Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Late Night Drive to L.L. Bean

It's Saturday night. The weather is cold and windy, and a massive Nor'easter is due in the following morning. You're sitting at home, feeling restless. Maybe your date canceled at the last minute, leaving you with no evening plans. Or you're feeling sad that the cycling season is almost over. What's a New Englander to do?

Well, this New Englander decided to make a late-night trip to the L.L. Bean Flagship Store.

Located in Freeport, Maine (a little over two hours from Boston) the "L.L. Bean run" has been a midnight right-of-passage for college students, outdoor enthusiasts, and New England insomniacs ever since Mr. L.L. Bean himself removed the locks from the store's doors in 1951. To this day, it's still open 24-hours-a-day, 365 days a year.

I had never made the trip though. So by 9:30 p.m. Saturday night, I was on the road in a rental car heading to Freeport. Beside me was a big cup of Dunkin' Donuts coffee and my camera.

It's always surprising to me how close Maine actually is to Boston. Just head up I-95, zip through New Hampshire's tiny coastline, and in about an hour you're at the Maine border. From there, it's another hour drive on the Maine Turnpike to Freeport. Completed in 1947, the Maine Turnpike was one of the first super-highways built in America.

Just before entering Portland, I exited onto I-295, which loops out closer to the coast. At that point I switched on the radio and listened to the Yankees-Angels ALCS game. I didn't care who would win, now that the Red Sox are out (sniff, sniff). But I do like hearing sounds of baseball in the background.

Portland was soon visible out my right window -- a beautiful city glittering against the clear night sky. On my left was the Portland Jetport. That's right ... not an "airport", a "jetport". Isn't that cool? I wonder ... when Portlanders go to their airport, do they say: "I'm leaving for the jetport"? I hope so.

The road became quite dark north of Portland, but it wasn't long before I began seeing exit signs for Freeport. By this time it was about 11:40 pm. I thought back to the directions I memorized from the L.L. Bean website. Exit 18, 19 ... then there it was ... Exit 20. I got off the highway, turned right at the next street, and soon I was driving down Main Street, Freeport.

It's a bit eerie driving through this world-famous, brightly-lit shopper's paradise with no one around. Despite having so many major brand stores (Burberry, J. Crew, Polo Ralph Lauren, etc.) the town still has the feel of small New England Village, complete with art galleries and restaurants. All were closed.

I slowly drove through town, keeping an eye out for the L.L. Bean oasis. I turned left at a Gap shop, and then ... a bit off to my right ... there it was -- The huge L.L. Bean Flagship store.

Actually, there were three stores: the main retail store, with clothes, shoes, camping, hunting, and fishing supplies; a new store across the parking lot dedicated to home goods (kitchen things, bedroom linens, some furniture); and then an annex for kayaking, skiing, and cycling.

I parked the car, switch my camera into "Night Snapshot" mode, put on my L.L. Bean jacket which I love (I bought it at an L.L. Bean store near where I live), and walked to the main entrance...

That's their signature product in the above photo ... the Bean Boot, created by Leon Leonwood Bean in 1912 to keep Maine hunters' feet dry.

Walking inside, I had to adjust my eyes to the light...

And so there I was ... at L.L. Bean, at five minutes 'till midnight.

It wasn't crowded, but there were people there. A young woman was talking to her friend on her cell phone. "Really ... it's midnight and I'm at the L.L. Bean store!" she said. And there were a few families with little kids, who were clearly enjoying being up way past their bedtimes (the parents and the kids).

At various locations throughout the store, display cases tell the L.L. Bean story, like these that describe the Bean Boots I mentioned earlier...

This truly is a fun place to explore, even if you have no interest in some of the outdoor activities they cater to. For instance, I've never done any camping as an adult, and I don't really have a desire to ... but I still found myself fascinated by all the cool camping equipment! Amazing tents, solar powered radios, warm sleeping bags ... I started thinking: you know, maybe camping would be kind of nice, sleeping out there under the stars. At the very least you get to dream about buying all this nifty stuff.

Passing through the parka section, feeling the leather of the Bean Boots, and walking by the hunting and fishing areas, I felt like I was at the gateway to Maine's vast North Woods. It's one of the things I love most about living in New England -- I may reside in the Boston area, but I live in a region that still has sparsely populated areas with a wild mystique. Big cities, deep forests, treacherous coastlines, ambling rivers, and remote mountain-tops ... they're all part of this special corner of the U.S.

From the main retail store, I walked over to the "Bike, Boat, and Ski" annex, which was in a building next door. Inside, a mother and daughter were looking over bicycles (it was after midnight now). I checked out hybrid bikes that were hanging from the ceiling, and ran my hand over the smooth carbon frames of some Specialized cross bikes (road bikes with wider tires and lower gears). They sure are beautiful machines.

Walking back to the main store again, I decided I had to buy something -- although I'd purchased my current L.L. Bean coat not long ago and was on a self-imposed budget. So I bought an insulated coffee mug, a tote bag, and ... at the home store across the street ... two cans of Lobster Chowder. I know, a strange combination, but it felt right at the time.

It then was about 12:45 a.m. -- time to head home. I hopped in the car, said goodbye to Freeport, returned to the highway, switched on the radio ... and the Yankees-Angels were still playing! Sigh ... it brought me back to the magical, marathon games of the 2004 Red Sox-Yankees ALCS. Those were the days.

Driving through the night, I could see hints of the coastline to my left -- a break in the trees with a void off in the distance, or a bridge over a black river leading out to sea. Portland and Portsmouth seemed asleep in those darkest of dark hours, but the tollbooth operators all greeted me warmly.

Near the end of the Maine Turnpike, I pulled into a highway rest stop for gas. Stretching my legs, I slipped my credit card into the reader. Invalid card. I tried again. Invalid card. I groaned in frustration.

"Just give it a swift kick!" yelled a rest stop employee near the main building. Hearing that I was having some problems, the on-duty attendant came out, cheerily waved hello, took my card, slid it in and out of the reader with an expert flick of the wrist, and it worked.

"The pump knows I mean business," she said, laughing and handing me back my card. I filled the car, waved goodbye to the helpful folks, and then continued on my nighttime journey.

By 3:00 a.m. I was back in Boston, crossing over the Zakim-Bunker Hill Bridge, driving through the Tip O'Neill Tunnel, and then heading onward to the South Shore. As I arrived home a short time later, a light rain was beginning to fall. I could feel the wind buffeting the side of the car.

At 8:00 am the next morning, the forecasted Nor'easter was in full blast, with gusting winds, torrential rain, and even some snow. But I was home, happy to stay indoors. In my mind, I was dreaming of those storied northern regions of Maine beyond Freeport; places I've never seen like Caribou, Presque Isle, Lubec, and Monhegan Island.

Another adventure for another day...

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