Friday, September 26, 2014

A week in Maine - Day 5, Portland

     I’m ashamed to admit that of the hundreds of times I’ve driven through Portland, the number of times I’ve stopped can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and those were visits to the Denny’s along I-295 when the kids were small. Today, however, we decided to spend a couple of hours walking the Eastern Promenade, with its grand views of Casco Bay and the islands, and eating at Flatbread Company in the Old Port, where you can watch your dough being twirled and your toppings applied and your pizza baked in the wood oven, kind of the hipster version of growing your own food. Portland seems a very nice and manageable city, marred only (today) by the presence of two huge cruise ships in the harbor, hundreds of elderly passengers clogging the streets of Old Port, the souvenir hawkers lined up to fleece them, and a holy-roller Jesus freak on a street corner haranguing everyone from his own private hell. Perhaps he thought cruisers were likely candidates for conversions. And, once again, no moose except on sweatshirts and caps and key chains and beer mugs.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

A Week in Maine - Day 4, Belfast, Lincolnville, and Owls Head

     Back to familiar territory: The drive to Belfast was just two hours, and the lunch at Chase’s Daily delicious. Afterwards, we hiked the Ducktrap Preserve of our land trust, to the bridge and back.



     Back to civilization, too: the traffic was heavy, the houses large and well-kept, and we made a gas stop and a farm-stand stop and a supermarket stop, and the contrast between the poverty of central Maine and the riches of coastal Maine was striking. One looks at Greenville and Dover-Foxcroft and Milo on the map and they look promising. But the reality is grim. Dover-Foxcroft, for example, boasts a shopping mall and a hospital and a private prep school (cost: $41,000 a year), but they are all on the outskirts and the downtown is basically abandoned. It’s hard to believe that just a couple of hours separate so starkly not only our two Americas, but the two Maines, and even two adjacent counties of Maine.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A Week in Maine – Day 3, Gulf Hagas, National Natural Landmark

    The focus of our week, Gulf Hagas is a 3-mile gorge cut by the Pleasant River, 130 feet deep and sprinkled with waterfalls. Access is again controlled by timber companies (does anyone else think that $38 a day for four people is a bit excessive? And since the access is for an area that is owned and managed by the National Park Service?), and the road to the parking lot is long and wash-boarded, and we didn’t hike the entire 10-mile round trip, and the Gulf is certainly not “The Grand Canyon of the East,” but it’s pretty wonderful nonetheless. After a short jaunt from the parking lot, we joined the Appalachian Trail and were immediately faced with a crossing of the Pleasant River, not by bridge of course but by a 100 foot wade on foot. This was accomplished with little difficulty by two of our party and with considerable difficulty by the other two: one whose terribly sensitive feet didn’t do well on the stones of the river bed, and the other whose propensity for environmentally induced headaches was manifest almost immediately upon stepping into the very cold water. We sat recovering on the other side for a while; two through-hikers splashed along without even removing shoes or rolling trousers.
     Soon enough we forsook the AT for the Gulf Hagas trails. There was another river crossing – this time a dry one involving stone-hopping – near Screw Auger Falls, a tasty picnic on big rocks overlooking the falls, a spectacular ass-over-teakettle dunking in the river when one of our party tried to cool off his head and leaned over too far, and a couple of dramatic overlooks on the gorge. 



     Perhaps the best part of the trail was called the Hermitage, a 35-acre stand of old-growth white pines, some apparently 150 feet tall and 150 years old. I embraced a couple of them (both physically and spiritually) and my six-foot wing span could not get even half-way around. A magical place.


     The Pleasant River ford was considerably easier on the way back. One of the older party borrowed sandals; the other a strong back for a piggy carry.

      One final evening opportunity for moose views: the road to Millinocket is supposed to be rife with quadrupeds in the evening, but we were too tired for the hour-long drive, and ate dinner in Milo at Hobnobbers, which boasts a surprisingly good and sophisticated menu and a visit in 2010 from Anthony Bourdain (because his cameraman was from Milo). Once again, no moose seen, on menu or road.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A Week in Maine – Day 2, Moosehead Lake and Mt. Kineo

     Two of us had seen Moosehead and climbed Kineo five years before, but it’s such a gorgeous place that we had to show it off. We got to Rockwood just in time for the 12:00 ferry, i.e., the Mt. Kineo Golf Course water shuttle pontoon boat. We ascended Mt. Kineo (which rises 700 feet straight out of the lake) via the Bridle Trail (moderate difficulty) as we did last time, but descended (apparently inspired by our much younger companions) via Indian Trail (very steep!). The views were of course spectacular, and the clouds and occasional drizzle made no damper in our enjoyment and in fact were gloried in by the recent returnees from droughty California.
     Dinner was had at the Stress Free Moose Pub and CafĂ© in Greenville. Well, the beer was good.
     No moose views on the trip back, in spite of the signs south of Greenville warning of numerous car-moose collisions.


Monday, September 22, 2014

A Week in Maine – Day 1, Milo and Brownville

     Not exactly unusual for us, five days in Maine. But the locations were unusual, mostly, including some brand-new phantasmagorias.
     We left Massachusetts on a September Monday morning before 7:00, stopping at Starbucks (of course) for fuel. The early start got us to Milo well before noon, in time for a lunch at Coburn’s Family Restaurant (grilled cheese, pickle, and chips for $2.99). Two guys came in after us to sit at the three-stool bar; the waitress asked, “Do you want the lemon or the raspberry today, hon?”
     We met daughter and boyfriend at Wildwoods Trailside Cabins in Brownville a few miles north of Milo, our lodgings for the next three days, and a place catering as much to snowmobilers in the winter as fishermen/hunters/hikers/MA refugees in the other seasons. When I asked the proprietor about canoe rentals in the area, she graciously lent us two of hers, and the help of a man in lashing them in the bed of Max’s pick-up. There was time for a beautiful late-afternoon paddle on Upper Jo-Mary Lake - as opposed to Middle Jo-Mary and Lower Jo-Mary, both north (?) of Upper - an hour to the north in the middle of timber company lands, which featured almost completely undeveloped shores except for a campground, and a family of five juvenile mergansers, and a loon swimming just 20 feet away and calling (never been that close to a calling loon), and glorious views of Mt. Katahdin. The paddle ended as the sun went down, and the temperature dropped ten degrees, and we drove back in the dusk and then the dark, hoping against hope for a sighting of moose, and finishing the evening with a steak dinner grilled outside.



Day 2 tomorrow.



Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: The Two Maines

The journal Science in November 2009 published a research article on happiness, attempting to rank its prevalence by state. Supposedly, this research compared what people said against objective measures “known” to affect happiness (weather, population density, air quality, home prices, etc.). You'll be happy to know that Louisiana was the number 1 happy state and New York was number 51 (the survey included the District of Columbia). My own home states, Maine and Massachusetts, checked in at number 10 and number 43, respectively. Eight of the top ten were warm-weather states.
This study contrasts with a happiness survey taken by Gallup in the same month that relied only on what people said. Here the happiest states were the wealthiest and the most tolerant, with Utah first and West Virginia last. Massachusetts was 8th and Maine 29th. Even taking into account people's ability to lie, especially to themselves, these data seem more representative.
May I say first that if we believe that happiness can be measured objectively by weather and house prices, such as Science claims, we should change our species name to Homo superficialis. (Also, Derek Bok in his book The Politics of Happiness, says that high GDP is no predictor of happiness.)
Second, by the objective measures, Maine is a great place to live, but the people don’t think so. I wonder if the surveys corrected for the two Maines, the splits between coastal Maine (Kittery to Acadia but not past Acadia, for “way Down East” is as poor as any inland hamlet) and the rest of the state, between natives and summer people, between north and south, between poor and well-off.  A state of mind can be so much more pleasant than a state of body.
       At present there seems to be a reasonable truce between the various “twos,” but I doubt there’s much commerce among them except in the money sense. The tourist industry is still Maine’s biggest. E.B. Whites and Henry Bestons are rare, even possibly extinct, a casualty of the new social ecology of increasing class differences. Yet the mildness of the relationship is typified in the old saying, “Summer people and some are not.”

Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
Kindle                    Smashwords                        Nook 



Thursday, September 4, 2014

Writing Process Blog Tour

My friend, marvellous poet K.T. Landon, asked me to contribute to this blog tour.

1) What are you working on?
A book based on my journals from the two-plus years I spent in Peace Corps Korea. The place is popping up 40 years later, in a couple of personal essays about Maine (!). I’m not sure why it’s bothering me now, but I’m finding out.
2) How does your work differ from others of its genre?
I mostly work on familiar essays, in which I take common subjects in nature and see what happens if I let my imagination go. I suppose this is nature writing, which puts me in a category often too revered or too reviled. I try to avoid those extremes: the pathetic fallacy, for example, which is deadly (and which has been done without peer by Thoreau anyway) or too much outdoors ecstasy, which lasts only seconds in the first place and in the second place, writing about it is rather like writing about music. So I try to get facts in there, and connections to the world in general and me in particular, and maybe a bit of a narrative. Therefore, I greatly admire writers like Annie Dillard and Robert Finch.
3) Why do you write what you do?
In spite of the above, I’m entranced with the natural world, especially the shores and hills and forests and rivers of Maine. Much of my writing has an environmental focus and is a natural extension of the volunteer work I do with a land trust. Persuasion is my game, the trick being to avoid preaching, which as a recovering Calvinist I have to fight all the time. I’m convinced that we forsake our genetic and spiritual connections to nature at our great peril.
4) How does your writing process work?
Since I split my life between Massachusetts and Maine, I have different routines. In Maine, I’m a morning writer (assuming no land trust duties), two to three hours between breakfast and lunch, usually in my JFK rocker in the living room, but increasingly – one does get older, one is allowed – on the couch. The view is of Penobscot Bay in either case. I usually start by reading and revising what happened the day before (turn off the Internet!). Afternoons are for the body: errands, meetings, gardens, naps. In Massachusetts the routine is reversed (I don’t know why) but there I also take over the living room (thanks, honey!). I write on the computer, since my hand crashes cursive.
A new familiar subject gets basic Internet research first, then I let the notes and facts and trends ferment for a day or two. Connections start to pour off. If I do have any talent, that’s it, seeing connections to philosophy and religion and daily life and memories and last night’s nightmare and this morning’s daydream. I believe in a kind of ecology of poetics – everything is connected, dependent, related – in which the crux of art is to pursue only what’s important, or to put it another way, to understand which mutations of our ecosystems might last. Far too often, however, I diverge like crazy, seeing too many connections, tending to write them all down, deleting, restoring, and trying to make them dance together. When I can no longer see the dance for the dancers, I give it to my editor and she rescues the set.


Finally, I should say that a daily walk is essential to the process. Sometimes I don’t think in words at all, just images, in the eye or in the brain, of moss or surf or a Victorian painted lady or a mass of phlox along a suburban garden wall, or if I’m really lucky, a fox or deer or eagle. Mostly though, I review and regurgitate and even sometimes compose, and the ideas and sentences that survive the walk find themselves in the computer as soon as I return, ready to be taken out again tomorrow.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Right-lane-ness

    The news from a couple of weeks ago, that the speed limit on the Maine Turnpike would increase from 65 to 70 mph, brought some despair in these parts. Not only does this mean poorer gas mileage, more pollution, and rising seas, but also that people will now drive 80, with impunity. Yesterday, as I was driving back to Massachusetts from Maine, I indeed found this to be true. But I also discovered a hidden benefit in the disaster.
     Being a conscientious hyper-miler, and approaching codger-hood, I've been driving no faster than 65 on the Turnpike for some years now. I've added months, perhaps years, to my life, I'm sure, by avoiding the stress of all those autocidal maniacs in the left lanes, more than enough to offset the extra 20 minutes the trip now takes. A further goal, besides achieving 48 mpg and extending Social Security and calculating arrival times and trying to forget how much I'll miss Maine, is to hit cruise control after the toll plaza in South Portland, and for the next 35 miles, until the toll plaza in Kittery, never to touch a pedal, gas or brake, never to leave the nirvana of the right lane, passing no one even in steady traffic. It's well possible because almost everybody exceeds the speed limit to my left, leaving me pleasantly and calmly tootling along. I've done it, too, twice, and although yesterday didn't quite measure up - I had to pass a woman in a Prius and an ancient VW Eurovan camper stuffed with tents and hippies, all nice people, I'm sure, and so I forgave them for their ignorance of my mission - I can now see that the increased speed limit will greatly contribute to my hopes for more success in the future.For people were driving really fast, well over 80 (cars from Connecticut, especially Audis, being the main culprits, and New York and Massachusetts rounding out the top three), leaving the right lane pretty deserted.
     I did not calculate how many cars I was forced to pass after Kittery. There were too many merges, ramps, bridges, construction blocks, and New Hampshire drivers to attain heaven. For the hell of it, I tried the second rightmost lane in northern Massachusetts: and yes, I was steadily and frequently passed both left and right, in a kind of purgatory of impatience. And of course once one reaches the part of I-95 known as Route 128, bypassing Boston, the right lane becomes an invitation to suicide, and one must drive like a maniac just to stay alive.
     There is one potential drawback to the new and blessedly empty state of right-lane-ness. It was so open that a few maniacs were using it to pass immense blockages of three, even four cars insolent enough to drive under 80 in the left lanes. I'm sorry to report that these were mostly New Yorkers.
     Finally, I can report that your average peppermint lozenge, sucked at a moderate rate (no crunching), lasts 7.8 miles at 65 mph. Next time I'll try for 8 mpp.
     I guess I was really missing Maine, on the last day of August.