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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