First Light | Lubec, Maine


I drive as far east as I have ever driven, and then I keep going. I drive until the highway no longer goes east, but continues north while I split off onto slower roads, paralleling the coast. I drive until my phone service drops off, and I keep driving until it pings back to life, sending me a text about the cost of data usage abroad. But I am not in another country. I’m in the easternmost town in the United States – the first town in America to see the sunrise – a wind-swept speck of a place called Lubec, from which you could take a wrong turn and drive to Canada by mistake. I am still in Eastern Time, but just beyond the shore lies the exotic-sounding Atlantic Time, an arbitrary, watery boundary represented by a line of little Ts on the map.

Jutting out towards this boundary is Quoddy Head State Park, where you pay (or don’t pay, I suppose) the $4 entry fee by stuffing bills into an unwatched can affixed to a pole. The main attraction here is the West Quoddy Head Light, a stout lighthouse painted like a peppermint stick. Trails branch out beside it, and I choose the one that winds above the coast. From the dirt path, I carefully descend to the beach, past a scrim of fir trees and down a set of wooden stairs spaced to reveal the jagged rocks beneath them. The entire beach is made of rocks, large ones, grey and brown, tumbled in piles and rising into peaks. Beyond these there is just the intensely blue water, a hazy glimpse of Canada, a fog horn sounding softly, and the sky.

Lubec’s town center, a short distance from Quoddy Head, looks as if the wind has carried everything unnecessary away, and some necessary things too. It feels less like a typical coastal New England village than an outpost of some kind, a frontier town after the frontier has moved past it. A cylindrical water tower with LUBEC printed across it, taller than even the white church spires, watches over a semi-grid of streets. In a little park, there is a memorial to lost fishermen, with names carved into granite slabs.

On the main road, most of the businesses appear closed, and not just closed for the day or the off-season but for good. Some restaurants are open, and young waitresses dash from parking lots to back doors. Signs advertising lodging are everywhere, as if people frequently find themselves in Lubec without warning and have to suddenly arrange a place to spend the night. A few men stand around on the sidewalks. A row of miniature American flags, the tiny plastic ones they sell near the cash register at drugstores for very small children to grasp in their fists at small-town parades, are stapled to the faded wall of a storefront. Wind, salt, and time have battered and folded them, but failed to rip them down.

I stay at a hotel where the rooms look out over the water, and a sliding glass door opens over a dock. On my phone, which may or may not be charging me for international roaming, I look up the time of the sunrise. It is 4:41, so I set my alarm for 4:00, having never attempted to await a sunrise. When I wake up and slide the door open I find I’m too late to see the darkness transformed into light; the sky is a dull pale blue and there’s a glowing strip of golden pink on the horizon. A little wooded island in the water outside my window is still shrouded in night, but behind it the low-lying glow is gradually rising higher, adding pastel layers of yellow and peach. Across the water, on the still-black landmass on the other side, a single bright white light blinks on and off.

The waves are quietly lapping against the dock, flowing past the balcony. A bird cries. The wind smells of fish and the sea. It seems like morning and night at the same time, and the air feels simultaneously cold and warm. For some reason I had imagined other people would be outside too, that the nation’s first sunrise would be enough of an attraction to draw a small crowd, even on a random Thursday. But it’s just me, standing on the edge of America, wondering if I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time, silently observing the first light of day.

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