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Expanding Horizons With a Summer Job

A California college kid in Bar Harbor sees new places, meets new faces--and gets a visit from Mom and Dad

May 21, 2000|ELLEN MELINKOFF | Ellen Melinkoff is a freelance writer in Los Angeles

Last year about this time, I asked my 20-year-old son, Alex, what he was doing for the summer. I suggested (harangued, he would say) a job at a national park.

Sometimes my suggestions are received less than enthusiastically. But this time Alex saw the possibilities: a summer job away from home, on his own, with other adventurous kids in an exciting, new place. It all sounded--well, I believe the term was "awesome."

He applied to five national parks (Zion in Utah, Denali in Alaska, Acadia in Maine, Yellowstone in Wyoming and Yosemite in California) and got offers from concessionaires at the last three. I shamelessly pushed for Acadia (although Alex would probably say "harangue" applies here too).

I hadn't been to Acadia since I was 12, and here was the perfect excuse to go back: A mom's gotta visit. So while Alex would experience a part of the country different from the West Coast, I would enjoy a getaway of my own.

Alex had been to Yellowstone and Yosemite on family vacations; Acadia was a complete unknown. He learned that the park covers 30,300 acres of Mount Desert Island, a lobster-claw-shaped piece of land divided into two lobes by Somes Sound, the only fiord in the Lower 48. The island is about 14 miles long and eight miles wide, halfway up Maine's coast and connected by causeway to the mainland.

Bar Harbor, the main village, would provide Alex a base for all sorts of adventures: boating on the North Atlantic, hiking Acadia's peaks, wandering quaint Maine towns with 19th century summer "cottages" (translation: mansions).

My son made his decision. He booked an airline ticket to the East Coast.

Alex sounded exhilarated when he called from a Main Street phone booth the night he arrived in Bar Harbor. Maine was the most amazing place, and he couldn't believe he was spending the summer there. He saw so many kids his age from across the country, and the town looked full of life. He talked about the rocky coast, the green scenery, all the town parks (he hadn't seen Acadia yet). He even noticed the architecture: The houses were tall and old.

He assured me that Bar Harbor was so incredibly beautiful that he didn't care if he didn't make a single friend all summer. Three hours later, he called back to say he was having an impromptu party with his new roommates and the kids next door.

It wasn't until midsummer that my ex-husband, Marc, and I ventured to Bar Harbor for a five-day visit with Alex.

For Easterners, the town has long been a summer destination for the wealthy, including the Carnegies, Vanderbilts and Rockefellers. John D. Rockefeller donated about one-third of Acadia's land and built the park's 57 miles of carriage roads, the car-free joy of bikers and hikers. These days the island is packed in summer with campers, B&B-goers and the truly blessed, who rent homes.

Before our arrival, Alex checked out places to stay and decided that we'd be happy at Town Motel and Moseley Cottage Inn, four blocks from his apartment. The motel part of the complex was plain-looking, but the three-story, yellow Victorian B&B section was filled with antiques.

The motel was on a residential street, nice and homey. Our room lacked air-conditioning, but with some of Maine's wonderfully foggy days to come, that wouldn't be a problem.

By the time we arrived in July, we hadn't seen Alex for five weeks. He met us at our B&B, hopping over the front porch railing and talking a mile a minute about this paradise of his. He glowed.

Alex was working at the Jordan Pond Ice Cream and Fudge Shop on Main Street. He lived upstairs in housing owned by his employer, park concessionaire Acadia Corp. Four apartments each housed four or five employees.

Their communal deck overlooked the harbor, and the kids would gather before and after shifts, even during breaks. They threw parties, held barbecues, chatted. Someone always was around if Alex wanted company.

Alex was earning $7 an hour, but oh, the perks! When the kayaks weren't rented to paying customers, employees could use them in supervised classes. The ponds (Maine-speak for lakes) and calm coves offered abundant possibilities. Their flotillas went in and out of remote bays where Alex and his friends could glimpse summer cottages through the spruce, pine and tamarack trees.

Then there was the Margaret Todd, the first four-masted schooner to sail New England waters in more 50 years. When it wasn't fully booked, park employees could join the two-hour sunset cruises. (Tourists pay $26 for the same experience.) If they wanted, the employees served as crew as the boat sailed around the Porcupine Islands in the bay. One girl brought a guitar and sang Bob Dylan songs.

Alex could see midnight movies at the Criterion, the town's only theater, a lovingly restored Art Deco building. Or he could wait until low tide and walk the sand bar to Bar Island for a few hours. Alex was working full-time, but to him, this was a vacation.

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