It’s no secret that I’ve always been an enthusiast of the American West. I was born and raised in the region, and am currently in a never-ending love affair with it. But that wasn’t always the case. There was a time when I fled to eastern possibilities, when I abandoned my glorious Rocky Mountains (and parents) for the sloping hills in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts. I flew across the country to attend high school for three years at a boarding school called Deerfield Academy.
When I arrived, I noticed the forests on the East Coast were leafier, the mountains more rounded, docile, and fluent and the confinements of the boarding school’s grueling academics, competitive student body, and brutal toxic masculinities made leaving campus on holiday breaks incredibly freeing.
One of my favorite trips happened on a long fall weekend and took me up to the coast of Maine. But my first weekend in the Pine Tree State was far too short and the weather spat a cold October drizzle the entire time. I knew I would have to come back down the road to explore Maine’s ruggedly handsome coast in better weather, specifically its famous Acadia National Park.
This past June, I was finally afforded the opportunity to return to “Vacationland”, as it is so affectionately nicknamed on its state license plates. Since I began the trek in New York City, I invited my friend Charlie Wilson, an actor in New York, to join me for the journey.
Charlie and I went to Deerfield together, though we didn’t know each other well as students. I do remember us once sharing a sit-down dinner table during my second year at the school. I was one year his senior but he already towered over me, tall, skinny, and daddy-long-legged at some outrageous height like 6’4’’. We made easy small talk in our preppy coat and ties for that month-long rotation but otherwise didn’t overlap. Also worth mentioning, neither of us was out in high school.
It wasn’t until about five years later that our paths crossed again. He was screaming “YAS” and tossing one dollar bills as Shangela (the robbed, All-Stars 3 winner) performed an energetic medley on stage at the mountaintop party at Aspen Gay Ski Week 2017. I approached him just after Shangela had snatched a five dollar bill from his long outreached arm, “Charlie Wilson?!” I yelled tapping him on the shoulder, “What?! You’re gay?!”
We kept in touch after skiing together that weekend but hadn’t seen each other until I arrived this summer in New York City. We took a train to Bedford Hills where Charlie grew up, picked up his SUV, and headed North the following morning. On our way to Acadia, we climbed Katahdin, lost our wigs, and then two days later, made our way East, to the famous Mt. Desert Island, the host of the 102-year-old Acadia National Park.
It was early summer and as soon as we crossed the bridge that took us from the Maine mainland to the paw-shaped island the national park resides on, we were greeted by hairy beardtongue, dame rockets, and of course, one of the many icons of the park—fields of thick purple lupine. Fat, fuzzy bumblebees went from flower to flower in their own version of a drunken pub crawl, sloppy on nectar. Charming roads wound us to Acadia Cottages, a queer-friendly ma-and-pa accommodation on the sleepier southwest side of the island. The little cabin came complete with a deck and campy, lobster printed curtains.
That night we read guidebooks of the area to best plan the following day and put together our must-dos. On our list was the popular (for all the right reasons) Beehive hike, a swim at Sand Beach, lunch (and ice cream) in Bar Harbor, a glance at the crassly named Thunder Hole, a walk along the carriage paths, and a sunset in Wonderland, a beach on the south side of the westernmost finger of the island where the region’s famous pink rocks supposedly light up and glow even pinker than the imagery of Janelle Monae’s latest single. The whole beach is a lovely hue as the sun sinks below the island dappled horizon.
The phenomenon is one of the island’s treasures, something I had read about in the writings of Terry Tempest Williams and that had been described to me by a friend who graduated from the island’s tiny liberal arts school, College of the Atlantic.
The following morning we drove straight to the park’s famous Beehive Loop Trail and parked behind the long line of cars. This would be a good time to point out that although one of America’s smaller national parks at (49,052 acres, compared to Yosemite’s 761,747 acres) the park received 3.5 million visitors in 2017 (Yosemite was just above, at 4.3 million.) Since Acadia is quite small and compact, its massive attendance is much more noticeable as there is less space for visitors to spread.
The Beehive trail buzzes itself over the granite boulders of Champlain Mountain with the help of ladder rungs and platforms added by the park service. While the hike isn’t for the faintest of heart, it isn’t necessarily scary—but its few airy scrambles certainly excite. At the 1,070-foot summit, only a small portion of the park can be seen but the vastness of the sea is felt. In summer, the lime green of the island’s thick forests contrasts brilliantly against the big blue of the Atlantic.
The park was once the home of Wabanaki people before it was taken over by French Missionary colonists who eventually conceded the land to England in 1713 during the French Indian wars. The land was then controlled by Massachusetts, became American after the revolution, and by the 1850s, was already a popular vacation destination. It wasn’t until a man named Charles Eliot (later with the help of his father and George B. Dorr) pushed for its conservation into a National Monument in 1916 before it was upgraded to National Park status in 1918.
The area is also well known for being the vacation land of the Rockefellers, and their presence has literally been cut into the landscape in the form of 50 miles of carriage trails commissioned by John D. Rockefeller Jr. in 1915-1933. Now, cyclists take the winding trails past lakes, rocky shoreline, and historic mansions.
The point of all of this backstory is to show that Acadia, unlike many western national parks, weaves in and out of the man-made. It is among the borderlands of a place where people “summer” and where woods and shorelines are wild, but where just offshore human presence exists in the form of, bright, fluorescent, bobbing lobster buoys.
The boundaries of the national park wind and weave as you drive, hike, or cycle and it becomes clear its entrance and exits are far more complex than the few in-and-out roads of many western parks. In many ways with its big crowds and idyll eastern setting, the entire island feels like a giant summer camp for families, tourists, and outdoor enthusiasts.
After our hike up Champlain, we were sweaty, and so, we decided to swim. At the very originally named Sand Beach, we set up some towels among the other tourists and we might have also taken a glance or two at the brawny lifeguard who observed the beachgoers from a high, white chair.
We ate snacks, watched the sandpipers and ruddy turnstones feeding in and out, in and out, as the waves crashed and receded, but most memorably, we continued one of our many in-depth talks about the confusion of our separate queernesses within the unforgiving old-boy cultures of our boarding school. The talks, beyond our bonding, turned out to be some of the most cathartic experiences of the trip, where we were able to unwind and reel in the tangled anchors of the past.
Since we were both closeted in high school, we had kept a lot bottled up. For one, our crushes. We roared as we exchanged their names— Charlie’s was a strong, curly-haired Vermonter in my year. We laughed the loudest when he told me that he once brought his crush his laundry, hoping subconsciously that the act would make the boy swoon for him. Charlie at least got a “thanks” from his crush.
My lacrosse-playing, wildman crush once said there wasn’t enough room at a table to sit next to him.
We both agreed that one of the most confusing things about our school was its rampant homophobia combined with an overt homoeroticism that seemed to linger into the new millennium from a time before co-education when the school was all boys.
The best instance Charlie had to illustrate our observation happened one night after study hall when his dorm gathered in the common area for snacks prepared by the dorm’s resident faculty. One shirtless boy, a lax (lacrosse) bro sat in another shirtless boy’s lap and called another, quieter, more feminine boy in the dorm a faggot.
My nearest example was from the school’s communal showers, where everyone pretended not to be looking at each other’s dicks but were certainly looking at each other’s dicks. I remember one boy, screamed at me “shave that bush, Colorado!” Which got a big round of laughter, as well as about 20 other boys to check out my dick. There was also a hell of a lot of towel snapping at butts, which I remembered being surprised to learn happened in real life and not just puerile jock movies.
We concluded that the boundary between homosociality and eroticism was thin and wove in and out, like the borders of Acadia National Park with the land of Mount Desert Island. We concluded that that line, as young queer boys, was not helped by malicious homophobias, internal or otherwise. That the bromances we had witnessed (and perhaps even longed for) at our school by our heterosexual counterparts were just an unnamed and poorly documented form of an incredibly intimate male/male relationship. We knew the tortuous years at the school had resulted in our thick, thick skin. Skin we would need for our swim in the Atlantic.
We scurried to the shore, much like the sandpipers, but ran back just as fast as the shorebirds when the waves hit our ankles. The water couldn’t have been warmer than 50 degrees Fahrenheit. It was ice. In fact, I’m sure it once was ice. I imagined the frigid currents cruising down from the North Pole by way of the Labrador Sea before it curled around Nova Scotia. We clutched our pearls, gasped loudly, and finally dunked ourselves in its frostiness.
The rest of our afternoon consisted of recovering from minor hypothermia in the hot summer sun, eating cleverly named ice cream (the Bay of Figs) from the busy tourist town of Bar Harbor, a walk on the Rockefeller’s carriage paths around Jordan’s Lake, and finally a drive back to our side of the island to finally catch the pink moment in a little area of the National Park called Wonderland.
A short five-minute walk took us from the parking lot through the salty shore conifers—black spruce, jack pines, balsam fir—to the pink, rocky coast of granite slabs and grussy beaches. As the sun began ducking the horizon, Wonderland began to turn rosier and rosier, though, not as magical as I had built it up to be. But as a romantic, I lead myself to believe that it was as pink as the inner shell of a queen conch shell. In Wonderland, we were watching the day put on its lacy nightgown before a long cosmos-drenched evening.
We tidepooled the shore for starfish in their little granite bowl galaxies and basked in the sun’s final coral hoorah. Looking out to the sea, on one of the shelves of the North American continent, it was cliched but true to feel at the edge of the big world, reeling in the heavy anchors of our prep school past, raising our proud pink sails, tacking eastward to unheralded deliverance.