Robert Frost was a wise man. Sometimes, the best way to travel is by the least-traveled route. Interstates and speedy secondary routes are great to get you close to where you planned for months to unplug, but why arrive stressed from a rendered-down version of the Monday-to-Friday-meat-grinder most of us endure trying to get to and from work?
The last part of the journey should be an enjoyable ride at a pace that lets one savor the surroundings with the windows down. Get up earlier, take off the wristwatch and pick a thin blue line on the map. No plans yet? Have I got a trip for you.
Located in the Western Mountains of Maine, the Rangeley Lakes Region encompasses every aspect of what a vacation in the great outdoors should be. In the heart of the region, the town of Rangeley has been the popular jumping off point for the outdoors person since the Civil War, a sort of base camp for those wishing to exfoliate some of their urban skin and get away from that darn TV. But the joy begins with the journey. Lets begin....
Ill skip the details of the Maine Turnpike and fast-forward onto Route 4N out of Auburn to Livermore, Maine. Here, you take a left onto Route 108N, a scenic route in itself through the fields and centers of worldly named towns like Canton and Peru, until you get to Route 2W in Mexico and the final leg of the journey.
There is some truth to the axiom that the best is always saved until last. Route 17 doesnt disappoint. Whats intriguing, turning right onto what appears to be just another road, is that no sign proclaims what is to be experienced.
The Mexican suburbs thin quickly to hamlets; copses of houses huddle on straightaways and hairpin turns. Meadows alive with the warm buzz of summer pass by at 40 mph; the pleasure of driving has taken hold. Gazing over the fields of the Swift River Valley with the hood of my truck on a beeline straight into the mountains, an unshakeable feeling surfaces that a certain truth has been brought to light. Traffic is always light traveling this route. There really is joy in the journey.
No trip on Route 17 would be complete without stopping at the Coos Canyon rest area. Located in Byron, Coos Canyon is a gorge carved into solid granite by the Swift River. Eons upon eons of spring run-off and the scouring action of the gravel that moves within these boiling currents have left behind a perfect stopping point for a picnic or a wade in the gin-clear pools. But my favorite Swift River past time is panning for gold.
Yes, gold. A walk across the road to the little mineral shop/country store will awaken the tiny conquistador that dwells within all of us. My adventurous side never fails to stir when I gaze upon all the vials of Swift River gold lining the display case. Flakes that look like gilded oatmeal and nuggets the size of match heads. Nothing comes close to the rich, buttery color of pure native gold. The proprietors of this little store gladly give lessons on panning for a small fee, and a guided outing can be arranged. Me, I am content to find a nice quiet bend in the river and take my chances to discover a little sparkle in my pan.
Rangeley is only about 45 minutes away, and the best of the journey is yet to come. A word of caution to any newcomer traveling any rural road in Maine: always remain vigilant for moose or deer in the roadway. Peak times are usually at night or the low-light periods of the day, but Ive seen both at mid-afternoon. Especially moose.
The elevation starts to rise, gradual at first, as Byron ebbs into deep woods salted sparingly with old logging roads and camps. The road begins to narrow, cutting deeper into stands of Spruce and Hemlock, the canopy of which casts a reaching shadow as if the wood itself is struggling to reclaim what the road has taken. Glimpses through the trees reveal mountains rugged with cliffs. There is nowhere to go but up.
The road steepens and begins to take on a life of its own, clinging to the terrain and dodging its way through exposed ledge like a river of asphalt finding its way on a line of least possible resistance. As if on cue, the canopy breaks, and the valley Ive been traveling seems nothing more than a footprint compared to the vast expanse of openness. All at once, there is a collision of air, granite, woods and water. I have to pull over.