Holy moly, how is it November? There is much to report. I’m going to pretend it’s still September and start with a trip I’ve always wanted to take. A trip to the north.
I grew up in rural Maine, in a small town outside Augusta. I’m no stranger to the many faces of the state. There’s southern Maine. And then there’s everything else. As a kid I traveled as far north as Jackman and Moosehead Lake for snowmobiling trips, but as an adult I’d never been north of Bangor. For a gal who feels strongly about the awesomeness of Maine, that just seemed wrong. So… a pilgrimage to the north was in order.
Much like my ill-fated (but ultimately delightful) camping trip, my family was skeptical. Why on earth did I want to go to the middle of nowhere to stay in a run down cabin to write? Because I do, I told them.
From Portland, it’s a five hour drive to Guerette. The same amount of time it takes to drive to New York City, four states away. It’s a straight shot up I-95 to Houlton, then a jaunt up Rt 1 to Caribou and a hop-skip on Rt 161. Unless you choose to get off 95 in Sherman and take (gasp)… Rt 11, which is basically a logging road through the wildness. A friend who grew up in the County told me, ‘you won’t see anything except trees, moose, and logging trucks.’ And certainly there would be no cell service. My family was not thrilled. I told them I’d play the Rt 11 choice by ear.
I got in the car on a dreary Wednesday morning. The two hour drive to Bangor seemed like nothing. Suddenly the speed limit on the Interstate was 75mph and there were stretches where I was the only one on the road for miles. There was nothing between the highway exits except trees and the dewy gray sky. The pavement got rougher the further north I drove and grass grew up through the sideline rumble strips. This, I realized, was no-man’s land.
By the time I got to Sherman, I knew I’d be taking Rt 11. I couldn’t handle another hour on the highway. I’d been advised by the same County friend to fill up my gas tank, because there would be nowhere to stop for fifty miles. At the Shell station, I parked next to a trailer full of cows. When I paid for my gas at the counter and asked which way to Rt 11 (there were no signs) I felt like a southerner.
In my mind, the logging road was going to be like a tunnel. Long, straight stretches of narrow pavement where the trees bowed over the passage and blocked out the sun. It wasn’t like that at all. It was hilly and curvy and vast. I was repeatedly stunned by the beauty of the north and kept pulling over to take pictures of bogs and forests and rolling vistas. After Caribou, the landscape was dominated by potato fields and farms. Every few miles I passed an abandoned house, dwellings in various stages of degradation. The wilderness here is aggressive, eagerly reclaiming space to spread out.
When I reached Guerette, it was afternoon and the sun was beginning to peak through the clouds. The cabin (yes, it was very rustic) was on a lake. Several nearby cabins were caved in, their wooden bones weathered and cracked with time. But there were plenty of well-maintained homes too, seasonal and year-round, whose owners were glad to live off the beaten path. Admittedly, I was glad to be in the proximate company of other humans.
For the next two days, I wrote. I skipped stones on the glass-calm lake. I cooked in a crockpot (there was a wood stove, but I wasn’t about to risk burning the place down). I bought the most delicious heirloom tomatoes from a local farm stand for $1.89 a pound. I informed the farmer they’d be $6.99 at Whole Foods. I wrote more.
Things were going just swimmingly until the ‘low tire pressure’ light came on in my car. What is it with cars and me? I went to the local general store. With his Acadian accent, the purveyor told me, Yes, he had an air compressor. Yes, he was happy to help.
He helped a little too much. He overfilled one of my tires, which burst—shredded, really—the minute I hit the dirt camp road. Well, shit. Now what?
As it happens, if you can find a bar of reception, AAA does serve the great north. Thank God. With my donut in place I drove 45mph to the VIP in Presque Isle. When I explained to the attendant where I’d been, he took one look at my little VW GTI and my Portland address, chuckled, and said, “Did you make a wrong turn off the Interstate?”
I had two hours to kill, so I visited the local Marden’s—got a skirt for $2—and ate at the local diner—eggs, bacon, home fries, homemade toast, and coffee for $6. When I got back to VIP, the older couple in line in front of me told the cashier to take care of me first, because I was heading ‘downstate’ and the weather was turning.
The drive home felt longer than the drive up. I almost fell asleep on Rt 11, its mystery and danger lost to familiarity and tiredness. I gassed up and caffeinated in Sherman and hit I-95 like a bat out of hell. When I (finally) made it home, I tried to describe the scenery—vast, wild, encompassing—and how it felt to be up there—peaceful, centered, free—and how the people acted—kind, funny, rugged.
“But you didn’t have a kitchen,” my daughter said. “And your car broke.” It was hard to explain why that didn’t matter. “It was so beautiful,” I told her. “And people helped me.”
She still looked skeptical.
Maybe the north is just something you have to see, and feel, and interact with, to understand.
Maybe it’s a place where there are no words.