Buffalo, Florida

I was down south this past weekend visiting family and I decided to check out a local sports bar to watch the Buffalo Bills football game. A quick search for Bills gathering spots leIMG_5031d me to RonDao’s, a pizzeria in Fort Myers. I rolled in around halftime and found cars parked on every inch of road within two blocks of the place; it was a game day feel before I even stepped through the door.

RonDao’s is a nice spot for transplanted northerners to enjoy their favorite team, a scene that must be common in countless cities across the country. That said, it was also a brand new subculture for me. In a sprawling room covered with LCD televisions and sprinkled with Bills posters, there were 400+ people decked out in Bills jerseys, Bills hats, and, in at least one instance, a Bills tattoo. If you squinted, you could have easily been in Buffalo…well, except for the tan lines.

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As fans trained their eyes on one of the 65 LCD TVs, a cheery wait staff decked out in referee jerseys served food and drinks on any flat space: tables, bars, re-purposed pool tables, even a foosball table covered with a piece of plywood (bearing the Bills logo, of course). I shared a corner with Rob from North Buffalo, Rob’s girlfriend Cheryl, and Eddie from Cheektowaga. At one point, I asked Eddie about the wings, and he said “It’s no Duffs, but they’re pretty good.” Motioning towards a dish of wings, he then asked “want to try one before you order?”

IMG_5053As it turns out, RonDao’s has pretty good wings, and the fans are a lot like those in Buffalo. They are friendly and enthusiastic, they sing “Shout” after touchdoIMG_5072 (1)wns, they complain about the refs, and they ring cowbells after big plays–which seemed to be really important to the slightly over-served guy in the Jim Kelly jersey. The atmosphere certainly mirrored the game day experience in Buffalo—but without the snow, and without a guy in front of me with a giant inflatable Bills helmet.

As the afternoon went on, Eddie from Cheektowaga bought me a beer, the Bills lost in a close game, and I won an appreciation for why people come to dimly lit bars on sunny Sunday afternoons. Familiarity is a beautiful thing–especially away from home–as is finding a connection to others. Perhaps the only thing more important is finding really good wings.

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                                       Thankfully, these kinds of designations are well regulated.

Forever Wild

DSC_0049We’re at a cabin on Daicey Pond in Baxter State Park with the perfect view of Katahdin, the highest point in Maine at 5270 feet. Katahdin was named by the Penobscot Nation and it translates to “The Greatest Mountain.” It towers over its neighbors, and on a clear day you can even see it from Cadillac Mountain in Acadia (some 100+ miles to the east).

We’ve found good hiking, good paddling, and good opportunities to relax in the cool mountain weather (lows in the upper 30s last night). We’ve also taken the time to cook up some of our favorite dishes. Over the past three days, we’ve had baked brie, french fries, nachos, antipasto, fresh baked bread, chocolate chip cookies, caprese, and sweet rolls, along with a nice deep dish pizza.

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The park is very remote and rugged, and it comes with an interesting history. It was a gift to the people of Maine from former Governor Percival Baxter, who donated the original 200,000+ acres over about a 30 year period ending in 1962. As “co-owners,” Maine residents don’t have to pay the $14 admission to access the park. Once inside, there is no electricity and no running water, and there are no paved roads–only a single 13 foot wide gravel road, the Tote Road, for the majority of access. The park’s motto is “Forever Wild,” and it certainly is.

While Baxter is far from population centers, it’s still surprising to me that it only saw 63,000 visitors last year. In contrast, Great Falls Park in Virginia is 250 times smaller and draws 10 times the visitors. Crowds are relative, I suppose.

DSC_0885The cabins at Daicey Pond date back to 1902, and its easy to feel Daicey 1931 Charlotte Millettlost in time here. Our cabin has just a wall-mounted propane light, two twin beds, a table, a wood stove, and a few wooden chairs. Down at the dock, there is an honor system for canoe and kayak rentals ($1 an hour), and there is an always-open library full of interesting books. Add in friendly rangers, a nice network of hiking trails, loons, deer, and moose, and you’ve got something worth trying to keep the same.

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Perhaps best of all, the mountain is visible from most anywhere, seemingly watching over the handful of visitors that make it up here. Percival Baxter had this to say about Katahdin: “buildings crumble, monuments decay, wealth vanishes, but Katahdin, in all its glory, shall forever remain the mountain of the people of Maine.”

Oh, and one other thing about Katahdin: it’s officially named Mount Katahdin, but that literally translates to “Mount Greatest Mountain.” Naturally, everyone just calls it Katahdin, as Mainers are way too smart to be redundant—unlike, say, whoever named “Panera Bread.” Along those lines, maybe I should open up a “Vino Wine” concession at the summit of the highest point of Mount Katahdin?

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Park Here?

millinocketOn the way to Baxter State Park in northern Maine, we stayed over in Millinocket, a town of about 4500 about an hour north of Bangor. Millinocket is adjacent to Aroostook County, one of the more rural IMG_1721areas I’ve seen in the east. “The county,” as it’s known to just about anybody in Maine, has a few smaller towns, like Presque Isle and Caribou, but mostly it’s potato farms and really thick woods.

Back to Millinocket, there are some fun outdoor-oriented businesses here, with the Appalachian Trail Café leading the list. Breakfast was solid, service was good, and the place has a few interesting traditions. First, they offer the Summit Sundae Challenge, which is 14 scoops of ice cream (one for each state the AT passes through) along with snickers, M&Ms, and a doughnut. If you eat it all by yourself, you get to write your name on a pole by the cash register, presumably while you wait for CPR to start. Second, AT through-hikers get the honor of signing one of many now-colorful acoustic ceiling tiles that dot the restaurant. We only did a portion of the AT and not the whole 2180 miles, so we just signed the bathroom wall. That’s appropriate, right?

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Great_Northern_Paper_Company_Mill,_Millinocket,_METhe outdoor tourism businesses in Millinocket seem to be doing ok, but the mill closed in 2008 and now there are a lot of vacant storefronts. One idea to jumpstart the economy is a proposal to create a new national park that adjoins Baxter State Park using land donated by a wealthy local philanthropist. It is the hot topic in town, and everyone has an opinion, from the cashier at Hanneford’s to the wait staff at the Scootic Inn (which, by the way, was excellent for dinner). The campaign is in full swing and there are signs everywhere that say “National Park Yes!” and “National Park No!”

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So far, we’ve yet to meet anybody who supports the idea, even as they puzzle over what else could help to revive the local economy. One ranger in Baxter said to us “Why would someone even come to a Northwoods National Park? It’s not like there’s a Rushmore up here.”

One other observation: just about everything around that is not named Baxter is named Penobscot. That includes streets, rivers, lakes, bays, bridges, counties, you name it (well, actually, somebody already did). I was certain that the name inspiration was from a recurring character on the old TV show M*A*S*H, but Souzz explained that it’s from the Penobscot Nation, which has a long and storied history in the region. I have to buy Souzz a beer whenever she’s right, so I brought along a case.

Happy as a Clam

We are right at home in a rustic cottage on a tiny privately owned island, Little Lazygut, just off of Deer Isle on the Maine coast. At high tide, Little Lazygut is only about 300 yards wide, but there are nice beaches all around and it’s been all ours for the past few nights (cottage renters only here, kind of nice). We came over from nearby Stonington by boat shuttle and brought a tandem kayak along, which has been great for exploring nearby islands and coves.

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We’ve had killer sunsets, a full moon, outdoor fires, and lots of wildlife (birds, deer, even a mink). As for the cottage, there’s no electricity or running water, but there’s a propane powered fridge, stove, and oven, which has been the ticket to some great meals. And now that we are on day three, the name Lazygut seems to fit.

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Mainers seem to have their own vocabulary, and we are starting to catch on a bit. And in addition to learning some new expressions, we are also learning a bit about old expressions. For instance, the saying “happy as a clam” is actually abbreviated. It’s really supposed to be “happy as a clam at high tide.” And now I know why.

Clamming is most certainly a low tide affair, which was at 6:30pm yesterday. Just 50 yards from our front porch, there’s a long sandy beach that was just perfect. Basically you look for air holes or squirts of water and then dig down six inches or so with a clamming rake (we brought a garden rake along and it worked just fine). We had a half dozen clams in less than 20 minutes and set our sites on dinner.

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To clean up the clams, you scrub the shells and then soak them in salt water with a bit of corn meal (the clams eat the corn meal, which helps rid them of sand). Another 30 minutes of prep and we were looking at the freshest of appetizers, clams casino.

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Clams casino is an old fashioned recipe (think 1970s dinner parties) that comes in a lot of variations, and there’s a reason it’s still around. We used shallots, red bell pepper, garlic, oregano, olive oil, and pancetta. It’s a bit of effort to shell the raw clams, but this is an excellent dish and in particular was good using a fresh catch. One taste of these and we were happy as clams (at low tide).

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