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Retired publishing executive ecstatic with the idea of spending most of his time on the coast of Maine

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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