Downtown, Maine: Bethel
A travel series by Elizabeth Peavey
It’s hard to believe that, with this issue, The Bollard has been in print for a full year. It’s even harder to believe editor Chris Busby has persuaded me to continue writing the Downtown, Maine series, despite my constant complaints and protests about how much work and time it entails. (A cautionary note to budding and junior journalists: Almost every assignment sounds good when you are drinking beer. Never — I repeat, never — talk shop with an editor when alcohol is involved. Editors are very sneaky. They act all chummy and say when they invite you out that it’s strictly social. The next thing you know you’re signing a cocktail napkin, and soon churning out columns and travel pieces like you have nothing better to do… like nap.)
But it’s been a good year, hasn’t it? I’ve taken you to a couple unlikely tourist destinations (Lewiston/Auburn and Biddeford-Saco), to the mysterious WoPo (west of Portland) area, and to Brunswick (OK, I had to go up there anyway to visit my mom). All those destinations, as promised in this series’ mission statement, are “within a tolerable drive of Portland.”
Well, grasshoppers, congratulations. The year of baby steps is over. With the advent of summer, it’s time for us to have a proper adventure, so I’m taking you 70 miles into the wild to downtown Bethel.
When most people think of Bethel, they think winter. I could send you up there during ski season, but then you’d have to contend with all those Masshole-y ski types, who largely disappear once the lifts close. And when traveling à la Peavey, you never take the highway and you never go anywhere in season — unless it’s ironic. So we will be trekking to Bethel as the last remnants of the mountain’s moguls and Olympia, the giant snowbabe, are disappearing into the dirt.
The first thing to keep in mind about a trip to Bethel is it’s all about the journey. There are any number of ways to get there (Route 26 is the most expedient), but the classic drive is Route 35. First, you need to get yourself past North Windham to Naples, via Route 302. There is nothing good to be said, especially in summer, about this stretch of roadway between strip malls. There will be traffic, there will be sprawl — maybe even a little blight. Just get through it. Because once you do and take that right at the light in Naples across from Bray’s Brew Pub, onto 35, you will be plunged into another world.
Curvaceous and hilly Route 35 runs along the eastern shore of Long Lake through a dense canopy of trees, offering occasional glimpses of the hills beyond. When you arrive in the town of Harrison, take a left at the T-stop and proceed through town. You’ll pass the head of Long Lake on your left, and then follow 35 (a fork to your right) to Waterford. This is one of my favorite stretches of roadway. Plagued with frost heaves in mud season, the road can be almost impassible, but in summer it’s bliss. To your right, Bear Mountain towers so close to the road you feel as though you could reach out and slap it. (Not recommended.) To your left is gorgeous Bear Pond, with homes and camps perched upon the thin strip of steep incline between road and water. Along this way, there’s a boat ramp and a couple places where you can pull over for a quick dip.
(Another rule: Always travel in summer with your swimmies on or at the ready. Anyone who lives in Maine and does not jump in a swimming hole in summer when they have the chance is a fool and does not belong on a Peavey road trip. In fact, I have long been wanting to write a travel guide entitled, Drinking, Driving & Swimming: A Guide to the Best Brew Pubs, Back Roads and Swimming Holes in Maine. Editors seem to have a little trouble with the title — though, of course, a designated driver is assumed to be along for all these excursions.)
Refreshed by your swim, you can roll down the windows, crank up the stereo and move on.
The road next brings you into downtown North Waterford, home of the Beech Hill Bison Ranch, “New England’s premiere buffalo ranch.” You may want to stop and purchase a pound of bison (“won’t shrink like beef”), visit the trading post (pick up a hair-on robe or decorative skull for your sweetie), or just take a gander at these mighty creatures. (They love it when you croon “Home On the Range” to them. Honest. Try it.) Alternately, you can mosey down the road to Melby’s Market and Eatery, “Home of the Buffalo Burger,” and sample one for yourself.
As you head out of “town,” you’ll want to keep your eyes peeled for a right turn, where Routes 5 and 35 North diverge from 5 South. There’s an easy way to do this: Look for one of the most recognizable landmarks in Maine, the international town-name sign. You’ll obviously want to stop here for a photo-op. Make sure to pose wearing a confused look on your face, with arms akimbo for added hilarity.
Routes 35 and 5 mysteriously fork about halfway to Bethel, but either way will get you there. Route 35 empties into the heart of Main Street. Route 5 takes you in the back door, behind the Bethel Inn and Country Club, with its compound of trademark yellow buildings dotting the hillside. If you can wrangle an overnight, make sure you stay at the main inn and spend plenty of time in the outdoor, heated pool. (The benefit of a winter visit is the singular experience of lolling in this pool during a snowstorm.) Taking Route 5 will also lead you into a Big Dig-worthy bypass, which, if you are not paying attention, can cause you to miss town altogether. This, for the moment, is our plan.
That’s because the deal with Bethel is you have to do something outdoors before you unwind. Otherwise, you’ll have no trail cred. (Peeing behind the international town sign does not count.) To wit: you must find some woods to tromp in, a hill to climb, a stream to paddle — either that, or find someone to lend you some muddy clothes, which won’t be a problem in these parts. People around here know how to play. So, from Route 5, jump on Route 2 until I tell you to turn.
There is no shortage of fair-weather, outdoor action-adventures available. You can bike, hike, fish, golf, float or roam hopelessly lost in the woods, but for a city-slicking flatlander, these activities may pose a risk of bodily harm (or at least scuff your pretty shoes), so let’s start slowly. I’m going to send you on an easy hike — some might even call it a stroll — that requires no special agility, equipment or desire to venture too far off the grid: Step Falls Preserve.
Step Falls is a 24-acre, Nature Conservatory-owned parcel located on Route 26, in Newry, just north of Bethel. As you head in that direction on 2 East, you will do well to stop at the Good Food Store for some picnic fixin’s. Heather and Dave whip up wholesome and delicious soups, salads and deli sandwiches, and stock an array of organic produce and other Bethel necessities, such as faux bacon and ear candles. It’s also a town hub, so you can eavesdrop on local gossip as you browse.
(In Bethel proper, Café Di Cocoa offers an all-vegetarian menu of soups, wraps and quesadillas, as well as yummy bakery items. If you need a shot of joe before you carry on, the Mouse & Bean Internet Café has fresh-roasted Fair Trade coffee, as well as a selection of deli sandwiches, soups and baked goods — all made from scratch.)
Continuing on 2 East, you’ll pass the access road to Sunday River Ski Resort and, more important, the Sunday River Brewing Company. Do not stop here yet. No drinking and hiking on my watch.
When you arrive at the junction of 2 and Route 26 West, take a left onto 26. Note the “scenic highway” sign (like you need to be told this road is scenic) and proceed west for eight miles to Step Falls. (You’ll see a Nature Conservancy sign and a parking area on your right.) But first, a quick detour. Continuing just a little further west on 26 will take you to Grafton Notch State Park and Screw Auger Falls, a gouged-out gorge of geologic fabulousness. When you pass Mother Walker Falls, say it like you’re Mr. T. I promise you’ll be saying it this way (and driving your traveling companions crazy) all day.
Back at Step Falls, grab your lunch and take your sweet time ascending this wooded trail that runs alongside Wight Brook. If the water is low enough and you don’t mind a few scrapes, you can scramble over the massive boulders in the streambed. Near the top of the falls, nature has carved out waterslides and whirlpools. This place gets packed in summer with waders and bathers of all ages, and the water never gets much above hypothermia-cold, but you know what I’ll think of you if you don’t take the plunge. (A word of warning, though: the rocks beneath your bum may feel smooth, but multiple slides can easily shred bathing suits and undies. Bring a towel.)
OK, now that you’ve had your adventure, you’ve passed muster. Head back toward town and collect your reward beer at the Sunday River Brew Pub. Sitting outside — even in winter — is de rigueur here. The view is more scenic from the deck out back near the bocce court and horseshoe field, but all the action takes place on the main deck, located off the lounge. You’re likely to find yourself hanging out with any number of characters, ranging from slackers to Outward Bounders to townies. (An Outward Bound program is located just up the access road. The mill town of Rumford is 20 miles to the east, and the brewpub serves as a quick “getaway” for residents.) Conversation flows and overlaps easily here. One minute you’ll be talking to a nursing home worker, the next examining someone’s road rash. You don’t have to worry about fitting in, but if you want to, just limit your conversation to two words, “sweet” and “dude,” as in: “How were the Falls?” “Sweet.” “Is that your ear candle?” “Dude.”
Nor do you have to worry about fitting in back on Main Street. Visitors have been coming to Bethel since the Atlantic & St. Lawrence Railroad dumped its first load of them back in 1851, and you are always made to feel welcome. That’s because Bethel is not really a resort town. It’s a lived-in, comfortable little burg of about 2,500 people that has, in its downtown, an actual grocery store, a hardware store, and a host of locally owned shops and restaurants. The bypass keeps traffic light, and Bethel is a town that must be taken by foot. Besides, it’s time to work off your reward beer, so park the car and hoof it.
At the southern end of town, you’ll find a number of beautifully restored and maintained houses in the Broad Street area, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. (A self-guided, walking-tour map is available from the Bethel Historical Society.) The most distinguishing feature here is the Bethel Common, an expansive village green with a gazebo and fountain, horse-watering tub, a land-mounted fire bell (no, you may not ring it) and a veterans’ memorial. Next to the common is the front façade of the sunny, yellow, 1913 Bethel Inn, further distinguished by its green awning and shutters. The fire station is also located off the common, as well as churches, the historical society and the town library.
As you loop back onto Main Street, you can poke your head into the shops housed in Victorian buildings or swing by Brooks Bros. Hardware Store for a pound of nails and another chance to eavesdrop on local matters, such as whose toilet is clogged. When you’re done touring the town, you’ll probably be ready for more refreshment. If you want to watch daytime cable TV and drink Geary’s products, Home Slice Pizza is the spot for you. Honest to God, these are the most comfortable bar seats I’ve ever sat on, and if we hadn’t had to continue our tour and there had been a Red Sox game on (or a Gilligan’s Island marathon), I might’ve put in a good session here during my research for this piece.
Of course, you will have to stop by the Suds Pub, located in the downstairs of the Sudbury Inn, to say hello to the Baroness of Bethel herself, my pal Joyce, who is the manager there. (She loves it when I send readers in to say hello to her. Honest. And make sure to sing “Home On the Range” to her, too.) Hop-heads will feel right at home with Suds’ 29 taps (“the largest selection of draught beers in Western Maine”). The soups and sandwiches are great, and the pizza’s the best in town. If you find yourself visiting on a Thursday, you might want to hang around for “Hoot Nite,” an open mic hosted by Denny Breau, brother of the late jazz guitarist Lenny Breau — which I guess would make Denny Lenny Breau’s bro.
If you feel the need to push on toward home, I am going to send you back to Portland via Route 26 East, which will be a right turn off Route 2. (Don’t go left, back to Step Falls, or you’ll end up in — gulp — New Hampshire.)
Those willing to hang around can swing back up Route 2, where you might choose to make a stop at the upstairs pub of Rooster’s Roadhouse, a popular local hangout housed in a big red barn. In winter it’s packed with skiers, but this time of year there’s plenty of room to stretch out and converse with fellow tipplers, who are happy for the company. Across 2, the Jolly Drayman is a very cozy, ultra-Anglophile public house, serving fine ales and stouts and probably a respectable Pimm’s Cup. The Georgian farmhouse, which is also an inn, has been authentically bedecked in the style of jolly old England (the proprietors formerly owned a rural, 15th-century inn there, so they know from their mutton and mead). The only problem with all this intimacy is if there happens to be a patron sitting at the bar who punctuates her every sentence with a plangent “de-lish!” In this case, there is really no recourse but to hie thee thither on thy merry way.
Backstory: For a brief, bright moment in Portland history, BBQ Bob had a place at the bottom of Munjoy Hill. There, a lonely Action Girl could find a little solace and jambalaya before wending her way home after a night on the town. Then, suddenly, one day there was no more BBQ Bob. He had closed up shop and disappeared in a puff of hickory smoke.
Now he’s in Bethel — so close, yet so far away on this day (Graceland is open year-round, but closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays). The smoker was stone cold, and all I could do was press my face to the smudged and greasy glass. But that was OK. I knew I’d be back.