10 reasons (and more) to visit Maine

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(Photo by Carla Kucinski)

I’ve dreamed of going to Maine for years.

When my husband and I were first dating, we’d lay on the couch, fingers interlaced, fantasizing about the places we’d live together. Maine always came up. The fantasy goes like this. Andrew and I would live in a cottage (grey with a colorful door – maybe red or yellow) by the rocky Maine coast, and I would write books from my study overlooking the Atlantic, while Andrew would chop wood in the yard with our black Lab, Molly, at his side. There may be another dog or two in the picture. I would wear a lot of wool socks and oversize sweaters and mill about the house clutching warm cups of tea. And after a morning of writing, I’d make something like blueberry jam or a stockpot of hearty stew. Andrew would wear lots of flannel and thermal undershirts, jeans and rugged boots. He’d have a salt and pepper burly beard. When he wasn’t chopping wood, he’d read books in our library lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Molly would chase seagulls.

I’ve only known Maine through artwork and photographs, “Olive Kitteridge” and “Murder She Wrote.” The landscape has always drawn me in. The evergreens, the lighthouses, the choppy ocean slamming into the cliffs. It’s been a dream of mine to hike Acadia National Park and breathe in the smell of pine, stand on top of a mountain overlooking the Atlantic.

In May, I finally stopped fantasizing about Maine and made it a reality. It’s been a rough half of the year so far, and my husband and I needed a change of scenery, a place where we could hit the reset button on our lives and just be together. One night, I suggested Maine, and presented my research on flight times and cost. (I’m in PR; data is important when you’re delivering an idea.) Three weeks later, we were on a plane to New England.

Maine is one of the most – if not the most – memorable vacation we’ve taken together. I remember on our way home, sitting in the Bangor airport waiting to board our flight, and I scanned the large photo canvases hanging on the walls around us. Each one captured a beautiful Maine nature scene. I smiled recognizing some of the places we have visited. Jordan Pond. Bass Harbor Light House. Cadillac Mountain. “Look, we were there!” As we waited for our flight, we flipped through the endless stream of photos on our phones – us on our first hike at Acadia overlooking the ocean; us at sunrise at Cadillac Mountain awash in golden and pink light; us about to eat the best meal of our lives in Portland. A sadness came over me as we swiped through the photos. We hadn’t even boarded the plane yet and I was already missing Maine. I didn’t want to leave this beautiful state.

When friends ask us how our trip was, I always respond with one word: memorable. Here’s 12 reasons why — in the order in which they happened.

1. Family.

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So yeah, NH isn’t Maine, but that’s where my sister and her family live and I haven’t seen them in a year-and-a-half (shameful). So we made a slight detour and spent two nights hanging out with this adorable stripes and plaid crew. Our itinerary consisted of: Eating the best carnitas ever (prepared with love by my sis and bro-in-law); blowing bubbles in the front yard with the boys; a riveting game of bocce ball; homemade ice cream on a 95 degree day (Yep, that’s right 9-5.); choreography lesson and dance party in the living room with the boys; a late-night heart-to-heart with my big sis; Sunday morning pancake breakfast and a living-room cello concert from my oldest nephew. Oh yeah, and the best group selfie ever taken by my bro-in-law.

2. The Breakers Inn

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After leaving 95-degree NH the next day, we traveled two hours north to Scarborough, Maine, where it was overcast, windy and just barely 50 degrees. This was the Maine I was hoping to experience. It required layers and scarves for this NC girl. This was the view from our room at The Breakers Inn. I was in awe gazing out the window and seeing the landscape just as I had imagined it in this non-commercialized town.

I’ve been wanting to come to the Breakers Inn ever since I first heard about it 15 years ago from a couple I lived with in Connecticut while I was interning at The Hartford Courant; they had been going for 30 years. I couldn’t believe I was finally here and it was as beautiful and quaint as I thought it would be. The rooms are cozy, quiet and comfortable and offer spectacular views. And Rodney, one of the innkeepers, makes a homemade oatmeal in the morning that’s to die for. Their homemade blueberry, raspberry and strawberry jams are equally amazing. I can see us coming back here year after year. It’s a special place.

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If you need me, I’ll be here, staring out the window. (Photo by Carla Kucinski)

3. The Best Lobster Roll Evah!

This right here. One of the top three best things I’ve ever eaten. Hands down. And that root beer? Nothing else like it. It didn’t matter that it was extremely windy and cold nor that I could barely feel my fingers. I had my root beer and my juicy, meaty lobster making me happy. Bite into Maine is a little food truck that cranks out these lobster rolls at the Portland Head Light at Fort Williams Park.

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It was disappointing that the lighthouse was wrapped in scaffolding, but this lobster roll pretty much made up for it. (Photo by Carla Kucinski)

 

4. David’s 388

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This is us before we were about to eat the best meal of our lives. 

David’s 388 in South Portland was recommended to us by a trusted friend who knows good food. The earliest reservation we could get was 8 p.m., so we opted for what they described as the “chef’s table,” a bar that seats four people and overlooks the kitchen. For someone like me who loves food and even more so loves watching food be made, this was a dream come true. To start, I ordered a grilled romaine salad just because I saw one being made right in front of me that looked amazing. And it was. But when I saw the steamed pork bun leave the kitchen, I felt a small ping of regret. After the waitress told me how good they are, I expressed to her my inner torture of trying to decide between the salad and the pork bun. “Screw the romaine!” I said balling my fist in the air. The head chef overheard me and laughed. A few minutes later, he placed a small plate with a pork bun in front of us, and with a smile said, “On the house.” I looked up from my entree in disbelief, and then thanked him profusely. (I devoured it in seconds. There is no photo of the pork bun.) David’s 388 was the best seafood either of us has ever experienced. Everything was fresh and local and damn delicious.

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Pistachio crusted scallops. (Photo credit Carla Kucinski)

 

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Hake (a traditional Maine white fish) with lobster, asparagus, corn and the creamiest mashed potatoes that melted in your mouth. 

5. Portland

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Portland has a little bit of grit to it, but mostly, it’s just darn cute. Lots of quaint little shops. Beautiful architecture. Loads of book stores and coffee shops. Cobblestone streets. (Photos by Carla Kucinski)

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It used to be wherever I traveled, I would be on a quest for the best cupcake. I’ve since shifted my focus to donuts. 

This is The Holy Donut. These donuts are unlike any donut I’ve encountered. They’re made of potatoes. So that makes them healthy — or something. I wasn’t a huge fan of the vanilla. (It tasted like a doughy funnel cake.) But this chocolate dream below rocked my world. I guess they call it Holy Donut because eating them feels like a religious experience.

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Chocolate sea salt donut. Yeah, that’s right.

You may have begun to notice that so far my most memorable moments revolved around food. (This is a common theme in my life.) The food we ate in Maine was truly exceptional. And The Honey Paw was no exception. We actually stumbled upon this place, after putting our name on an hour-long waiting list at a seafood restaurant next door. After looking at the menu, we canceled our table next door and sidled up to the bar at Honey Paw, a fusion of American and Asian cuisines. I ordered this beauty: Korean fried chicken with kimchi and daikon (hold the American cheese) and a side of ramp chips. I moaned and groaned with every bite I took. (I can be annoying like that.) To top off the experience, a kind older couple, who are Honey Paw regulars, were seated next to us and shared their dessert with us. Some kind of blueberry cake with cream filling. Can I have some more please? I learned later that they were written up in the New York Times travel section the day we we dined there.

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One of the best sandwiches of my life. I’m in love. (Photos by Carla Kucinski)

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People in Maine like to share their food with me.

6. Mr. Mo

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Our first night in Bar Harbor, I met this sweet pup, Mr. Mo. He used to be a champion show dog in Chicago; now he lives in Maine with his owner, who is blind. They’ve been together for less than a year and they’ve already built a bond. Mr. Mo still needs to work on his seeing-eye-dog techniques, but he’s pretty much mastered hanging out at the local bar and receiving pets from dog lovers. He is the sweetest little thing. (Photo by Andrew Brown)

7. Ocean Path Trail – Acadia National Park

This was our introduction to Acadia National Park. Stunning views from every angle. Ocean Path is one of the most popular trails at Acadia. It hugs the coastline and meanders through forests and rocks and cliffs and towering evergreens. What struck me most was the beautiful emerald-green hue of the ocean. The entire trail was surreal for me. I wanted to come here for so long, and now I was actually here, and I was so overwhelmed by the beauty around us. I just kept thinking, “I can’t believe I’m here!”

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(Photos by Carla Kucinski)

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8. Sunrise at Cadillac Mountain – Acadia National Park

Seeing the sunrise from Cadillac Mountain landed on my “dreams list” earlier this year when I was watching a segment on Acadia National Park on the CBS Sunday Morning show. The reporter mentioned how this is the first place the sun rises on the east coast in the U.S. My husband was reluctant to get up at 3:45 a.m. to make the 30-minute drive up the mountain and wait for this glorious once-in-a-lifetime moment to happen. I couldn’t imagine NOT doing it. So did the 200 or so other people who joined us on the top of the mountain that morning. The sun rises wicked early there. (That morning it rose at 4:50 a.m.) But wow, it was so worth it. The view was magnificent and truly unforgettable. The best part was the moment after everyone had hopped in the cars and driven back down the mountain and we were left alone with a peaceful stillness. Afterwards, we had a plateful of delicious wild blueberry pancakes with real maple syrup at Jordan’s Restaurant. It was a pretty perfect morning, and the day was just beginning. (Tip: It’s much colder and windier at the top of Cadillac. I had on multiple layers, but I wish I had brought a blanket or sleeping bag like some of the folks around us. A pair of gloves would have helped, too.)

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(Photos by Carla Kucinski)

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What we look like after waking up at 3:45 a.m.

 

9. Jordan Pond – Acadia National Park

Jordan Pond wasn’t on our list of hiking trails at Acadia; we kind of just came upon it and decided to check it out because frankly we were lost. I wasn’t sure what to expect other than the ponds that I’m used to seeing — brown, murky and mosquito-infested. Apparently ponds look much different in Maine; they’re a little slice of heaven. I couldn’t believe how clear and blue the water is. (Tip: Be sure to follow the short walk to the Jordan Pond House, where there’s a full-service restaurant that bakes warm, fluffy popovers.)

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(Photo by Carla Kucinski)

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(Photo by Carla Kucinski)

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(Photo by Carla Kucinski)

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(Photo by Andrew Brown)

 

10. Facing my fear of heights

I realized I was deathly afraid of heights when I went on a ferris wheel for the first time at a carnival in the 5th grade. I screamed the entire time and couldn’t wait to be on solid ground again. I love hiking. But hiking often requires inclines and overlooks and all that scary stuff. Sometimes, in hiking, you’re forced to face your fears. Such was the case when a friendly female park ranger suggested we hike Emery Path at Sieur de Monts in Acadia. It’s a beautiful hike, great views and lots of granite steps, she told us. We were intrigued, so we gave it a whirl. I did not anticipate just how beautiful the views would be. Absolutely breathtaking. I also didn’t anticipate that I would hike so high up without hyperventilating, crying or passing out. That’s not to say that I didn’t have the occasional narrative in my head which went something like, “If I slip and fall here, I wouldn’t fall that far down.” But honestly, I was so overtaken by the views that I didn’t have time to be scared; I only had time to pause and take in the beauty.

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Look it’s me! Way up high! (Photo by Andrew Brown)

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Hundreds of granite steps comprise most of Emery Path. Once you reach what you think is the top, another sign points one mile onward to Dorr Mountain. We decided to turn right on Homans Path and head back down the mountain, which I’m glad we did. I’ve seen pictures of the rest of the trail, and it looks a little frightening. (Photo by Carla Kucinski)

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Even though I’m afraid of heights, for most of this trail, I felt fairly contained by the steps and walls of the mountain. That gave me comfort. (Photo by Andrew Brown)

11. More food

Some final thoughts on food.

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The Thirsty Whale became our favorite lunch spot in Bar Harbor. The food was great and the bar was dark and cozy. Do try the haddock sandwich. It was the perfect meal after hours of hiking.

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I also recommend the fried clams at Thirsty Whale. Yowza. Best clams I ever had. I was happy that this plate of yumminess was my last meal in Bar Harbor.

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I highly recommend the blueberry basil margarita at Side Street Cafe. Refreshing and served in a mason jar glass. Super cute.

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The lobster mac and cheese at Side Street Cafe is also a winner. This is a half order. I can’t imagine what a full order looks like. It was pretty spectacular. After, we walked to Ben & Bill’s Chocolate Emporium, where I had the best ice cream in my life – traditional chocolate and vanilla with peanut butter.  

12. Bass Harbor Head Light

We spent our last few hours in Bar Harbor driving to the southern part of Mount Desert Island — beautiful drive with a mixture of wilderness and views of the ocean. As we drove around the island with no particular destination in mind, we saw signs for Bass Harbor Head Light and decided to check it out. A trip to Maine is not complete until you’ve seen a lighthouse, and this one was pretty amazing. It’s nestled into the side of a cliff right on the ocean. A set of wooden steps descend among the pine trees to huge rocks that you can climb to get a more picturesque view of the lighthouse. It was truly beautiful.

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(Photo by Carla Kucinski)

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(Photo by Carla Kucinski)

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(Photo by Andrew Brown)

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(Photo by Andrew Brown)

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Finding solace among the trees

I do my best thinking in the woods. They’ve become my haven, especially lately.

The woods have always felt like home to me, a place to let my mind wander, to feel the wind on my face, the sun warming my shoulders. The moment I step onto the trail, a soft bed of pine needles beneath my feet, the world around me quiets, and I can just be. Even on my worst days, the second I’m surrounded by towering trees, I can always come back to center, find my footing.

Today was one of those days. I needed solace, and I found it among the pine trees. I come here to think. I also come here not to.

There’s a beautiful forest not far from our house that I’ve grown to love. Few people know about it, so much so that most of the time I have the woods all to myself, and other times, I run into the same familiar faces and their blissful Labs and hound dogs with tired tongues hanging from their mouths.

As I’ve weathered through these past few seasons, so have these hundreds of acres of forest. Together we’ve morphed and changed, parts of us died but new growth came. I was thinking about this today as I walked beneath the trees which seemed to have bloomed over night. The bare branches of winter have been replaced with lush, green. I remember in February, deep in my grief, wondering if spring would ever come.

Walk in the woods from Carla Kucinski on Vimeo.

Growing up, my backyard consisted of hundreds of acres of forest in rural Pennsylvania. Those woods provided the perfect hills for sledding in the winter and produced the most delicious blueberries in the summer that still felt warm from the sun when you popped them in your mouth. I remember going for walks sometimes with my father and getting lost with my sister, and watching the sun set behind the tree line, casting hues of pink and orange across the sky. I suppose that’s where my love of nature began and why it always felt like home to me – and still does.

My appreciation for nature grew deeper in my early 20s when I adopted my first dog as an adult. I’ve been fortunate that both dogs I’ve adopted over the years are both lovers of the woods. When my first dog Yoshi passed away four years ago this month, I sprinkled some of his ashes along one of his favorite trails by a lake and among the creaking, swaying pine trees. Even in his old age with his shaky knees and deteriorating hips, he came to life in those woods, hopping over logs. It was his medicine. When he died, it seemed fitting to return him to the earth, to his favorite place. I remember the day I sprinkled his ashes, the wind kicked up suddenly, and I could feel his spirit there with me. Some days, like today, I can still feel him in the breeze in the middle of the woods. He’s never left me.

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Yoshi and me hanging out on his favorite trail. He died less than a month after this photo was taken.

I have a new doggie companion now, a black Lab and Border collie mix who also has a deep love for woods and hopping logs. When she’s in the woods, she’s at home, too. It’s a magical place for her. She completely loses herself in the experience, chasing squirrels and running after deer. But often times I catch her pausing for moment on the trail, looking up to the sky, scanning the scenery around her. Most of the time she’s listening for squirrel movements, but sometimes I think she’s intentionally stopping to take it all in. She constantly reminds me to rest, to linger, let go and be in the present. Everything is temporary. Tomorrow will be different.

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Molly among the pine trees circa March 2016. Photo by Carla Kucinski.

 

Make a wish


My mother always made me feel special on my birthday. Every year she picked out the perfect Barbie doll, the best stuffed animal, the prettiest bracelet. When I look back on my birthdays as a kid, it’s not so much a particular gift or image that I remember most, it’s a feeling, how the people I love, especially my mom, made me feel important.

For years, my mom hung a Happy Birthday sign above the sink in our kitchen, chunky letters in every color of the rainbow strung together. It was the first thing I’d see when I came downstairs from my bedroom. As I stood sleepy-eyed in my pajamas, she’d sing “Happy Birthday” in a country-western twang with such passion – and volume – even though she doesn’t have the best singing voice. She still calls my sisters and me on every birthday and sings to us. I always let her call go to voicemail because I like to play the message over and over; it makes me smile.

What also made my birthdays so special every year as a kid was being able to design my own birthday cake. We went to a bakery called Mr. Baker, where your senses were greeted with the scent of vanilla icing whenever you stepped through the door. I loved the ritual of going with my mom to pick up my birthday cake and riding home with it sealed in a traditional white cake box. The anticipation of waiting to eat it drove me crazy. At age 36, I have not outgrown that and probably never will.

I took my birthday cake seriously as a kid – and still do. I had obsessions with Snoopy and Garfield when I was a child, so naturally they ended up on a lot of my cakes during my early childhood. I can still picture my double-layer cake with Garfield drawn on the top of it. It was my fifth or sixth birthday, and my whole family was gathered in the dining room, the lights dim and golden. My mom’s face glowed in birthday candlelight as she walked toward me with my Garfield cake, and everyone started to sing “Happy Birthday.” I burst into tears before I could blow out the candles. I ran to my room and threw myself down on the bed, burying my face in my pillow. My mom scooped me up, and I cried into her chest unable to explain the tears.

Now, as an adult, I know the reason. It wasn’t just that my mom ordered me the perfect Garfield cake; it was that everyone I loved was gathered in the same room to celebrate me, my life. That birthday was the first time that I recognized what it means to be truly loved and cared about.

I carried that same feeling with me throughout the day on Wednesday as I celebrated my 36th birthday. All day I felt surrounded by so much love from the moment I first opened my eyes and saw my husband smiling back at me. Sweet text messages and phone calls trickled in throughout the day, each birthday wish touching my heart. After the tough couple of months I’ve been going through, it felt good to truly feel joyful for one day.

My husband can’t cook, but he’s great at ordering takeout. When I walked into our kitchen on the morning of my birthday, he had set a table for two with a Chick-fil-A biscuit and golden hash browns waiting for me — my twice a year guilty pleasure. He went into work a little later that morning so we could eat breakfast together. It was a simple gesture, but it felt grand to me.


Later that afternoon, two of my dear friends treated me to lunch at one of my favorite restaurants. When I arrived, they were seated in a booth with a small flower pot of yellow Gerbera daisies on the table and the biggest balloon I had ever seen attached to it with spirals of multicolored ribbon. I shrieked with glee when I saw it — and teared up a little, too. Those little touches sure made this birthday girl feel special. I left our lunch that day with my heart full — and my face sore from laughing so much. Good friends always know what our hearts need.


Afterwards, I went for a stroll in the woods with my dog Molly, and as I walked among the towering pines and the wisteria in bloom, I paused and looked up, taking it all in, this vast and beautiful world.  My eyes, my senses, my heart — they felt wide open. In the middle of the woods, this place that I cherish, my daily haven, I felt a deep connection to the universe. Among the rubble of winter’s fallen trees and bare branches, new life was unfurling all around me. Birds chirped. Four monarch butterflies danced in a figure eight near me. Wisteria’s delicate lavender flowers clung to their vine. I thought about these last two months and all the grief that has consumed me, and I realized even in the midst of sorrow there are gifts. You just have to open your eyes, and your heart to see them.


When I got home, there was a card waiting from me from my best friend Addison, who I share this blog with. The cover of the card pictures a cluster of cars, traveling in different directions, and a young girl on a bike looking over her shoulder while pedaling away from them. “I like to think that this is you pedaling even further past the grief that began this year,” she wrote. “You’re looking back a wee bit but pedaling forward to your next adventure.”


I love that analogy. It’s always a comfort when those we love can see a future beyond our grief. Reading Addison’s words gave me hope. Yes, I’m still glancing back at the past as I weather this season of change, but deep in my heart I believe the best is yet to come. Birthdays are a perfect way to mark a new beginning.


That night my oldest sister, brother-in-law and two nephews sang “Happy Birthday” to me via FaceTime – a virtual birthday party. Hearing my sweet nephews’ voices in the chorus of adults made me laugh as they sang with such fervor. This time there weren’t any tears, just laughter and gratitude. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and made a wish. I wished for joy, but after I blew out the candles, and opened my eyes, I realized I already have it.

Mountain musings

  
The last morning of vacation always makes me sad. I’m never ready to go home. This is how I feel this morning sitting on the back porch, swaying back in forth in the wooden swing on our deck, spending the morning watching the fog and smokey-grey clouds drift and separate across the Blue Ridge Mountains. I want to wake up every morning like this. 
  
We are tucked away in the woods at an elevation of 4,000 feet. To get here we took a series of paved and gravel roads that seemed like they were leading to nowhere. I’ve never been this remote, so removed from the rest of the world. We’ve immersed ourselves in solitude and quiet, the only sounds being the wind moving the leaves of the trees, and the occasional woodpecker that swoops in and taps on a nearby tree. We turned on the television last night for about an hour and even the sound of it irritated me and disrupted my mountain vacation zen. We turned it off to walk down the gravel road to an open field where we watched the sunset.  

I wonder if I could get used to living somewhere like this with the nearest grocery store 45 minutes away. I guess I’d be trading convenience for peace and a spectacular view. It seems worth it to me. Yesterday I picked wildflowers along the side of our road and baked chocolate chip cookies while listening to a Mozart CD I found in the house. These are not things I normally do in my spare time back home. 
  
I’ve had fantasies here of becoming a novelist and spending my days going for walks in the woods and returning to my cabin to write a few pages. How awesome would that be? 

I feel grounded in the mountains; they’ve always had that effect on me. Maybe it’s because they remind me of home and why when I’m in their presence I feel a sense of longing. For what? Peace? Living somewhere that I truly love? Having that connection to place, nature, the land? Perhaps it’s all of those things.