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Is it 2012 yet? Let the adventure begin



(Column published in The Florida Times-Union on Jan. 1, 2012)

If all went as planned last night, I passed out long before midnight. Passed out because I was tired from following some Maine residents up a mountain to watch the sun set on 2011.

And if all went as planned this morning, the alarm went off at shortly after 3, letting me know it was time to join Lili Pew, Carol Bult and some other hardy Mainers in the second part of their annual tradition: snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, hiking or mountain biking to the top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park.

It’s the first light of another year in America.

And, in my case, the first stop in a yearlong journey.

For the last few months, ever since I won the 2011 Eugene C. Pulliam Fellowship with a proposal to spend a year studying the future of our national parks, people have been asking when I start the sabbatical. (Some people have been asking a little too often, like they’re looking forward to me leaving.)

The answer: Today, at the place where sunlight first hits American soil. Maybe.

It seems there is an ongoing debate about first-in-nation sunrise claims. Maine’s Washington County calls itself “the Sunrise County.” The town of Mars Hill, with a 1,700-foot peak on the Canada border, has letterhead that says it’s where the sun first rises in the USA. And then there are the American territories. And some of the debate depends on the time of the year.

Suffice it to say, Cadillac Mountain is one of the first places light touched American soil this morning. And that the soil was cold. (When I said that I typically begin the year with the Polar Plunge at Jacksonville Beach, the locals laughed, apparently amused by Floridians calling anything polar.)

I’ll still be around, both in Jacksonville and in The Times-Union. The plan is for me to write a column the first Sunday of each month. These columns won’t necessarily be about my travels. But if you’d like to keep up, I’m working on setting up a website:

And when the year ends, I’ll need to fulfill the one requirement of the fellowship: publish something. So I’m hoping to turn the stories of the places and people I encounter into something worth publishing. We’ll see.

For now, I’m just excited about the journey. For the last few months, I’ve been thinking, “Is it 2012 yet?” And not necessarily for political reasons. When I consider about what lies ahead in 2012 in a battleground area like North Florida — the television ads, robocalls and controversies du jour — it seems like a really good year to go into the woods. The deeper the better. No cell signal or wi-fi? Perfect.

Such places are rapidly disappearing, even in the national parks. And I suppose that’s progress. But I’m not sure.

You can get a cell signal atop Cadillac Mountain. And by summer, the parking lot will be perpetually packed, turning the place into a microcosm of the many issues facing the national parks. But the locals say it will be quiet this morning. Except for the wind.

I’m still not sure where this year will take me, just that it started with a sunrise. Maybe even the first in America.

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