Downtown, Maine: Bath

Downtown, Maine: Bath
A travel series by Elizabeth Peavey

As I’ve cast about for destinations for this series, Bath has always been an obvious choice. 

First, it’s close — only 40 miles up the coast. And Bath is one of those classic New England Main-Street villages people like to visit. Situated on the west bank of the mighty Kennebec River shortly before it empties into the Atlantic, Bath is a seafaring, shipbuilding city with an illustrious history. (That is, illustrious to those interested in things seafaring and shipbuilding.) Grand captains’ houses, brick Colonials, Greek Revivals, white clapboard Capes and farmhouses are gracefully spaced along its tree-lined streets. 

Bath’s compact downtown is home to boutiques, a handful of junk/antiques shops, a big Reny’s, a couple places to get good coffee, a nice pub and some decent restaurants — even one offering Memphis barbeque. A waterfront park overlooks the Kennebec and the dual spans of the Carlton and Sagadahoc bridges above it, and there’s a sprawling, shady city park at the north end of the business district. There are abundant opportunities to get on the water, from kayak rentals  to excursion boats, as well as a handful of preserves and sanctuaries nearby for strolling. 

Bath is the gateway to two of the state’s loveliest beaches, Popham Beach and Reid State Park, located on two peninsulas that dangle out from Bath into the Atlantic like lobster claws. A city of about 10,000, Bath is also home to a thriving arts center, a world-class maritime museum, and numerous historic sites dating back to the early 1600s. 

For a visitor, Bath has it all. But there’s one thing I’ve left out: Bath happens to be my hometown.

Now, most people would consider this a plus for the writer of a travel series — having all that insight and insider knowledge of the secret, off-the-beaten-path places. The problem is, I have too much history. I don’t see the same city you see. Changes Bath has undergone over the years dissolve like layers of paint before my eyes, revealing a personal pentimento of my hometown. 

So how, I wondered, could I look at Bath with a fresh eye, approach it with the open mind of an outsider? Easy. Drag along my Portland-peninsula-clinging Bollard editor, Chris Busby.

Honestly, it wasn’t my idea. I’m very selective about my traveling companions. And if you’ve been following this series, you know I have a strict code of road-trip ethics I expect people to adhere to. But after sitting on the bench for all my other Bollard adventures, Busby suggested he tag along this time. I agreed, thinking I could show him a thing or two about life away from his precious Portland, plus give him a glimpse into the background of his old (and older) writing pal. I dubbed this the Peavey Heritage Tour.

Things did not get off to a good start. Sure, he arrived on time on the appointed day, but when the first question I asked – “Got your swimmies?” – was answered in the negative, I started to worry. That was going to rule out one of the day’s activities: “Pluck the Leeches.” 


The Carlton and Sagadahoc bridges.
The Carlton and Sagadahoc bridges.

I already had a route roughed out, one I created during my dating years, called the Boyfriend Tour, for those rare occasions I felt it necessary to show a fella where I grew up. It usually started with a stop at the site of my first job, a log-cabin information booth at the rest area just south of town, on Route 1. But the last time I was there, I noticed it had been bulldozed. Gone, obliterated from history, just like Portland’s Union Station. So, instead, we took the Cooks Corner exit off 295 North, then a left onto the Brunswick Road. 

Cooks Corner is officially in Brunswick, but I still consider it part of my neighborhood. Along this stretch of roadway was our drive-in movie theater (I remember going to see The Odd Couple in my p.j.s in the back of my parents’ Chevy Impala convertible), Yankee Lanes bowling (home court of my schoolgirl bowling team, Liz’s Lofters), and the discount department store Mammoth Mart (the ultimate childhood insult: “Nice outfit. Where’d you get it, Mammoth Mart?”). 

Today, this stretch is nothing but stoplights and acre after acre of big-box blight. But I wanted to take a peek at Sawyer Park, a public landing on the New Meadows River, where my family often launched our boat. Although we lived in town, this river is the backdrop of most of my childhood memories. How many times had I plied these waters, hand at the helm, father by my side to guide me around the sunken ledges and sandbars? Or had I just imagined those memories? I figured it’d be worth a look. 

Keep an eye to your right for the blue public landing sign just after you’ve passed the big Skillins Greenhouse complex, also on your right. (Hint: if you cross the river, you’ve gone too far.) We followed the road to the steep boat ramp at its end. There’d been changes — paving, a Port-a-Potty, a picnic spot — but when Busby and I walked down to the dock, it all became very familiar. A boat on a trailer being hauled out of the drink clanked and rattled up the landing. I gazed down the river, fringed on either side by fir and spruce trees and dotted with cottages, and saw the humpbacks of ledge exposed by the tide. 

This was the Maine of my dreams, the Maine of my memories. I turned back, expecting to see the admiring face of my editor. But that face wasn’t admiring. What was that look? Bored? He was already bored! As we headed back to the car, I noticed a great blue heron the color of the glistening blue-gray mudflats he was standing in, just a few feet from us. Nature sighting! And yet I got another big fat nothing from Busby. I couldn’t even interest him in the decomposing striper carcass I spotted in the grass by the parking lot. My husband, John, would’ve examined it intently. That’s why I married him: he has such an excellent road-trip ethos.

The next turn on the Heritage Tour brought us to Witch Spring Hill, where townsfolk used to fill their jugs with free, pristine drinking water. We took a right onto the Berry Mills Road. This is a lovely, twisty-turny, hilly detour that eventually hooks up with Campbell Pond Road. A left will shoot you back out onto Route 209, the main conduit between Bath and Popham, but we hung a right and continued deeper onto the peninsula so I could show Busby the Meadowbrook Campground, where my childhood friend Susan Ambrose and I would pedal our bikes from her camp at Brighams Cove to buy candy at the camp store. Had Busby and I been on a full Peavey Pilgrimage, we’d have continued on to Sebasco, Small Point and Hermit Island, Popham, Morse Mountain (an excellent hike) and/or Fort Popham, but I had already done that trip the week before with John, so I spared him.

 This Phippsburg side trip is a destination all to itself, and is deserving of more attention than I will give it here, but a couple words of advice. First of all, you can get lost, but rarely stay lost on a peninsula. There are lots of side roads — some connecting, some not. Panic if you must, but so long as you keep driving, you’ll always find water or Route 1. Keep your trusty Gazetteer by your side and you’ll be fine. 

Secondly, even this time of year, always travel with your swimmies, because you never know — oh, wait, we already established this as a rule, didn’t we, Chris? I mention this because you can make a scenic loop around the peninsula by traveling from Popham up its east side on Parker Head Road. Just before this road rejoins 209, it crosses a little concrete bridge over an excellent (if you don’t mind a little pond scum and the aforementioned leeches) swimming hole, Center Pond. This was a big hangout for us when we were kids. It’s the place our mothers took us if we wanted to go swimming but they didn’t want to trek us all the way to the beach. There was a rope swing here — long gone — and I can still feel the pubescent terror of losing the top or bottom of my bikini on those plunges. 

No swimming on this trip. Instead, we headed back toward town and made a quick stop at Up the Creek kayak and canoe rentals. For a very reasonable $10 for three hours, you can nose your way around Winnegance (“wind against” or “short carry,” depending on whose translation you trust) Bay. There’s the classic-looking Winnegance General Store right across the causeway, should you need to provision. This was also a major candy stop for me as a child, and on past visits, I found it’d maintained an authentic country-store feel. But when I took a quick spin inside this time, it looked a little more tired than I remembered. A TV blared in one corner, and the shelves were a wee scant. The entire back section of the store was devoted to an odd assortment of curios, crafts and used books. But there was a beer cooler stocked with Gritty’s and Geary’s products, as well as Harpoon I.P.A., so all is not lost. 

Shortly after Winnegance, heading back north to town, Route 209/High Street forks. Continuing straight puts you on High Street, which runs the entire length of town, as does Washington Street, to the right. I opted for Washington, a street that offers occasional water views along its length and passes the famed Maine Maritime Museum. There you’ll find the Percy & Small Shipyard, historic displays, art, artifacts, and a nautical gift shop. There are also tours and river cruises that leave from the site. 

Farther up Washington Street, we began to pass the long exterior wall of Bath’s city within a city, the Bath Iron Works (a.k.a. the Yard). When I was growing up, most of my classmates’ fathers worked at BIW, and we townsfolk navigated our lives around its hours — the break horns that rang across the city, the foot and car traffic at quitting time. I can still picture the dinged hard hats and lunch pails of the men traipsing home at three-something every day. I used to think, If that’s what work is, I’ll have none of it, thank you very much

We next made a quick stop at The Cabin. This restaurant’s been dishing up some of the state’s best pizzas and subs since 1973. The interior is everything you want a pizza joint to be: lots of cozy nooks and side rooms, pine booths varnished to a syrupy luster, and lighting dark enough for ambience but not so dim that you have to grope for your anchovies. The minute I stepped inside and was engulfed in that good, familiar pizza smell, I knew there were some things that just don’t change.

One thing that has changed, for the better, is the selection of restaurants in town. Mexican food? In Bath? (Check out Mateo’s Hacienda.) Barbecue? (The original Beale Street Barbeque smokes here.) An upscale bistro? (Hello, Solo Bistro.) A very nice health food store? (Bath Natural Market, naturally.) When I was a kid, the choice was a hot dog from Norm’s Pantry, an éclair from Frosty’s Donuts or a sundae from Hallet’s Drug Store. In fact, I can’t ever remember eating a meal out in Bath when I was a child. Later, in the late ‘70s, there would be the exposed brick of the Front Street Deli, with its folk singers and subterranean fern bar; and, after that, Kristina’s, a first-class bakery-cum-restaurant. But all those places are gone. 

Busby and I stopped to pick up tacos from Mateo’s — a little sliver of a restaurant, painted bright orange with festive blue trim. Orders are made on the spot with fresh, local ingredients and a wide variety of fillings and salsas. As we returned to the car, I gestured to the empty lot beside us. “This is the site of the former Bath Opera House, my childhood movie theater,” I announced, hoping I could conjure the image for my traveling companion. But I could see his eyes were fixed farther up the street, on the arching windows of Byrnes’ Irish Pub. When I finally allowed us a beer break later in the day, I was very impressed with this relative newcomer in downtown Bath. Those high windows flood the open and airy room with light, and the menu offers a great selection of Irish and stateside beers on tap, as well as Irish pub fare, like Joe’s Whiskey Wings, marinated in Jameson and “shamrock sauce.”

(I was also impressed with the Bounty Tavern, the lounge at the Holiday Inn just off Route 1 — our last stop of the tour. I’d recalled it as a dark and seedy hangout where locals went to hear bands play Eagles covers, but when Busby and I stopped in, we found the space awash in light. The room is flanked by a fern-lined solarium and dominated by a capacious bar. The nautical motif is not subtle here — you can almost hear the jib being hoisted as the surf crashes over the gunnels — but there’s plenty of room to stretch out, the barkeep is personable, and any bar that carries Dogfish Head I.P.A. on tap is OK with me.)   

After our pub stop, I decided my editor needed a little outdoor adventure before we continued, so I took him to the far northern end of Bath, to Thorne Head Nature Preserve. You used to have to stash your car in the woods, but now there’s a nice trailhead and parking area. After we’d tromped through this placid, mixed-growth forest, the trail offering glimpses of water before opening to a scenic overlook of the Kennebec and surrounding islands, I stopped in my tracks and confronted him: “This isn’t doing anything for you, is it?” He had to confess, “No.”

It was definitely time for a beer.

Had coffee been in order, we would’ve stopped at Café Crème for an excellent cup of Portland’s own Coffee By Design brew and maybe a nice baked something. (Another great find on this trip for a coffee-and-sweets stop: the recently opened Marnee’s Cookie Bistro.) I knew dragging Busby into one of my favorite stores in Maine, the gigantic culinary outfitter Now You’re Cooking, was out of the question, yet I still had so much Peavey Heritage to show him. There was my dentist’s office, the place I had my first bank account, the office where my mom worked, and over there, the storefronts of the two former Hallet’s drugstores, Endicott & Johnson’s shoes, Senter’s department store, Povich’s clothing store (where we all bought our Landlubber hiphuggers) and the Grock Shop, Bath’s first, and probably only, head shop. (My friends and I used to crowd through the beaded curtains to the back room, where there were black-light posters, and hang out on the water bed until the owner shooed us out.) 

By this time, we’d worked our way around to the backside of town and the municipal parking lot behind the Front Street businesses. Across Water Street, we faced another parking lot, once known as “Greasers’ Graveyard.” This was where townies used to gather on Saturday nights in between cruises. For generations, cruising was the primary pastime here, before the back-to-the-land, Earl Grey drinkers arrived in the mid-1970s and began transforming Bath into the pretty city it is today. Woe be to the homely girl who got relegated to the backseat with a boy held back enough times to be able to buy beer for junior-high kids, while her best friend made out with the cute guy in the front. The sight of the lot was enough to send a shudder down my spine.

And so was Busby’s suggestion that we duck in the back entrance to J.R. Maxwell’s Boatbuilders Pub. I had not been in here since I left for college some 30 years ago, and assumed it was now Bath’s premiere townie bar, ever since the Triple R Bar closed. Sure enough, as we entered on that beautiful, sunny summer afternoon, the bar, with its low ceiling and Guns ‘N’ Roses blaring, was packed with mostly young men, sitting on the same barstools, talking the same trash and traps and anecdotes about life at the Yard as the last time I was there. I know it’s been a number of years since the smoking ban’s been in effect, but I swear I was inhaling secondhand smoke. When I placed my beer down on a varnished, knotty-pine shelf, I had to admire the veritable leopard skin of old cigarette burns. 

I wanted to be back out on the river, in the woods, anywhere but here. Because while my wild, outdoors childhood had been an idyll, this was the Bath I fled all those years ago. Yet, here I was again, at the heart of my darkness. When I turned to Busby to show him the kind life I’d had to escape, what was that look on his face? Bliss? Bliss

Not I, the author, but he, the outsider, was finally at home.

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