Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Northern Maine - Day 1

Our week travelling the great expanses of the north started with the familiar trip from Owls Head to Bangor. Bangor is only 20 miles from the ocean but north of it seems like a different country. It was new to us, certainly, and I can now see why people who live there would just as soon cede the southern part of the state to Massachusetts.

Our route eschewed I-95 and followed Thoreau's trip by stagecoach along the Penobscot River. We travelled in slightly more comfort. At Lincoln we parted ways with the sage and drove east to catch Route 1. I'm pleased to report that those 50 miles of Route 1 between Topsfield and Houlton are bucolic: rolling land, thick woods, small farms and so little traffic that in the whole stretch we neither overtook, nor were passed by, a single car. It was an extra hour well spent.

Quite frankly Houlton isn't much to look at, especially on a Sunday afternoon. The downtown was deserted, except for a few teens hanging out. The bridge over the Meduxnekeag River, however, was quite handsome and, although we didn't realize it at the time, deserves the name Gateway Crossing, for the land to the north becomes truly different.



I also like the fact that the wood comprising the bridge has been left rough and unfinished, a tribute to the great forests that have meant so much to this area.

I-95 stops in Houlton so no justification of time-wasting is necessary. (It was planned to go as far as Caribou, a source of indignation still for the long-suffering people of the north, but personally, I can't imagine a town named Caribou on an interstate.) There was more traffic on Route 1, for here the gorgeous farmlands of the St. John River valley begin. I had thought that perhaps these lands would be like the Midwest farmbelt, but absolutely not: 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 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 humans is clearly seen to have its limits. In the Midwest one has to look at the sky for illimitable views. Or interstates.
One major sign of human presence sits on Mars Hill, which rises like a butte out of the river valley. Don't count me among those that find the view of the wind farm beautiful. America's obsession with machines, rather than with values, continues.
A less obtrusive human work is the Maine Solar System model, constructed along Route 1 between Houlton and Presque Isle. The planets are made to scale (Jupiter being about 5 feet in diameter) and the distances between them are also to scale. We managed to see Neptune, Uranus, Saturn and Jupiter, but missed the smaller planets closer to the sun amidst the development of Presque Isle. Earth's model is only 5 inches in diameter, easily lost in the clutter of stores and cars. Pluto is only an inch and is kept inside Houlton's Information Center, as if the planners knew it would be declared a non-planet anyway.
Mars Hill also offered us a first look at Maine's famous potato farms - much more to come!


We stayed the night in the lovely Rum Rapids Inn on the Aroostook River just north of Presque Isle. Our walk for the day was a trek along a snowmobile/ATV track, complete with several ATVs belching noise and exhaust. Well, at least, the operators are getting outside. The track also crossed the river via an ATV bridge, recently re-constructed using, as our innkeeper said, Obama money. If any place in the country needed stimulus, it's the County, although I'm not sure how a trail trumped a road. Of course it's really Bush money, which seems more appropriate for this land of hunters and farmers. We tried to describe our perceptions of Aroostook thus far - the farms large and small, the hills and mountains, the friendly people - to our innkeeper, who said, "Yes, this is actually Canada."

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