One Man’s Nothing Is Another Man’s Treasure

“Turn around, there’s nothing back there.”

A couple of summers ago, a trio of tourists mistook me for a fellow tourist and warned me not to visit the Backshore of Peaks Island. They had made it two blocks down Island Avenue from the ferry when they discovered there is no Starbucks, no mini-golf—and no authentic re-creation of a quaint whaling village/mega souvenir emporium. Not on this island, at least.

They decided that the walk around the island wasn’t worth their time, and felt that by sharing with me, they were delivering a generous public service announcement.

I tried not to giggle as they sprinted back to the dock to catch the return trip of the same ferry they’d just arrived on. What these people didn’t know was this: The number one reason they should have continued to the Backshore was exactly what they’d said—there’s nothing back there.

The Backshore is the part of Peaks Island that faces east, toward the open ocean. Located about a 15-minute walk from the ferry dock, it is a part of the island where nothing is built between the road and the coastline—leaving close to a mile of unobstructed sea views.

For me, the Backshore is the absolute highlight of the four-mile walk around the perimeter of the island. It’s even better than the chartreuse house.

Yesterday I arrived at the Backshore from the north, traveling around the island clockwise. This is the more dramatic way to arrive, because the road cuts through the woods near Tolman Heights first. Stepping out of the woods gives you the sensation of emerging from, say, your basement, which you’ve been cleaning out for the first time in a decade. It’s trees, trees, trees….OCEAN!—which makes the panoramic view even more impressive.

If you arrive from the south walking counterclockwise around the island, you go through the woods after you pass the backshore. It’s till pretty, but you miss out on that big ta-da moment.

On the Backshore, ocean extends everywhere. Gulls squawk. You smell earth and sea. The sky seems a little more blue. Sometimes, when I walk alone and no one else can see, I allow myself to get a little choked up. It feels like I’m making a new discovery and reconnecting with an old friend—both at the same time. I imagine this was how Odysseus felt when he glimpsed Ithaca after his Odyssey. How Columbus felt when he stumbled on the New World. How Imelda Marcos felt the first time she visited the shoe department at Neiman Marcus.

I am so lucky to have been able to spend ten-plus years living in this wonderful place. Why am I moving to Georgia again?

Yesterday was an amazing day on the Backshore. Small waves rolled, water swished against the rocks. A few Eider Ducks—those black and white beauties coveted for their ultra-soft down—picked their way across the rocks.

I slowed down near the spot where my family scattered Grandma Amy’s ashes ten years ago.  Near the spot, because the shoreline shifts continuously. Waves erode the granite boulders and deposit pebbles that fill former coves. It’s evolved so much over a decade that I can no longer recognize the exact spot. Grandma is here because she loved nature—so much that she allowed my adolescent father to keep a large bullfrog in the bathtub of their Scarsdale home. Aunt Matoo says it stank like a stagnant pond, but Grandma put up with it.

I know Grandma loves her resting spot—wherever it is.

Around the bend, Kate and Molly jogged past me. Both girls worked in my husband’s ice cream store when they were teens. That was almost a decade ago. Now Kate is a nurse and Molly leaves for grad school at Yale in the fall. Seeing them grown up fills me with Auntie-like pride.

My walk continued south. Rather than bore you with the details, here is–as they say in marketing–the high level summary: Cattails glowed on the marsh. A panting golden retriever trotted his master around the bend. Seagulls swooped. A woman lounged on a green bench. A young couple stared across the bay at Ram Island light.

More nothing for me, please.


  1. Perfectly captured, Lisa. Having been on all of Maine’s inhabited islands and much of its coast, I can attest to the rarity of a road that offers such ocean views, peace, and solitude. As a reminder, though, this road and the abutting open land has come about by the hard work and dedication of many individuals: the original owners of the house lots created after the military left who donated the portions of their lots for the road and for the land to the ocean side of the road, to the Peaks Island Land Preserve which holds and upholds conservation easements to much of that oceanward land and the wetlands and Battery inshore, and to the City of Portland that works hard at maintaining this stretch of coast. Thanks to all of them for this incredible island treasure.

  2. Steve Schuit says:

    Captured the Backshore perfectly! It’s also the longest expanse on Peaks without street lights at night and the related messy and intrusive wires overhead. God are we lucky!

  3. Monica says:

    Loved this Lisa. Why ARE you moving?!

  4. Bryan Wiggins says:

    Beautiful post, Lisa. That’s the kind of focused, intimate, blog writing that keeps this reader interested.

  5. Thank you guys for the kind words. xxo. Lisa

  6. Molly Radis says:

    Great piece Lisa!!! You capture the spirit of the island very well. I enjoyed reading it. You’re very sweet! 🙂

  7. I REALLY enjoyed reading your article. (My grandfather e-mailed it to me.) I am Kate and Molly’s cousin and I happily remember having ice cream at your husband’s shop.

    I too have enjoyed the walk around “nothing” numerous times. I find it is a lovely way to decompress and re-center myself when I am visiting. Few people appreciate it in the rush and bustle of modern living.

  8. Ha ha, last year we ran into some people from NJ, down at Sandy Beach at high tide. They wanted to know where the beach was, and if there was a BETTER beach (you know, like the Jersey shore) and what was there to DO anyway. I told them they might like to try Old Orchard Beach. Thinking all the while, “WHAT are doing here? Didn’t you research this before you came??”

  9. Jeanne Adamson Sawtelle says:

    My heavens, why hasn’t someone told me about your blog before this time. I grew up on Peaks; married there in the white church on the hill and dragged off (screaming) seven years ago. Your written picture of backshore was perfect. The actual pictures didn’t hurt either.

    Yes, I have met many people who disliked the island and when new people came everyone would say,
    “Wonder how long these people will stay?”

    Sorry to hear you are leaving as your family has contributed to the island. You were friends of my dear friend Marge.

    I have had ice cream at your husband’s store. Yummy!

  10. One Week says:

    One week……
    That’s all I get, it used to be 2 and then sometimes almost a month when I was younger.
    But one week is all I get on Peaks every year. I like to think that if I added up all the weeks I spent on Peaks it would almost be a full year. Sad but true…
    This year was a little different, by no means do I consider myself an Islander but I hold the island sacred, it is part of me and now it is part of my children.
    I always pictured the road around the back shore was this mystical path (like Dora the Explorer) stopping at Sandy Beach for a few minutes to pick beach glass, then taking the path through the bushes to cut back onto the road. Following Seashore Ave to the stacked rock sculptures and stopping to do the same. Riding my bike for a little while longer to stop at Whaleback and maybe even venture into Battery Steele. Then returning to Seashore Ave and riding to Davies Elm Cove for a cool break in the shade. On the way back to the house stopping to pick up some honey from the honesty sales table…. I could go on but you get the idea.
    This year was an amazing year, my freshly minted 5yr old rode her bike all the way around the island. It was amazing, the family cheered and held her up on our shoulders. Mind you… at one point in the past week there was somewhere around 23 of us staying on the island. She continued to thrive on her bike and what an exhilarating experience it was for us both. One of our last trips around the island on Friday afternoon we started chugging up the hill/turn by the lions club. Her struggling a little and me shouting encouragements. All of a sudden from just off my shoulder I hear “We need to get bye!!” from a mother daughter team on a golf cart. Now I knew they were there and thought little of it since typically most cars or faster moving traffic waits until there is a clear straightaway but this impatient duo didn’t need to wait. Obviously they weren’t as excited to watch a 5yr old bike up a hill as I was. So I hurried my daughter off to the curb where we waited and let the golf cart pass. We start again and wouldn’t you know it, the golf cart duo was rushing to all the stops along the back shore so periodically they would need to pass us again, this time I made sure to get over immediately with my daughter as not to slow them down again. eventually they lap us and we don’t see them again. Now we’re ridding up to Tolman heights, my daughters little legs tired from the long ride but she’s still holding her own. We are hugging the shade on the right side of the road as we head up Seashore drive when a family comes barreling around the corner. There is some confusion of where the lead riders from their group will go, we maintain our line along the right side of the road and continue encouraging our daughter to keep pedaling. The confusion continues and somehow their pack intermingles with the 3 of us, everybody leaves unscathed except for the comment from the matriarch of the group “You’re riding on the wrong side of the road”. Now I tend to be a very considerate person both on the a bike and especially on the island. I’m laughing about it now but at the time it really bothered me. I hope the island continues to be strong and resist the gentrification it really is a mystical place.


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