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.