So here was the latest in my small-world experiences, and how everything and everybody seem somehow connected. We spent a few days at Acadia National Park in Maine, a 35,000-acre expanse of steep hills, surf-battered bluffs, endless hiking and walking trails, lakes, beaches and deep forest. Gripping place.
It happens that my wife’s family, on her mother’s side, was from Maine, so her childhood was revisited in the pine scents, lilac aromas, approaching blueberry season and so on. And my ancestors, ‘way back, came from Acadia, the colony of New France in the 17th and 18th Century that included parts of eastern Quebec, the Maritime provinces and about half of modern-day Maine—until they were run out of town by the British and wound up in Louisiana. (More on that later.)
The trip was inspired, in part, by a travel book, “1,000 Places to See Before You Die.” (Why it needed the “before you die” deadline seems thoroughly unnecessary, as if every trek away from home is a reminder that we are on the road to extinction.) Anyway, in that book, I found 98 places I had been, mostly as an accidental tourist.
As a child, I was afforded varied glimpses of America in the process of my father’s regular job transfers through the South, Southwest and West Coast. Then, in more than 40 years as a sports journalist, newspaper assignments often took me to exotic places. I buy the Kurt Vonnegut observation that “bizarre travel plans are dancing lessons from God.”
The “1,000 Places” list reinforced the sense that wide-ranging travel is a blessing, and an education. From the English Cotswolds to London’s Tate Gallery and Hyde Park; canal rides through Bruges in Belgium (the “Venice of the North”) to Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate (and sections of the Berlin Wall months after its symbolic fall); Barcelona’s still unfinished 100-year-old Sagrada Familia cathedral; Athens’ Parthenon; Rome’s Colosseum and Spanish Steps; Vatican City and Florence’s Uffizi galleries of Renaissance art; Prague’s castle district; the Danube Bend in Budapest; the Sydney Opera House in Australia; The Great Wall of China; Hemingway’s hangouts in Cuba; Acapulco Bay (for us honeymooners)….all delightful stops.
What a treat to realize a been-there, done-that encounter with those, as well as so many iconic American hot spots: Niagara Falls, Grand Canyon, Yosemite Park, Yellowstone Park, D.C.’s Smithsonian, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Florida’s Amelia Island, Joe’s Stone Crab restaurant in Miami Beach (key-lime pie for dessert), New Orleans’ French Quarter, San Antonio’s River Walk and Alamo. (“I’d like to hear the Mexicans’ side of this story,” my friend Jay muttered as we listened to the Daughters’ of the Texas Republic cast James Bowie, William Travis, Davy Crockett and the overmatched Texans as something close to saints.)
There are, however, a couple of locations I might have edited out of the 1,000 must-see places. The Las Vegas Strip, perhaps—unless one’s cup of tea is garishness and the windowless monuments to uncertain outcomes of committing vast amounts of money. Also, Roswell, New Mexico.
Roswell, New Mexico? The travel book suggests that the conspiracy theory over a 1947 crash of an unidentified flying object near Roswell, in which four aliens were said to die and be taken secretly to a military base, sustains Roswell as a major attraction.
I don’t know. When I was a high school student in Hobbs, N.M., all we thought of Roswell was as home to the hated rival of our basketball team. (Two consecutive years, Roswell defeated Hobbs, the favorite, by a single point in the state championship game.) I last set foot in Roswell in November of 1964, riding the bench for the final football game of my senior season. It was cold. My feet were blocks of ice. I never got into the game. And we lost. Not such a memorable burg.
But about my forebears, who were among the French settlers in an area first christened Arcadia (with an ‘r’) by the Florentine explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano. (Another flimsy link: As a 46-year resident of the New York City area, I regularly have traveled over the bridge named for Verrazzano, though it has been misspelled by local officials from the start: Verrazano, with one ‘z.’)
“Arcadia” morphed into “Acadia,” and its French Catholic settlers transformed from “Acadien” to “Cajun” after they were banished from the area during hostilities of the Seven Years’ War in the mid-1700s by the English, in what was known as the Great Expulsion. Most of them wound up in Louisiana, where my parents were raised and I was born.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem, “Evangeline,” is set in Acadia during the Great Expulsion. (One more small association in this circle of coincidences: Longfellow attended Maine’s Bowdoin College, which was along the route we took to Acadia National Park.)
“This is the forest primeval,” the poem begins, in what could serve as a description of Acadia National Park. “The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
“Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight….”
My sister has a genealogy chart of my mother’s side of the family that goes back some seven generations, to their lives in Acadia. There is no information on any of our predecessors’ specific occupations, and she and I guessed there is the possibility that the clan included a few thieves and bad guys. Who knows?
Certainly, no potentates such as the Rockefellers, Astors, Fords and Vanderbilts, who established Acadia National Park as a summer colony in the early 20th Century. So I have no illusions that I was wandering the specific stomping grounds of my long-gone relatives.
But it’s a small world after all.