Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: Down East Coast

The Down East coast is the true tourist’s true heaven: the dramatic setting of Eastport in the middle of Passamaquoddy Bay, islands Canadian and American all around; the lovely houses, clean waterfront, and culture of Lubec; the aching beauty of Quoddy Head State Park; the nether-world of the blueberry barrens; the peace of the Schoodic Peninsula. In Quoddy especially I feel re-born and washed clean of city life, for the cliffs are high, the surf roars, trees grow out of the granite, and little streams cross under the Coastal Trail and fall like lace to the shore. A side trail leads to a peat bog. Where everything on the wild shore seems oversized, the bog is quiet, petite, attenuated. The little trees are stunted, matching me both in height and in years. I go from being a dwarf to the firs and cliffs to being a giant to the pitcher plants. I fit in each case.

But I don’t have to make a living here. For people without outside money, the way of life is hard and full of contradictions. Like many port cities in Maine, Eastport is beautiful and gritty, unpretentious and decaying, slowly sinking since the failure of the Passamaquoddy Tidal Project in the 1930s. It tries to make up for the decline of shipbuilding and fishing by touting tourism and a bit of shipping. Lubec exists almost entirely on people and money from away, a set piece almost. The rugged, unpopulated Cutler coast is marred by a huge radar installation, a weird symbol of war on a pacific shore. Much of it is also conserved, not to mention off the tax rolls. Now that fishing is so unpredictable, Maine folks often scramble to make money, and some are reduced to gathering "wrinkles" (periwinkles or snails to you and me) for sale to Asian markets. But even this humble activity is threatened; seaweed farmers tend to rip up the rockweed indiscriminately, without regard to the wrinkles hiding underneath. The sea is a fact of life, not a movie back drop. An elegant B&B in Prospect Harbor looks out at the shuttered Stinson Seafood Plant, which was the last sardine cannery in the U.S. Tranquil Route 1 in Cherryfield turns into frantic Route 1 in Ellsworth just a few miles away. Tiny houses in Corea sit on million-dollar views of harbors and islands.

Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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Saturday, November 8, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: Moxie

     The very qualities that make humans admirable – courage, drive, energy, charisma – make our world vulnerable. The word that best describes that constellation of qualities is “moxie.” It seems emblematic to me. The word is derived from a commercial product (Moxie soda), invented by Augustin Thompson from Union, Maine; it was first sold as a patent medicine in 1876 in Lowell, Massachusetts, which by the middle of the 19th century had the country’s largest industrial complex, the Massachusetts Mills; in 1884 Thompson took advantage of the sugar craze and reformulated Moxie as a soft drink and thereupon gained it great popularity, presumably among the down-trodden immigrants of the industrial revolution; its advertising (“Moxie Man”) was powerful enough to bring a new word into the language; like so many local things it succumbed to the power of a multinational, in this case Coca-Cola. And now its popularity is limited to New England, mostly in Maine, which trades in icons and lost causes and illusions. And so the word seems to me to describe both the people of Maine and the dangers that surround us.

Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: US Route 1, northern section

     Past Ellsworth Route 1 follows the Down East coast. Development melts away. Long stretches of road are interrupted by little clumps of gas station-IGA-diner-post office, and the occasional town that acts as a gateway to the peninsulas to the south: Schoodic, Dyer Neck, Petit Manan Point, Addison and Jonesport and Roque Bluffs, and the almost completely undeveloped and preserved coast from Cutler to West Quoddy Head. Blueberry fields and forests, not car dealers and Pizza Huts, compete for attention.
     Route One swings north before it can reach the easternmost points in the US, Eastport (city) and West Quoddy Head (place), and traverses the lonely woods of north Washington County. Here a truck stop qualifies as a destination restaurant, and paper mills provide employment, not to mention a certain smell to the air. The landscape of barely penetrated wilderness, a wilderness that tolerates a bit of development, doesn’t change until one gets north of Houlton, well into Aroostook County, although the loneliness seems the same: on one Sunday September afternoon, a 50-mile drive from Topsfield to Houlton saw us neither pass, nor get passed by, a single car.
     At Houlton the St. John River valley claims the landscape. This part of Maine is famous for its potatoes, and more recently broccoli, and I thought before seeing it that it might be like the Midwest. I was quite wrong. The land is not flat but rolling into hills, and in the distance into mountains like Katahdin, visible from the highway. The fields are not monotonous, but stark and beautiful. The houses are not protected by little copses of trees but sit openly and proudly on the rises of hills. The woods are not little afterthoughts, or woodlots, but real forests merging into the great woods to the west, coming right up to the edge of the fields as if the work of man is clearly seen to have its limits. In the Midwest one has to look at the sky for illimitable views.
     Route 1 ends in Fort Kent, the center of Acadian culture in Maine. It’s as far north as you can go in New England, and contrasts strangely with Route 1’s other terminus, the southernmost point in the US, Key West. Guess which is my own personal Acadia.
     The towns here show their own kind of sprawl, I guess. A large Catholic church centers each town, and from it white wooden houses and the occasional business straggle along each side of the road, in both directions. No one seems to live off Main Street, as if the surrounding forests shouldn’t be encroached upon. The development is gentle, not vicious. I doubt that zoning boards have much to do. The pace of life will not be speeded up. Poverty and pride and a small population won’t allow it.

Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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A Maine Gazetteer: US Route 1, mid-coast section

The mid-coast section gets more beautiful. All of those gorgeous peninsulas – Phippsburg, Arrowsic, Georgetown, Boothbay, Bristol, Friendship, St. George, Owls Head – hang tantalizingly off Route 1 like luscious fruit, inviting a bite or an afternoon. The road dips and winds, into and out of views of corn fields and tidal rivers. The towns are small and lovely: Bath has retained and improved its small-town charm (and a new bridge eliminated the horrid traffic caused by shift changes at Bath Iron Works); Wiscasset calls itself the prettiest town in Maine; Rockland is becoming Camden South; Belfast is reinventing itself for about the third or fourth time. Every time I drive north, a certain spot in Warren catches my breath, for it’s my first glimpse of the Camden Hills.

But the pressure points increase. Traffic backups are legendary where Route 1 cuts directly through towns. It can take more than an hour to get through Wiscasset on summer weekends, and one generally avoids Camden in August. Stuff springs up: there’s a particularly egregious mile south of Wiscasset, where a new supermarket, gas stations, McDonald’s, convenience store and bank, all scattered about the road like toadstools, have forced the closure of an old strip mall without, apparently, the slightest thought of re-development of that mall; where, in “an hour or a day,” for tourists too busy to discover anything for themselves, the tiny booths of Maine Heritage Village offer a review of traditional crafts and foods and occupations; where Monkey C, Monkey Do offers “Maine’s first and only high-flying adventure park and zip lines!!” How embarrassing for the prettiest village in Maine. What local zoning board allowed this?

Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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