rose higher, the fog seemed to grow even thicker. Two clues told me that we had reached the top—my ears blocked and the bus stopped.

“Well, I guess we aren’t going to see the sun after all,” said the guide, apologetically. “Across the road, there’s a little information center and gift shop, and a path to the true summit.” We were granted 25 minutes to experience the grandeur of the inside of a cloud.

Most of the passengers filed slowly off the bus, though some chose to stay put. I waited patiently as the couple with the baby helped their frail companion negotiate the steps. On the curb, we made a plan. Kris and I would find the summit trail and hike to the top, while the mothers would scope out the gift shop.

Halfway across the street we passed the extended family. Great-Grandmother was setting the pace, which I guessed would have them on the opposite side of the street well within ten minutes. Kris and I forged ahead and came to a crude staircase—wet, slippery and treacherous. All I could think of was the elderly woman. Should I wait and help carry her up the steps?

At the top of the stairs, a looming shadow appeared in the mist—the gift shop. Kris needed to make a stop. Too much iced tea at lunch, I suppose.

“Go on ahead,” she said. “I’ll catch up.”

Photo courtesy S Hoffman

I found a sign pointing the way to the summit and started the climb. As I emerged from the sheltered area surrounding the gift shop, I was surprised at the sudden strength of the wind. I’d estimate that it was blowing at more than 30 MPH, causing the thick fog to whip past my face. Visibility was just a few feet. As I walked, it was difficult to tell if I was still on the path, and only the ghost-like apparition of an occasional hiker veering to avoid collision convinced me that I had not strayed. The experience was absolutely otherworldly…

Cadillac Mountain is, generally speaking, a pile of pink granite partially covered by forests of spruce and pine. Near the top, the trees become gnarled and stunted, finally giving way to tiny sub-alpine plants and boulders. During certain times of the year, visitors to the summit are the first in the United States to see the rising sun—such was the case at the dawn of this millennium, and I imagine a throng of people braved the elements to see it (hope it wasn’t foggy). On our 1993 trip, we made a trip up the mountain to watch the sunrise. On a clear day, the spectacular view extends 360 degrees, revealing the sea, dozens of islands, lakes, other mountains and the mainland.

Sunrise, Cadillac Mtn., 1993

Cadillac Mtn., 2005

I don’t know how far I walked, but after a few minutes, I decided to turn around—I wouldn’t have known when or if I reached the summit anyway. I stumbled on the gift shop out of sheer luck, and stuck my head in the door. The mothers and the great-grandmother were eating out of the hand of a park employee, literally.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“Have some fresh blueberries,” said Pat.

“Yes, have some,” said my mother. “They’re delicious.”

Pat nodded in the direction of the grandmother. “She asked me if they had any blueberries for sale in here, and I told her that it was way past blueberry season. But then this man said, ‘Wait a minute, I’ll be right back,’ and he went outside and came back with all these wild berries. He picked them just for us.”

“I guess the climate is a couple of months behind up here,” I offered.

“I guess so,” agreed Pat. “That was awfully nice of the man, don’t you think? The lady never had a wild blueberry before, and she was so disappointed when I told her she was too late.”

“Most people haven’t tasted the real thing, I suppose. Have you seen Kris?”

“No, we thought she was with you.”

When I stepped back outside, I was surprised to see that the weather had taken a turn for the worse. I didn’t think it was possible…

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