Travel Log: The Maine Priority is NOT the Photo!

The Red Boat

(Bangor, Maine; July 29, 2018) I know that headline might be something of a shock, coming as it does from an ardent photographer. But, it’s true. In the 21st century we may all forget that now and then, but the real goal of travel is not the photograph.

Ok, ok—before anyone gets snarky, yes, if you’re a professional photographer on assignment, then the end goal is the photo. But I think you know what I mean. After all, most of the people you meet while you travel are not professional photogs on assignment!

Still, in the 21st century selfie-obsessed world we live in, I see most of the people around me spend more time jockeying for position to get that perfect selfie or the coolest shot, but many never seem to actually look around where at they are. Yes, the photos are a wonderful way to keep fresh the memory of your adventures, but the point of the adventure is the adventure, not the photograph.

Three days ago (July 26) I was out at Pemaquid Point Lighthouse. Pemaquid Point is most famous as the lighthouse on the Maine state quarter. It’s a pretty simple light, but its location atop some truly spectacular rocky bluffs makes it a truly stunning place to visit.

Pemaquid Point Lighthouse
Pemaquid Point Lighthouse, Maine.  (July 26, 2018)

Yes, I took some great photos (of course they were great—I took them!). But then I put the camera away and just went down and sat on the rocks. I spent…actually, I’m honestly not sure how long I spent watching and listening to the surf crash onto the rocks. The sea up here is as restless as you can imagine and the force it exerts (even on a calm day) is truly sobering to behold. If you slipped off those rocks and fell into the water, the force of the waves would batter you to mashed potatoes in very short order.

No photograph can recreate the sound of that relentless assault on Maine’s ancient volcanic shoreline. No digital image can capture the feel of the breeze sliding across the ocean and tumbling up the shoreline. No picture can show you how clean the salt air smelled under the sun.

The photographs were not the goal at Pemaquid Point. No, Pemaquid Point and the powerful, subtle, ineffable qualities that make it Pemaquid Point were the goals of my July 26 drive.

I got to meet another photographer out there. He’s on a mission to visit and document every national park the way I’m on a mission to visit and document all 50 states and the District of Columbia. I got into an interesting discussion with some fellow tourists at the fishermans museum located in the old keepers quarters as we examined a taxidermied 28 pound lobster. Our banter included commentary on the differences between the lobster’s claws (the pincer and the crusher), and branched out to include the legal requirements the little museum listed for lobstering. For instance, if you catch a female carrying eggs, you notch her tail to mark her, then release her. The notch is a quick indication to other lobstermen that she must be released.

Pemaquid Point
The surf crashes on the rocky shore at Pemaquid Point, Maine.  (July 26, 2018)


Another moment I treasure was brought to me by a group of my fellow tourist who did put down their cameras and spend some time just watching the sea. One of them whooped in delight and pointed out into the water. A solitary seal was cavorting in the waves, obviously fishing and looking like he (she?) was having a high ole’ time popping in and out of the swells. Granted I decided to tune out their jokes about the seal being bait for a great white shark, but at least these travelers had taken time to observe and experience Pemaquid Point. Because of them, and because I had put my own camera down earlier, I was treated to a wonderful moment. This was the first time I’ve ever seen a seal in the wild. The sheer joy of the moment was the same as the first time I saw dolphins jumping in the bow wave of USS Ponce back in 2011, or the time I saw a humpback whale breach off the starboard side of USS Carl Vinson in 2001.

That is the kind of moment you get only once in your life, and the kind of moment you will completely miss forever if all your focus is just on achieving the perfect selfie (pardon the pun!).

Yesterday (July 28) I drove all the way out to Lubec, Maine, to see West Quoddy Head Lighthouse. Lubec has the distinction of being the easternmost town in the U.S., and West Quoddy Head marks the easternmost point. Lubec was bathed in gorgeous sunlight and blue skies…until I crossed the short isthmus to the point. That small distance changed the weather map completely and the fog I entered was something out of a Stephen King movie.

The fog was so thick it obscured the lighthouse even when I was only 50 feet way! On a clear day you can easily see the Canadian shoreline not a mile off. Yesterday you couldn’t see a quarter of a quarter of a mile. It was so stereotypically New England that it almost felt like I was in an over-engineered theme park that was trying too hard to feel like New England.

Yes, I wish the weather had been better. But, even so, the goal was not the photograph. The goal was experiencing Lubec and West Quoddy Head. I climbed the tower (I got lucky and visited on a day when the tower was open), and then hiked on the rocky shoreline a ways until I got far enough away from the other visitors that I couldn’t hear them.

I sat on a rock and watched the water pummel the shoreline in front of me. Otherwise, I just listened to the sound of the waves that were hidden by the fog on either side of me. The fog was chilly (it was over 80 degrees in Lubec proper; out by the lighthouse the temperature plummeted). I got damp enough and cold enough that I wished I’d brought my jacket.

It was cold, damp, and dim. And it was beautiful.

No photograph will ever convey had truly lovely it was to simply sit out there at the edge of the United States and just listen to the fog. How many people ever take the time to just go sit somewhere in a thick fog and listen to the quiet? In our frenetic, hyperactive work, how many people ever get the time to just go sit somewhere and listen to the quiet?

I will never, ever counsel anyone against taking photographs. Yes, I jockey for position and, yes, I hope for good weather and try my best to get a great shot telling a compelling story. But I never let myself lose sight of the true purpose of traveling is not the photograph.

The goal is to spend time experiencing the place. Experiencing it, learning about it, meeting its people, and becoming a better person because of it.

Always remind yourself the Maine goal is not the photograph!

West Quoddy Head Lighthouse
Even on a foggy day, West Quoddy Head Lighthouse is a impressive site.  (July 28, 2018)

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Nathanael Miller’s Photojournalism Archives:

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