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Michael Barnes

A New England respite

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Black Pond, Maine. Photo: Joe Starr.

Black Pond, Maine. Photo: Joe Starr.

For the fifth summer in a row, we’ve escaped the Texas heat for a few weeks in New England.  The main stop — Black Pond — located in the foothills of Maine. A few old friends share a cabin on a small lake facing a preserve of pine, birch and hemlock. Wood thrushes serenade us at dawn and dusk. Most days start with a hike into nearby Mount Vernon. Most afternoons include swimming, boating and more hiking. Kip and I are in charge of brunches around noon each day. Duties for evening feasts are divided among our friends. Really, it’s just day after day of playing, reading, cooking, eating, drinking and relaxing. This year’s late-night treat: multiple seasons of HBO’s “Veep,” which is much edgier and more enjoyable than I had any reason to expect.

One of 13 daily brunches at Black Pond. Photo: Joe Starr.

One of 13 daily brunches at Black Pond. Photo: Joe Starr.

My summer reading has included John Lahr‘s magnificent “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh,” Langdon Hammer’s minutely detailed “James Merrill: Life and Art,” Sven Beckert‘s far-reaching global history, “Empire of Cotton,” and the fourth volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard‘s exhaustive memoir/novel “My Struggle.” Enjoyed them all, although I’m not finished with Hammer’s full 800 pages, and probably will take the rest of August to complete them. Otherwise, I typically reserve back issues of The New Yorker for vacations like this one. Yes, we were in the woods, but we had WiFi, so we regularly checked in on local, regional and national media.

Last day at Black Pond. Photo: Michael Barnes.

Last day at Black Pond. Photo: Michael Barnes.

This year, we discovered that one of the roads that leads to cabin, Klir Beck, was named for a renowned Maine artist who lived in a Tudor revival house less than a mile from our cabin. Only the odd garage remains after a fire some 16 years ago. He was renowned for his nature studies, including diaramas in Augusta’s otherwise deserted State House. He also helped decorate cosmetics queen Elizabeth Arden’s house on the Belgrade Lakes nearby. The estate, recently resold after much diminishment, was once a spa, welcoming guests such as Mamie Eisenhower and Judy Garland. An older gentleman we encountered each day on Klir Beck Road — walking his hostile beagle — said that the celebrities came there to “dry out.”

11863419_10205797344865092_535557793956362381_nBy the way, Augusta, the nearest city to Black Pond, hosts the excellent Maine State Museum. On several floors, it goes deep into past occupations and domestic lives, among other things, and includes an instructive water mill. No really, it’s one of the best such history museums I’ve ever encountered. The state capital also offers the Viles Arboretum, which spreads out over many acres with young-growth forests, wide meadows and specialized groves of larches, chestnuts and conifers, as well as dozens of varieties of hostas, the cold-hearty Asian flowers now ubiquitous in New England.

For the past four years, we’ve bracketed our Maine weeks with a few days in Boston. That way, we take advantage of direct Jet Blue flights into and out of Logan and spend the total of a week in the South End. Buddy and teacher Lawrence Morgan and I explored yet another wing of the endless Museum of Fine Arts – Boston, which like other American mega-museums, is predicated on the notion that great art well presented is not enough. One must overwhelm. Such is not the case at the newly renovated Harvard Art Museums, which offers excellent samples from each period and region without ever overdoing. Think of the Menil Collection in Houston, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth or the Frick Collection in New York.

Lots of hiking around Cambridge, Back Bay, Fenway and other nearby hoods, stopping to eat at Stephi’s on Tremont, and its cousin, Stephanie’s on Newbury, as well as Kirkland Tap and Trotter, the Gallows and Petit Robert Bistro.

Happy 50th birthday again to our dear, young friend, Carol Cosenza, who threw the perfect dance party at Lilypad, a micro-venue in Cambridge. Wish Austin had more spots like this one. Less overhead and more intimate.