The Other Portland, Next Stop Boston

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Portland, ME

It’s easy to spot the locals from the visitors even to me just by which kids know about the bikes. Free from the Peak’s Island ferry kids run up the short hill to grab one of the bikes waiting off to the right. The bikes are all unlocked, free to anyone. One boy pedals up to a woman holding a sign directing tourists to the golf cart rentals. I’m not aware if he was on the short ferry ride — maybe he was even one of the boys reprimanded by the crew for throwing things over the railing — but he is obviously eager to explore this 3.5 mile island.

“But, umm, Mom,” he says to the woman “which way is it to the graveyard? I forgot.”

I look at the map another tourist gave me — I don’t see a graveyard marked on it. I think about following the boy so I can see this locally known sight, but as a tourist I didn’t grab a bike. The proprietors of the West End Inn had told me about the bikes available on the honor system before I left for the ferry, but there isn’t a sign saying these are them that I can see and this level of trust doesn’t make sense to the city in me.

Instead, I buy a cone with two scoops of Muddy Boots ice cream from what I suspect is the only store and start walking to the right which might have been north-east. A summer local has told me it’s the prettier side with the better beach along with where all the secret restrooms are. Again none of those are on the map. I follow the signs saying simply Beach in colorful letters on strips of grayed wood.

Except it is high tide and the rocky shore is all that’s showing. Personally, I like climbing over the gray boulders, leaning into a nook and listening to the ocean before I feel compelled to see something more of the island. As I wander a guy clearing out plants near the Lions Club calls to me “did you enjoy your ice cream?”

“Yes,” I yell back.

“And did you find a nice spot to eat it at?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Then our work is done,” he declares and reaches out his hands to either side in a mock bow.

“Thank you,” I laughingly, sheepishly call back.

It’s possible he saw me earlier when the melting ice cream was running down my hand — I’ve mostly stuck to the same beach path, but I don’t think so. Eating an ice cream cone on Peak’s Island rocky coast is too charming for tourists to pass up. If I, a visitor, can spot the Mainahs then they all know who I am because here everyone knows everyone and their dog and their kid by name and everyone else is an Out of Townah.

Austin, pop. 885,400, hasn’t really felt like a big city before now. Sprawling, hyped, and popular yes, yes and yes. After visiting Portland, Maine, pop. 66,318, with a ferry ride to Peak’s Island, pop. 1,000-4,000, Austin could be the great sprawling metropolis.

Perhaps this contributes to the obvious pride in Portland. Chains aren’t common. Sherman’s Books & Stationary devoted a third of their small store to Maine. Restaurants keep beers from local breweries such as Shipyard on tap. Maine potatoes go into the Holy Donuts potato donuts. While hardly unique on its own — in fact a lot about traveling is learning what isn’t unique — it’s how prominent small local sellers are. Bookstores, thrift stores, ice cream shops, breweries, restaurants, bakeries…the farmer’s market. The Wednesday morning market could easily rival the size of Austin’s weekend markets and the strawberries were far better than any I’ve purchased here ever. All that I observed in Portland-Peak’s Island seemed to be about preserving the city. Visitors are welcome so long as they, too, love the city.

It’s also the most pedestrian friendly city I’ve seen. Except maybe for Boston, pop. 6,692,824. Crosswalks are prevalent, cross signals are not. Both are kind of just suggestions.

Boston

I had every intention of first going to the Bell in Hand before the Green Dragon Tavern, but at the diagonal divide separating two of Boston’s oldest pubs I decided to make amends for not snapping a picture of the green dragon on the carousel in Boston Commons. Off a main road the Green Dragon is slightly more hidden and not at all traditionally named. I’ve still no idea how this mythological name came about. The history I heard and read only mentioned Paul Revere’s ride related to the tavern’s original location.

It’s also darker with low ceilings and brick walls — my kind of bar. A tour group, led by a period actor, is sitting in the only window spot. I, a solo traveler, am of course sat in the table by the door just behind the hostess stand. The prime elevated corner window seats are reserved for the tour groups that come and go. Shortly after the first one leaves another arrives. The period actor walks in, bows low over his extended right leg before giving the attendee count to the tavern hostess. Samplers are served to everyone; a toast is raised. As he tells the tavern’s history I see him tip his hand to his mouth, fingers cupped in the knowing glass shape, mouthing I need one. His, as all the tourists gaff, is a full pint compared to their smaller glasses of Sam Adams accompanying cups of Boston Baked Beans.

I will be disappointed by the beer selections at each of the three pubs I go to in Boston — unknowingly sacrificing independent breweries for the buildings. Mostly I will learn that Sam Adams is everywhere — making all of the bar named beers in addition to the standard and seasonal. A sales crew is even out at the two taverns this evening, giving out samples, baseball caps and t-shirts — they skip over me.

Early sunset when I leave, I take my time walking back to the hotel. Between the two cities I’ve walked miles and miles each day. Still I’m not in a hurry or thinking of catching the subway back. I’ve started to enjoy countless turns on the spoke wheel streets so confusing that I’m sure many of the people checking maps are Boston residents. Again I find my way to Boston Commons alive with people relaxing on the hillside, playing music on the walks, yoga, revivals, children scrambling onto the carousel, and dogs enjoying their off-leash patch. The park was, in pastimes, a burial ground. Hundreds of bodies were buried without record.

Realizing bodies, forgotten, are underfoot first occured to me when I visited the Granary Burying Ground. After 5 the gate is locked to all but historical tours — a young woman was acting out a sword fight on the Franklin Family Monument, an obvious white triangle rising the highest — but I and other tourists are stopped along the fence, holding onto the iron rails to look in. Flat gravestones butt up against the stone wall that raises the graveyard above street level. The first I notice is so broken it looks like it fell from somewhere else, but every few steps there is another. Some are faded and cracked while others are surprisingly whole. Many fill every space of stone with words of who and why. At the far end, second to last, a stone says simply*

No. 50
Thomas Adams
Tomb

Next to it, smashed into the corner, is the simplest of all, barely visible

George Leitner
1811

It’s a welcome simplicity in a city crowded with buildings, history, people. Even the graves are crowded with bodies. As I walk on a man I take for homeless asks me, “Did you know Paul Revere is buried there?”

“Yes, I did.” I tell him.

“You do?”

“Yes, I just read it. But thank you.”

Reading all the histories, walking the rough lying bricks and stones, and riding the subway (opened in 1895) is when, to me, the city feels like something all its own. I’m sure there is a present day local culture here, something outside of the tourists, but it’s hard to find.

My last morning I go for coffee at the Thinking Cup Coffee Shop. It’s comfortable there and I wouldn’t have minded resting my feet there as a regular. They, I learn, exclusively sell Stumptown Coffee — a small chain from Portland, OR, pop. 609,456.

Pictures

Portland Lobster Co. – New England Clam Chowder, Shipyard Old Thumper Ale
Vendors at the Farmer’s Market
Big Sky Bread Company – Blueberry Cheese Pastry, Coffee
Spring Point Lighthouse
Bagel and Cheese (wish I had written down the name because it was so very good) from vendors at Public Market House
Peak’s Island – Ice Cream Cone
In’finiti – Mars
Portland Harbor
The Holy Donut – Triple Berry, Sweet Potato Ginger
Boston Sky
Boston Commons Carousel
Old South Meeting House (the start of the Boston Tea Party)
The Green Dragon Tavern

*According to a website I found listing all the gravestone inscriptions I must have been looking at No. 39, Captain Thomas Addams, Tomb. I have included instead what I was able to read upside down. Also, George Leitner is listed as No. 0 though it is not the oldest tomb there.

 

 

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2 thoughts on “The Other Portland, Next Stop Boston

    • Thank you. I always had to make sure to type in “Maine” while looking up things to do or else Oregon would show in the top search results. You should go. They love their craft beers. I do also feel oddly balanced now that I’ve been to both the Portland and the other Portland.

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