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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Monday, October 27, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: US Route 1, southern section

As in all the eastern states in which it travels, US Route 1 in Maine has examples of sprawl gone irredeemably bad. In Massachusetts, New Jersey, Florida, any place where the population is dense, there is almost no break from development of the worst kind: the anodyne, dispiriting sameness of national brands housed in big-boxes and strip malls, fast-food joints and gas stations. It’s as if the pressure of people makes us patronize the safest of choices. Encounters with people can be random, maybe frightening; encounters with things should be predictable. But Maine, as usual, is different. Having driven almost every mile of Route 1 in Maine, I can report it’s not nearly so dire here, yet.
Maine, of course, has its clones of Saugus, MA and Homestead, FL. Portland is becoming a “real” metropolitan area and suffers from city delights. Even worse is Ellsworth, if only because the contrast with nearby Acadia is so gut-wrenching. A half-mile strip in Presque Isle is almost as bad. But the trip from Kittery to Fort Kent is generally pleasant and occasionally striking, considering its total of 527 miles.
The southern section, all the way from the New Hampshire border to Brunswick, is most problematic. Kittery, like Freeport, is overrun by outlet stores and crazed shoppers. Development slows and stays mostly tasteful (by which I mean the shops are spread out and are named pretentiously and contain expensive do-dads) in the Yorks and Ogunquit and Wells and Kennebunk, which I’m sure has something to do with rich people and their influence on local zoning boards. Route 1 doesn’t go through Kennebunkport, by the way; it wouldn’t be allowed. The old mill towns of Biddeford and Saco and Scarborough and the honky-tonk beaches of Old Orchard serve as the working man’s holiday places and suffer a different kind of sprawl, densely packed with stores named simply and not containing vintage vinegars or watery-colored seascapes. Some green space starts to appear after Portland, a few copses and open fields (save the national excess that is Freeport), but it disappears again in Brunswick’s commercial strip.
But even in the worst of the sprawl, Maine’s Route 1 is not like most "Route 1's", where national chains predominate. In Maine we have mom 'n pop restaurants and motels, water parks and souvenir shops, a lot of them cheek by jowl for miles, to be sure, and occasionally quite ugly, but the only signs of the national disease are gas stations, the occasional Holiday Inn or Comfort Suites or fast-food joint, and a few new malls set back against acres of parking. The most salient fact about Maine businesses - 98% are small businesses – is proved on Route 1.
And the second good thing about Maine's southern section of Route 1 is that you can drive a minute or ten off the road and immediately be in the woods, or on a farm, or by the surf.

Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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Thursday, October 9, 2014

How to have a good day


  • Wake up rested.
  • Breakfast on cornbread and maple syrup.
  • Write for a couple of hours.
  • Walk to Lucia Beach.
  • Have lunch - always the favorite meal.
  • Attend four hours of committee meetings (some would cringe here, but this is land trust work we're talking about).
  • Drink on the deck, then walk down to the water to watch a full moon rise over the bay.










Tuesday, October 7, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: The Maine way of life

Not that I necessarily know what the Maine way of life is. I’m not a native, not a farmer, not a hunter or fisherman, not a small businessman; I’ve never worked in the state, or lived here full-time. I’m just a man from the Midwest who found, via Massachusetts, in a kind of reverse migration, what he was looking for. I’m not sure exactly what I’ve found - that is, as a way of living a life, Maine’s is still a bit unknown to me - although I do know and am sure of its fantasies if nothing else. And does the solution apply to anyone but me? I hope so. When you say the phrase “the Maine way of life,” instantly it conjures up the host of images I’ve tried to limn in this book, some of which might even save us.

“Economists say that one of the Northeast’s last economic advantages is its high quality of life.” So wrote Lloyd C. Irland in The Northeast’s Changing Forest. True, but I don’t need science, certainly not the dismal science, to convince me. What sways me, and what will sway others, are the facts and faces of human geography, how the population has reacted and changed according to the embrace and the lay of the land. Those facts show, more persuasively than any science, hard or soft, can direct, how better lives could be lived.  I believe in science, and I’ve worked in science publishing for a third of my life, but ultimately science makes the fatal error of saying that since humans claim the top position of the intellectual pyramid, therefore we have conquered the spiritual one as well. Science sells itself too easily, therefore, to the wrong masters. It cannot account for the fact that the Maine way of life is first and foremost a deep experience of land. The good side of human geography might be nowhere else more obviously on display than in Maine.


Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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