October driving and hiking, crunching through fall leaves and crisp apples in western Maine, we join the leaf peepers in Lovell, Bethel, and the White Mountains.
No frost on the pumpkins yet, but its unmistakably October. Barn-red and squash-orange leaves cling to trees and blow across the road. Weve passed a few scarecrows, and the sunlight hits the fences and windshield at a slanted angle distinctive to fall. This part of western Maine and particularly Lovell (population 1,140), the Oxford County town weve just rolled into, looks absolutely American Gothic.
Autumn scenery in tints of amber and gold is exactly what were seeking for a few days. Summer has passed and winter is on its way, and we want to be outside as much as possible in the sunlit glow that moves across the fields and through the trees. Aiming for a big view, we go straight to a trailhead in Lovell to make a hike up Sabattus Mountain, the in-town peak of 1,253 feet. Well-marked and starting from a parking lot off of Sabattus Road, the 1.4-mile loop trail is a gradual climb with plenty of moss and mushrooms along the way. Tree roots cross the path in places, creating a natural stairway up the stone incline. In less than a mile, we reach the top. The forest spreads out below, a sweeping view of fall color that weaves around the nine-mile length of Kezar Lake and toward the White Mountain National Forest. In all directions, I see evergreens mixed with shots of fiery yellow, orange, and redall the way to New Hampshire. Robins and chipmunks make rustling noises. The air smells sweet and I wonder whether its the sugar in the autumn leaves. The science of color at the cellular level is at work here, and I recall school lessons about how trees stop producing chlorophyll (green) in the fall, and pigments of yellow, orange, brown, and sometimes red are revealed in a color show. Meanwhile, underfoot on Sabattus are thick veins of white quartzite, lending yet another hue to the landscape.
Hungry after the descending hike, we go to the white-and-red-painted Rosies Restaurant at Lovell Village Store. There are just a few cars in the lot; its still afternoon, and were arriving between lunch and dinner. Once inside and settled on one of the nine or ten worn, pale-blue upholstered stools along the lunch counter, I take in the scene of wood floors and racks of candy and crackers. The menu board lists all-day breakfast egg and pancake plates, along with soups, sandwiches, and desserts. Ive heard that one of the proprietors, Rosie McKenzie, is the real-life inspiration for a fictional character in one of Stephen Kings novels, Under the Dome, which was made into a TV adaptation last year. But a chance sighting is not to be. Maureen at the counter explains that the owner has gone to Portland for the day to learn about new lottery processes, and to pick up some kitchen essentials, including bean sprouts for the Kezar Pleaser sandwich thats made with avocado, turkey, and Boursin cheese. The sandwich is one of the stores twists on diner fare, and Maureen notes that it is a top seller. I consider ordering that or even an afternoon stack of the pumpkin pancakes, but this time I go for coffee and a slice of pie. Soon Im pushing my fork through a thick wedge of pastry crust and fresh apples, and hearing bits of counter conversations about grouse hunting and apple butter recipes. In the warm, sweet smells and sounds of the store, it feels like Ive followed fall to its source.
Orchards, here we come. After a few more hours of exploring in Lovelldocks on Kezar Lake are nearly empty and summer crowds are long gone from the wide, deep stretch of sandy beach next to the Pleasant Point Innwe drive north on Route 5 in search of falls many-colored harvest. Were staying in Bethel at the Mill Hill Inn, a six-room inn in a converted historic barn with firewood piled high outside. I had the chance to spend a couple of nights there a year earlier, and Id remembered how perfectly snug it felt to sit with my feet up near the big Jotul woodstove in the front roomwith a beer in hand at night, or a coffee in the morning. Its good to see owners Woody and Lee Hughes again. Woody is a former Gould Academy fine arts instructor, and hes an amazing potter. A collection of his unglazed and glazed pieces lines open shelves around the mantle and down the hall. Some are practical pieces like coffee mugs and plates, but in rich colors and striated textures; others are wonderful art pieces with features that are angular, birdlike, or twisted with the same fanciful logic as a genies lamp. In the morning at the inn, we get to serve ourselves coffee, sliced local apples, and hot-from-the-oven popovers on pieces of Woodys pottery.
Our first stop today is at Gibsons Apple Orchard across the Androscoggin River. Owner Ira Gibson is out, but hes left Gone to town signs to direct curious visitors like us to pick, weigh, and pay for apples or cider thats in a refrigerator in the barn. Gibsons has been an orchard since 1968. Cortlands and Golden Delicious are some of the top varieties grown here, and we buy a jug of cider to sample while touring around. Our next stop is the even older Lyons Orchard in Bethel, where we check in at the orchard shed for a paper bag and start picking. A wild turkey is moving in the distance on the hillside of more than 500 trees, and I find some McIntosh apples that are so pretty and red they look polished and ready for Snow White (or Eve?) to take a bite. Colored ribbons tied to branches are used to designate the typesmostly McIntosh, along with Red Delicious, Cortland, Macoun, and Red Free. Colleen Warner and her husband, Gregory, work the orchard now, and she tells me that their business is named for a fellow called Herb Lyon. In the 1950s, the Bethel man bought the rural land with a view on Grover Hill, and over the decades, he planted hundreds of trees. Mr. Lyon died in 2006 but his legacy stands. Every year, Warner says, people continue to come from across Maine and New Hampshire to pick apples there from mid- September to mid-October. Her personal favorite variety is the McIntosh, and she uses lots for canningmaking pie filling, apple butter, and apple sauce. Animals take their pick in the orchard, too. Deer always pull the apples down, shes noticed. But the bears dont do it that way. Theyll eat an apple all the way around, and leave the core hanging.
From the orchards, we return to downtown Bethel (population 2,603) to see street trees ablaze in color. In the fall light, everything is picturesque. Schoolgirls from Gould Academy walk arm-in-arm toward the bakery at DiCocoas Market, which is fittingly painted pumpkin-orange on the outside and a warm gold inside. We follow Route 2 and drive west, stopping at the Swain Farms produce stand in front of a white farmhouse where theres a massive display of bright mums in baskets, huge butter-yellow pumpkins (orange ones too, in all sizes), haystacks, and crates of potatoes. Halloween is still weeks away, yet we spot pumpkin heads, scarecrows, skeletons, coffins, and other macabre decorations scattered across yards and perched on porches. In Gilead, the restored 1851 train station is reportedly the oldest standing in Maine, and this time of year the red-painted wood steals the fall scene.
Its at Gilead that we turn south from Route 2 onto Route 113 to drive a stretch of the 54- mile seasonal road that threads in and out of Maine along the New Hampshire border. This is gorgeous, White Mountain National Forest scenery with stopping points along the wayoverlooks, picnic spots, and pull-offs galore, crisscrossed with hiking trails. We keep hearing from locals that the fall color this year is just average, but a drive in this canopy of trees exceeds that description. We see few other cars on the winding road, but when we do, I notice the license plates are often from places far-flung, including New York, Florida, Connecticut, Virginia, and Iowa.
Eventually, we pass through North Fryeburg and make our way back to Lovell and onto Route 5 to complete a western Maine loop that will take us back to the Mill Hill Inn. But first, we stop again in Lovell. We expected peak season trees and pumpkins on this trip, but not such a stash of Belgian beer as we find heremore than 30 on tap at Ebenezers Restaurant and Pub, served in the squat, tall or curved glassware that suits each brew. The surprising beer destination is in a stand of pine trees on a side road next to the Lake Kezar Country Club, and in the early afternoon, the bar and porch are filling with mostly 20-somethingscouples and groups of friends, including some self-described beer tourists seated beside us at the bar who say they drove up from Boston just to come to the pub. We order a round and frites served Belgian style in waxed paper and a metal cone, along with house-made mayo for dipping. Its a busy day for the small town. Nearby, the Lovell Historical Society is hosting a Fall Harvest event in the early- 1800s Kimball-Stanford House and barn across from the country club. Right out front of the open doors of the barn, theyve got a cider press demonstration in full swingextracting the juice from apples one by one, using a wooden barrel cider press. Inside, volunteers are selling pies and cake for a fundraiser. Walking through, you have to watch your step to avoid bumping into children (and adults) with cups of cider and hot chocolate filing through the rooms of hand-loomed rugs, antique farm tools, local art, baskets of cranberries, and jelly jars of late-season flower bouquets.
A few minutes drive from the Fall Harvest, Old Stage Road is lined with farmhouses some with picket fences and stone walls. We stop when we spot Four Cedars Antiques and find the door open and the room and side yard arranged with vintage garden tools, runner sleds, and rustic kitchen items like bread boards and rolling pins. The small white building is part of Four Cedars Farm, and we soon hear a dog bark and have the chance to meet the farms owner, Shoo Hale, a house restorer and poet who explains that she lived in New York City and Kennebunkport before buying the 1820 farmhouse nearly 20 years ago. She notes that artist Eastman Johnson was born there in 1824. (I double-check later, and sure enough, this artist was considered the American Rembrandt of his day. He painted everyday scenesmany from nearbyalong with portraits of Abraham Lincoln, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He also cofounded the Metropolitan Museum of Art. ) An instantly welcoming sort, Hale invites us to explore the shop and property, and gives us a hand-drawn map shes printed to point guests toward barns and gardens they might want to see. While we poke around the farm buildings (including one that feels more like an artful, airy lounge, complete with swings, daybeds, and fluffy- cushioned couches), we end up talking with her awhile about autumn rituals and chores. She describes what shes been up to, including bringing in loads of wood, filling the freezer for blizzard days, pulling up the rowboat from the pond, digging out long underwear and blaze orange vests and dog scarves (for walking during hunting season), and putting away the Adirondack chairs still set around for garden and pasture views, Though they look so pretty in the snow, sometimes I leave some out.
There goes Maine again, offering up scenery that looks ready to be the subject of a painting, or a scene in a book season after season after season.