The West Side of Boston

            When you think of Boston history you instantly think of its role in the American Revolution.  Boston National Historical Park covers a lot of this ground.  However, if you search in the western outskirts of Boston, you will discover that the National Park Service preserves Boston history running over multiple eras at three other park sites.

The Longfellow House where George Washington once stayed

            The first one I was able to visit was the Frederick law Olmsted National Historic Site, which is located in Brookline.  I made a visit last year after helping my sister move to the area.  It’s a small place with very little room for parking (the parking issue is a reoccurring theme at all three of these parks).  At the park, you can explore the grounds and home of Frederick Law Olmsted, who was a leading architect for the country and a major promoter of needing open spaces in neighborhoods.  The home has numerous displays in every room that showcase the many innovations in architecture that Olmstead used, and outside you can explore a nice but small garden.  Ultimately, this is a site you probably won’t be spending more than thirty minutes at.

Entrance sign for Frederick Law Olmsted NHS

            This past month I went a little further north in Brookline to visit John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site.  This site preserves the home that JFK was born in.  The only thing to really do here is the tour as the house is preserved in its original location on a now packed-in residential street.  The tour, however, is quite worth it as you learn a lot about JFK’s early life and the many methods the Kennedy family used to preserve this home (their efforts were almost as unique and as extensive as the Roosevelts’ efforts to preserve Springwood and the surrounding area of Hyde Park).

The steps to JFK's childhood home

            The final site on the western side of Boston might just be the jewel of the entire Boston area.  Earlier this month I also visited Longfellow House – Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site in Cambridge.  It’s an odd name, but the place holds as much history as the name suggests.  When you walk up to the site you see a beautiful house before walking into a garden almost as good as the ones at the Vanderbilt Mansion.  It’s past these gardens that you reach the visitor center where your tour begins.  It’s here that you learn that this house was where George Washington decided to base his headquarters for the Siege of Boston.  Our tour guide did a terrific job of explaining what rooms he might have walked through and what he might have been doing in them.  Our tour guide, however, made note that the person who had the most impact on this site was famed author Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  While Washington was certainly the more interesting character, the Longfellow history on this site was far more interesting as we learned about Longfellow’s life as well as the life of his children who lived quite liberal lives (tattoos, travel to China and a daughter with a female lover just to name a few things the children were involved in).  The interior of the house is also stunning with a plethora of paintings that seemed like they were straight from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  If you are going to visit any site in the Boston area make sure it’s this one.

Entrance to Longfellow House - Washington's HQ NHS

Ad Astra Review

            In terms of space exploration the past decade or so has been quite disappointing to follow.  It seems like the United States and many other countries in the world are stuck trying to find the right balance between private sector and government controlled space exploration, and that has really halted any sort of advances over the past few years.  At the movies, though, we have hit a golden era of space movies.  GravityInterstellarThe Martian and First Man have all come out in recent years and we just passed the ten year anniversary of Moon.  All of these movies have been quite memorable.  The latest addition to the genre belongs right alongside these movies.  Ad Astra takes the Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now story arc and brings it to space.  It’s an at times bleak and at times slow movie that still finds ways to visually stun you and give you a sense of optimism that you didn’t know it was capable of delivering.

            Ad Astra takes place in a future not to far away where we have not only built structures into space but have advanced manned spaceflight far enough to reach Neptune.  An American astronaut (Brad Pitt) is told that a recent string of electromagnetic surges that have caused major accidents all around Earth might be coming from his father (Tommy Lee Jones), who was on a mission to the outer reaches of the solar system in order to get better pictures of the universe and discover if there is other life out there before supposedly going rogue.  The astronaut is tasked with a mission that carries him to the Moon, Mars and Neptune. 

            It is painfully obvious that director and screenwriter James Gray wanted this to be an Apocalypse Now in space movie.  Not only is the structure of the movie similar but the dialogue is eerily so too.  A lot of this movie is spent with close-ups of Brad Pitt as he monologues through the inning thinking of his character (the monologues easily remind you of Willard’s in Apocalypse Now).  Fortunately, though, this all works.  The Apocalypse Now format is just so interesting and not really copied very often so giving it a space setting gives it just enough of a unique spin.  Also, Brad Pitt delivers with the huge task of carrying this movie pretty much by himself.  Pitt is at his best when he is asked to ground a character that would normally come across as unhinged (just look at his career best performances in The Tree of Life and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) so he was perfect for this role.

            This is easily James Gray’s largest and probably most accessible film yet.  You can notice scientific inaccuracies and poor CGI and sound design more so than in some of the other recent entries into this genre, but Gray still delivers a few great sequences including a chase sequence on the moon and a sequence in space that works as one of the best moments of horror in cinema this year.  Gray also gets some stellar work from Hoyte van Hoytema (who really broke out with his work on Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar so he is used to this environment).  Van Hoytema finds a way to make each planet look different in rather interesting fashion.

            Ad Astra continues a strong run for the space drama genre.


Maine's Other National Park Sites

A view of St. Croix Island from Devil's Head Conservation Area
            When you think of national park sites in Maine, you are most likely going to think of Acadia National Park, and if not Acadia, then the Appalachian Trail.  However, if you look long enough through the woods and shorelines of Maine, you will find two other, lesser-known national park sites.  I was able to visit both of them on my trip to Maine last month.  

My visit here marked my 100th national park site
            The first of these sites I visited was St. Croix Island International Historic Site, which you will have to go all the way up the Maine coast to the Canadian border to find.  St. Croix Island International Historic Site honors France’s first attempt at colonizing the New World.  The actual park site isn’t much as it’s located on the mainland rather than on the island.  There’s a small visitor center and an even smaller trail that gives you a brief history of the island as well as a close up view of it.  All the websites I read about the area pretty much said that although kayaking to the island isn’t outlawed, it is not encouraged in order to preserve the island.  That being said there is a boat lunch area at the site as well.  We didn’t bring kayaks go and had no intention of renting any.  If you do plan on taking the five-minute drive over the border into Canada, Parks Canada also has a national park site for the island.  To get the most of this area, though, you will want to go to Devil’s Head Conservation Area, which is a really short drive up Route 1 from the historic site. Here you get some nice northern Maine terrain to hike on as well as two different viewing areas (one up on a forested hill and the other on a coastal outlook) of St. Croix Island.

Maine coastline with St. Croix Island in the far distance
            The next day on our trip in Maine, my father and I traveled to Millinocket, which is the gateway town to Baxter State Park.  It is here that the National Park Service has set up a visitor center for one of the newest sites in the system, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.  The monument was only established in the last summer of Barack Obama’s presidency, and you can definitely feel that in ways more bad than good.  For starters, the monument is really off the beaten path. While the visitor center is easily accessible, the actual parkland and the monument’s major feature at this point (a gravel road that circles on section of the park) are an almost hour drive away from the visitor center.  As we made our way onto the nine-mile gravel road that began the final leg of our journey to the park loop road, we noticed a lot of anti-national park signs as well as road signs that made it clear that logging trucks had the right of way in every single situation on the road.  It made the journey a bit eerie.  We also had a long journey to our hotel for that night so the long ride to the monument killed our chances of staying for long.  We briefly enjoyed the nice scenery of Mount Katahdin and the Penobscot River on the park loop road and then made our way back to civilization. 

Maine wilderness with Mount Katahdin in the distance
            The future of this Katahdin Woods and Waters will be really interesting because it can either be preserved as one of the last true rustic experiences in the Northeast or be turned into a park as big, and maybe even as commercial, as Acadia or Shenandoah.  I would really like to see the place once more as the former before it becomes (if it ever does) the later.  That being said there has been a lot of political rhetoric and misleading information about this park’s creation (mostly from former Maine governor Paul LePage) that has made this an almost unwelcome place to visit as a hiker.  So this park’s future will clearly be something to watch.

The entrance to one of America's newest national park sites
            Neither of these parks delivered unforgettable experiences, but they certainly add to a nice tapestry of parks within Maine.

It: Chapter Two Review

            In the early fall of 2017, It surprised many by becoming the highest grossing horror movie of all time.  The movie became a pop culture phenomenon and spawned a renewed interest in the works of Stephen King.  Even before its box office success, though, a sequel was written in the cards as the movie itself announced in its own credits.  My personal interest in It: Chapter Two was almost non-existent.  I hadn’t even seen the first movie, but when it was announced that someone as talented as Jessica Chastain was joining the cast I couldn’t resist catching up.  The first movie was an average movie that survived on a really good ensemble performance and an interesting but clich├ęd Spielbergian plot.  It: Chapter Two is far from that. This sequel is an absolute disaster. You feel its almost three hour runtime (which had no reason on earth for being that long) as it stumbles through a ridiculous plot.  The movie desperately tries to cling onto what made the first movie work, but all it ends up being is an overlong mess that has no idea what type of tone it wants to hit.  This is a movie so bad that it makes it predecessor look even worse in hindsight.

            It: Chapter Two picks up 27 years after the first chapter as an over-the-top homophobic attack (that is never brought up again so clearly its only purpose was shock value for the sake of shock value) makes it clear that Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard in a small role in turns of screentime despite the fact that this movie is almost three hours long and he is playing the titular character) is still alive.  Mike (Isaiah Mustafa doing something way different from his most famous role as the Old Spice guy) is the only member of the Losers’ Club (the heroes of the first movie) still living in Derry and the first to realize the threat of Pennywise’s return so he begins to call the rest of the Losers’ Club to bring them back to Derry so they can defeat Pennywise once and for all.  

            Starting from that basic premise an hour of antics ensue where we are given ridiculous plot devices such as the characters not remembering their past because they stopped living in Derry or the Losers’ Club learning they have to do an ancient Indian ritual to defeat Pennywise.  All of this adds at least an hour to the plot and these devices are never explained in a fashion that you can understand the clear rules of their role in the universe.  

            Additionally, you begin to realize that with such a diverse set of lead actors (you have movie stars like Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy but also comedic scene stealers like Bill Hader) the ensemble just doesn’t gel as well as the younger cast from the first movie.  Some of that is by design (these characters haven’t interacted with each other since they were teenagers) but most of the time it just makes you wish the original cast was once again the main characters.  The original cast does get screen time, but most of the time it just feels shoehorned in as if the creators wanted you to remember how great they were in the first movie rather than for plot reasons. 

            Just as all over the place is the tone.  Pennywise is either played for laughs or for scares and it’s just a bizarre array of feelings that you are trying to make that character portray.  Bill Hader is the best part about the movie as an older version of Richie, but all his best moments are comedic bits that feel completely out of place from what becomes before and after his scenes.  The constant flow between horror and comedy just never is able to gel in a satisfying fashion.

            It: Chapter Two is a disastrous conclusion to the It movie series.


Acadia National Park Recap

Champlain Mountain summit

            When people think of eastern national parks, they normally think of two specific ones: Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Acadia National Park.  While I have unfortunately been unable to get to Great Smoky, I just had my second visit to Acadia National Park last month.  Acadia National Park, for the unfamiliar, is located on the coastline midway through Maine, and is a beautiful showcase for New England shorelines and rugged (but small) mountains.  It’s composed of a main unit on Mount Desert Island as well as units on the Schoodic Peninsula (further north up the coast) and on Isle au Haut (an island further south down the coast).  Both of my visits have unfortunately kept me on the extremely popular main unit on Mount Desert Island, which is filled with surrounding towns such as the famous Bar Harbor.  While I was able to notice just how overcrowded Mount Desert Island has become on this most recent visit (expect traffic jams and very few parking spots on the Park Loop Road during the summer anytime from 10am to 4:30pm), I was able to discover a lot of great things to do in Acadia without suffering from the crowds.

A view from Acadia's Park Loop Road

            To begin with I would recommend camping at Acadia’s Blackwoods Campground.  The surrounding towns have numerous hotel options (my first stay was at the Regency Hotel at the outskirts of Bar Harbor, which was right on the ocean and had two on property restaurants so it was pretty great), but the Blackwoods campground is so ideally located.  From the campground you can walk right onto the South Ridge Trail up to Acadia’s largest mountain and most popular mountain, Cadillac Mountain.  This allowed my Dad and I to make a night hike up to the summit to catch the sunrise without making many sacrifices as we just got out of our tent and started walking.  While I could write an entire book about how infuriating drive-up summits are (which Cadillac Mountain is so if you do plan on driving up to the summit get there early because the sunrise there is one of Acadia’s most popular events), the experience of hiking up the mountain under the stars was unforgettable.  It was just unfortunate that I had to watch the sunrise with people breathing right on top of me who clearly couldn’t have got there without the help of a car.

Moments before sunrise on Cadillac Mountain

            While the sunrise won’t be as good there, another place to get another great Acadia experience is hiking up to the Sargent Mountain and Penobscot Mountain area of the park for the sunset.  The trailhead for these mountains is unfortunately Jordan Pond.  Jordan Pond is a beautiful area that has hiking opportunities for hikers of all ages and levels.  It also has a top rate restaurant in the Jordan Pond house as well as the park’s best gift shop.  However, that makes the area quite possibly the most crowded area in an already overcrowded park.  Time it just right, though, and you will get an unforgettable experience.  If you start at the Jordan Cliffs Trail at around 5pm (The two times I have gone to Acadia have been in August so adjust accordingly) and make your way towards Sargent Mountain before bagging Penobscot, you will get one of the best hikes in the world as well as a gorgeous sunset to feast your eyes on.  It’s a hike that showcases everything that Acadia has to offer from rung-filled trails that test your fear of heights to alpine ponds you can swim in to beautiful alpine zones that give you expansive views of the Atlantic.  

Sunset on Penobscot Mountain

            As you can see Acadia is a hiker’s paradise.  If you love hiking, like I do, you have to make a pilgrimage here.  That being said, if you are looking for other things that America’s national parks have to offer, you may want to look elsewhere.  The park’s creation was mostly due to the Northeast’s elite.  One of people who helped create the park was a dean of Harvard and the Rockefellers helped finance the upkeep of the park. So the park’s history is nothing extravagant.  However, the park and Bar Harbor do have the Abbe Museum, which honors the Wabanaki people (the people who first lived in the area).  I have unfortunately not been able to visit either of the two museums (which are part of the Smithsonian museum collection) on my visits so they are definitely high on my list when I go back to the area.  Additionally, the wildlife viewing opportunities in Acadia are not as good as they are in other parks.  Acadia has no megafauna, and my personal experiences of seeing wildlife have been few and far between.  I saw a fox driving at night on my first visit there, and on my visit last month I saw a harbor seal while kayaking, heard a peregrine falcon while hiking the Jordan Cliffs Trail and saw a gaggle of Turkeys on my way to the Ocean Path. While that may seem like an interesting assortment of animals, it doesn’t even come close to the variety of wildlife I’ve seen at, say, Cape Cod National Seashore (which is another Northeastern coastal park).

The history behind Jordan Pond House

            Altogether, though, these are just minor quibbles about one of the best places that America has to offer.  I have yet to mention so many of the other unique hiking trails that Acadia has to offer whether it’s the fear inducing Precipice Trail or the Bar Island trail that only reveals itself at low tide.  The cuisine within the park is also sublime.  Blueberries seem to sprout up every trail in the park, and while lobsters aren’t technically caught inside park boundaries the area has some of the best in the country.  Additionally, a night sky ranger talk I went to at Sand Beach on my first visit to Acadia remains one of my favorite ranger activities ever.  So in total Acadia National Park is a place everyone should visit once in their life.  There’s just so much to do here and in the neighboring towns that even if you aren’t an avid hiker you won’t be bored.

The Precipice Trail

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