Saturday, May 09, 2015

The Drive

The State of Maine has recently crept back into my consciousness. With a son attending the Maine Maritime Academy, occasional 6-hour jaunts from Stowe to Castine have popped into the GPS of my institutional memory. I know Maine. I went to the University of Maine at Orono, where I lived in Stephen King’s dorm room in Hancock Hall. I learned to hunt deer while staying in Albion Smart’s cabin, the “U-Needa Rest,” on Boyd Lake, in LaGrange. I sold my first short story, “The Deer Men,” to Harry Vanderweide at The Maine Sportsman. I drove a 1977 Chevy Malibu named “State o’ Maine,” after the character of a bear in John Irving’s novel The Hotel New Hampshire. One of my college roommates once said, “Once Maine gets in you, you can never get it all the way out.”

Making the drive from Vermont to Maine again, I was reminded of the state’s diversity: diversity of geography, diversity of weather, and diversity of people. It’s not that the people of Maine are racially diverse; they’re individually diverse. Each resident is a different nation unto himself. But what impressed me the most was the state’s similarity to France.

Americans generally think of France as a single country. But it’s really a collection of regional duchies, consolidated fiefdoms stitched together under the flag of La Republique: Brittany, Alsace, Burgundy, the Alps, Lyon, Paris, the Basques…they all have their own geography, culture, and language. Maine itself was named after a region in France. And to drive through Maine is to be reminded of the differences within its borders.

We enter the state on Route 2, in the western mountains, a boreal place with deceptive peaks that look inviting, but are steeper than their evergreen-cloaked slopes display. Bethel is a place we considered moving to, a mountain town adorned with the quirks of the ski area up the road: plenty of pizza joints, some former manufacturing, lots of lumber, a railroad, upscale digs mixed with quirky guest houses.

From there we head down Route 26 to West Paris. The land between there and the Lakes Region is what I call Stephen King country. The novels Pet Sematary, Christine, and The Tommyknockers could be set in any one of the towns along this stretch of road, where dust and desolation conspire with the imagination. We average 60 miles per hour along deserted, sparsely habited lands, places that seem to be populated with more schismatic churches (“The Church of the Fellowship of the Second Coming Welcomes All to Worship, Sundays at 11AM”) than supplicants.

The capitol district sits in the valley of the Kennebec River, one of the greatest logging and lumber waterways in the history of the earth. Beyond that, due east, lies the coast, the brackish breeze announcing its presence long before we see the commercial fleet bobbing in Belfast Bay. Here are the hotels and gift shops of Searsport, a taste of the Maine tidal coastline that stretches for 3,500 miles, from New Hampshire to New Brunswick, as jagged and craggy and tough and beautiful as the people who live there.

And, finally, the coast itself. The broad waters of Penobscot Bay surround the head of land called Castine. The wind snaps up Pleasant Street, past the only two places to get a drink in town, Danny Murphy’s and Dennett’s, past the Pentagoet and the Castine Inn, past the athletic field, head on into the new science building. The roads are ripped up for construction this year, but we tiptoed past the backhoe, down to the dock, overlooking the Bowdoin, in the shadow of the T.S. Maine, which stands for Training Ship, not Technical Sergeant Garp, the man who gave his seed to give life to T. S. Garp in John Irving’s The World According to Garp.

As I learned long ago, you never really leave Maine. You go away for a while, and it grows inside you, occasionally blossoming, sometimes into fiction, sometimes into a son who chooses to spend part of his life there. You leave, but like my roommate said, you never get Maine out of you.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The End of Something

We sat in lawn chairs in the muddy parking lot, gazing up at the Front Four, and the Nosedive, bits of Perry Merrill, and the bottom half of Gondolier. Cold beers cooled our hands, recently released from sweaty gloves, recently released from a season of pole plants, recently released from computer keyboards and toilet brushes. Around us, grills smoked, centering groups of men and women encamped like a hippie army charged with leading dogs and Frisbees into the twilight of the another season of skiing on Mt. Mansfield.

We skied through spring snow that showed no signs of corning, before descending to our tailgates and our coolers and the rest of our years. Conversations moved easily from food to work, dissipating into punctuated silence whenever a skier in colorful costume beat the shadows down the mountain, or when the woman in the truck across the parking lot stripped off her ski gear, down to her underwear, before re-suiting and drifting off to one of the clutches of boozy friendship.

We circled the makeshift kitchen, a Coleman stove simmering chili and a portable grill flaring from a collection of rendering meat. Bags of chips littered the space between the circle of chairs, and dogs visited the edge of our meals and fires, reenacting a 10,000-year old ritual. The food and talk and spring air mingled into a perfume that suggested something beyond the observable universe, something beyond imagination or inspiration, something we hungered for, our full mouths a poor substitute.

We watched the sun drop behind the ridge of the mountain and felt the temperature plunge five degrees in five minutes and heard vehicle doors slamming shut across the encampment and smelled the last of the smoke fires twisting up into the chilling air. The mountain had won again; the mountain always wins, and a steady stream of cars began moving down into the valley, past the lone cop posted by the resort entrance, past the hulking structures of the soft side, bumping over newly minted frost heaves, where some would peel off into muddy parking lots for more beer, trying to delay the melting runoff that rushed under their feet, as another season, another religion, another passion, loses the contest with time.

Photo courtesy of innkeeper extraordinaire Tom Barnes.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Coincidence? I Think Not.

“So it'd be quite a coincidence if they weren't, ya know, connected.”
--Marge Gunderson, Fargo.

In 1993 I was doing a gap year between stints living in France and Montreal. Chantal signed up for a stateside gig with Sodexho as an ops manager at the Good Samaritan Medical Center and I got a corporate security job in a downtown Boston high-rise. Over the next year, Chantal got pregnant, we bought a house in Braintree, Seamus was born, and we moved to Montreal after Chantal went to work for Sodexho-Canada.
            The time and travel between then and now feels like a quantum leap, as if one moment I was standing in the lobby of a shiny building, and the next I was running a tractor in the snow outside my inn. Such is the nature of life: plodding and interminable in the present, implausible in the future, and fleeting in the past. And in that time as a security guard, my manager, an erudite man named David Anderson, who was misplaced leading a team of disparate employees that included a nascent writer (me), a boxer, a college student, a new-age guru, and a recovering alcoholic, came to me with a scheme.
            “You’re a writer,” he said, thrusting a news story in a paper at me. “What do you think of this?”
(Note to Millennials: In days of yore, information was extruded through ink onto paper, which we often thrust into each other’s faces in order to communicate. Think of it as a tangible-mechanical version of Facebook.)
            The article was about a guy in Maine giving away his B&B to the best 200-word essay he received. The entry fee was $100.
            “You’re a writer,” Dave repeated. “Tell you what. I’ll put up the hundred bucks and you write the essay. If we win, we’ll split it.” How we would split an inn didn’t occur to me, but it sounded like a good idea.
            A little backstory: Sure, I was a writer with some publication credits to my name by then, but I was also broke, and Dave knew it. Everybody that worked as a security guard was broke. And due to the nature of corporate building security—long stretches of nothing to do but talk to your coworkers—Dave also knew of my plans to one day buy an inn. At the time, it was a novel idea (now people build and buy inns as a “transitional strategy,” forgoing the novelty), and it intrigued Dave—himself transitioning—enough to contemplate it as a serious opportunity.
            So I wrote an essay, crafting and beating it down to 200 words, and dutifully submitted it to Dave. As he read it, I felt like a kid showing his dad a finger painting. Would he like it? Would he just tell me he liked it and pat me on the head? Dave finished reading and looked at me with the kind of level gaze a man metes out rarely. “That’s good,” he said, in his spare style. “That’s good.” He walked away, and only later did I find out he had gone ahead and entered the contest. But I never found out if we won; I assumed we didn’t, because Dave never mentioned it, and he continued to work as my manager until I left for Montreal.
            Enter time.
            You all know what happens here; you’ve seen the bio on the Auberge’s website (hereyou go), and you’ve all read my memoir, ABrief History of Innkeeping in the 21st Century. Right? Right?
Yesterday, a friend in Ohio posted something to my Facebook page, something about an inn in Maine that the owner is giving away to the winner of an essay contest. Bells and whistles go off, and that quote from Fargo jumps into my head, and I read the attached news story (thanks for sticking it under my nose, Herta, Millennial-style), and it’s the same place: the Central Lovell Inn in Maine, and the person who won the contest 22 years ago (not Dave and me) is getting out of the innkeeping business and she’s doing it the same way her predecessor did: essay contest.
            The synchronicity of the universe cannot be ignored here. That this inn in Maine would be offered in the same way and presented to me by people connecting my writing and my innkeeping 22 years apart is impossible to attribute to coincidence. You can decided for yourself what brings people and places and events together; better men than me have gone mad in the effort. I’m going to keep writing.
            Oh, and I’m not going to enter the contest this time. I’ve been an innkeeper for 15 years, and I’m trying to get out of the business myself now. Maybe I should hold my own contest. How about this: On the back of a $450,000 bill, in three words or less, tell me why you want to own my inn. I’ll announce the winners via Twitter from Tahiti.