From Concord to Franklin to Tilton (New Hampshire), oh my

This brick stack no longer belches smoke, it growsrom Franklin, N.H.'s days as a textile mill down

This smokeless brick stack is a relic of Franklin’s days as a mill town.

Sept. 21, Tilton, N.H. – At long last having escaped the clutches of Maine, which I must remind you is open for business, I squandered most of the day in New Hampshire.
Which is where I am now. Once again I sit in a wifi-friendly Golden Arches Cafe.
This one is buzzing tonight. As it does twice each year, the circus came to Tilton, N.H., this weekend.
This particular circus is the sort that features the heavy-metal roar of supercharged engines and the prevailing aroma of petroleum. Tilton, you see, sits just 12 miles away from Ground Zero of Nascar’s North Pole, the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon.
Occasionally I must close my eyes and remember I’m well north of the Mason-Dixon line.
The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing put on a show in Loudon this afternoon. A 24-year-old son of New England, Joey Logano, won the Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. In addition to qualifying him for the second round of NASCAR’s season-ending playoff “Chase,” Logano’s victory disappointed the legion of fans who flock to Sprint Cup ovals in droves to root for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
One of them, Jim Dejana, drove five hours from Dix Hills, N.Y., on Long Island, with his son. This is a regular trip for Dejana. He sat at a table here, sunburned face and salt-and-pepper beard beneath his No. 88 hat.
The McDonald’s has been overrun with race fans since I got here.
I asked him how the race went.
“It went,” he said. “The wrong guy won, but what are you going to do? At least it wasn’t boring.”
Turns out I share a small kinship with Jim Dejana. He was born in Port Washington, N.Y., as was my dad. Both sets of my paternal great-grandparents lived in the Long Island hamlet. When I was young, we occasionally visited my great-grandmother, Blanche Olive Decker, in her home at 14 Carlton Avenue.
Anyway, this place has been jumping all night as McDonald’s associates frantically try to keep up with a hungry mob, most of the clad in NASCAR regalia. An employee was wiping down a table next to me. I gave her a smile and said it’s a nuthouse, eh?
I looked at the swollen staff behind the counter in their black uniforms and asked her how many extra workers they needed to summon to handle the crush.
“It looks like they brought five people down from Concord to help,” she said, turning her head toward the counter and silently counting faces she didn’t recognize.

****
I drove south out of Saco on Route 1, admiring the enormous American flag flapping in the wind above Frank Galos Chevrolet and Cadillac. After 10 days, it was time to say goodbye to Maine. I decided to head back to New Hampshire because I feel like I gave the Granite State short-shrift on my way from Vermont to Maine. Also, I hoped to get a look at the splendor of fall in honor of the Autumnal Equinox.
And so I steered the Behemoth south and west on Maine 4, which eventually dumped me out in Dover, N.H. Once home to a booming textile mill on the Cocheco River, Dover seems to have weathered the end of its industrial age in style. The downtown area bustles with independent restaurants and small shops.
I guess I liked Dover, because upon arriving, I proceeded to circumnavigate it for a half-hour of absolute cluelessness. Recently I was talking about talking to myself, and sometimes the give-and-take gets a little heated when I’m lost. And make no mistake, getting lost is a hazard of the road. It happens all the time, and when it does, you just have to ride it out with a minimum of Sturm und Drang.
Route 3 up from Concord is a bumpy, nerve-jangling road. It smooths out nicely when you emerge from Tilton proper and ascend toward the I-93 junction. Perched at the apex of the hill there is, of course, a Walmart. Franklin is a bit of a mess. The downtown is Before Tilton, Route 3 passes through another old mill town, Franklin.
Franklin chose a handsome enough spot for itself. It sits at the spot where the Pemigewasset and Winnipesaukee meet up to form the Merrimack River.
I’m sad to report that Franklin hasn’t made the transition from industrial glory as nicely as Dover. Economically speaking, Franklin is gasping for air. I did see something in Franklin I’d never seen anywhere else: a tangled mass of flora growing from the top an old smokestack.
How bad a shape is Franklin in? Well, it is the first town I’ve come across that’s achieved the dollar-store trifecta: Family Dollar, Dollar General and Dollar Tree all operate stores in Franklin. As I made my way north, I had marveled about the ubiquity of the pizza shop across the American landscape. Perhaps it’s the one constant feature from coast to coast. I should’ve gone into the pizza business, not the writing business.
But in gritty, hardscrabble Franklin, even pizza cannot promise you prosperity.  On Route 3, a pizzeria with the Orkian name Nannou Nannoo is no longer open for business.
Speaking of going out of business, I nearly reached the end of the road this afternoon. How sad it would’ve been to die in the Fort Eddy Plaza shopping center. When I contemplate death, which I try not to do often, I don’t imagine it find me when I’m surrounded by old friends such as Staples, Rite Aid, Supercuts, Five Guys, H&R Block and Game Stop.
To perish in a stripmall is a disagreeable thought for sure. It would be so much more dignified to fall off a cliff at Yellowstone or drown in the Atlantic while in a booze-soaked stupor. But, as they say, you never know.
Upon arriving in Concord, N.H., I pulled into the Fort Eddy Plaza, stopped in at Shaw’s and decided to treat myself to a hummus-and-broccoli snack. Because I found the prospect of cleaning a cutting board and knife objectionable, I opted to just rip the florets off the crown and eat them in bites. They were indeed large. In a moment of regrettable haste, I guess I tried to swallow the last one whole.
That was a rotten idea. Next thing I knew, I had a shrub-sized chunk of broccoli lodged in my throat.
I don’t want to engage in hyperbole, but I was a trifle worried. Worry soon gave way to panic. I was standing next to the Behemoth when it dawned on me I might be in a spot of trouble. I looked desperately to the cab for water, but the doors were locked and the keys were in the back of the camper. I didn’t know if I should expend the time and effort to retrieve the keys and water. It seemed like time was becoming critical.
I decided to go looking for a hero, in case it turned out I required one. I lumbered toward Rite Aid/Shaw’s, punching myself in the stomach as I went.
Two-thirds of the way there, desperation rising, I stuck two fingers down my throat. Just like that, out came a monster floret drizzled with roasted red pepper hummus.
Man, I was surprised at how much hummus there was. I had stains on shorts and T-shirt. There is a pithy message on front of the T-shirt: “Life is Good.”
And so it is.
Damn, it feels good to be alive.
As I walked to a neighboring shopping plaza, I called my mom and sister. I figured someone would be glad to hear I’m still alive. My mom keeps telling me I’m not eating enough. Guess I showed her.
I bought a pair of glasses and two pens at the Dollar Tree, then trudged back to the Fort Eddy Plaza. There, in an effort to disgust the few readers I have left, I retrieved the camera from the front seat and found the lonely, hummus-and-saliva saturated broccoli floret lying prostrate in the parking lot.
And I got a nice little photograph of the offending bush with the golden dome of the statehouse in the background.

The broccoli floret that tried to kill me in Concord, N.H.

The broccoli floret that tried to kill me in Concord, N.H.

I’m not sure about New Hampshire. I don’t think I feel safe here. That whole “Live Free or Die” thing is worrisome.
Perhaps someone is concerned I’m not living free enough.
We’ll see.

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Road snapshot: Old Orchard Beach, Maine

Sept. 20, Old Orchard Beach, Maine – I wanted to at least glimpse the ocean before abandoning Maine, and I chose Old Orchard Beach due to its reputation as an offseason ghost town.
I thought I might like to see a few ghosts.
I drove Route 1 south through Scarborough, where I once spent eight days in the company of my old pal, the one-of-a-kind Gabe Mazurkiewicz. I turned onto 98 east, and soon was driving down Old Orchard Street. I did a loop around town, past the Family Dollar and the Rite Aid and the Subway, and parked on Staples Street, adjacent to the Libby Memorial Library. I gazed straight ahead at the Ferris wheel in the Playland amusement park. Everything was still as death. The carousel, the Tilt-a-Whirl, the Fun House, the Cascade Falls water flume. Silence reigned. No sounds of giggling teenagers and screaming children pierced the chilly night air.
I clambered out of the Behemoth and angled toward the main drag. Old men younger than me emerged from a bar, cigarettes in their hand and scowls on the faces. The wind whistled and moaned. I sensed a faint trace of malevolence in the air.
Lisa and Bill and Rocco were still selling pizza along Old Orchard Street. Slices went for a midsummer price of $3.50. People were about, but there atmosphere lacked the gaiety, the hormonal flirtation of summertime. The arcade lights swirled and the machines pinged, but it wasn’t enough to lift the pall. A  month ago, this place must’ve been a kaleidoscopic whirl of color and sound.
I mounted the stairs to the Pier. The sign on the facade dates it to 1898. Hooligans was open and selling drinks. College football players flickered on plasma screens. Most places, though, were shuttered for the winter. Corrugated metal doors had fallen with a thud of finality. They were festooned with rusted and grease.
A good-time town gone in hibernation makes for a sad sight.
Gina’s not giving psychic readings. Toe Rings and Other Things was closed. Ditto the tattoo parlor. You could not get a hot dog and a soda for 99 cents at The All-American Meal tonight. No nine-ounce taco, fries and soda for $4 at the Potato Factory. No Old Fashioned Fried Dough. No T-shirts, no fruit smoothies, no Mexican food.
Even the bathrooms, the cleanest bathrooms on the beach, mind you, were locked up tight.
I walked to the end of the pier, and stood transfixed as waves crashed onto the beach and curled around pilings. I closed my eyes and tried to absorb the timeless pitch and roll of a great ocean.
Wind gusted down the alley of the pier, rattling the metal awning of a dormant shop. A heavy melancholy had settled in my bones. I looked above a gift shop and was startled to see a group of pigeons. Still as wooden ducks, they roosted in a dormer with a smashed window.
Suddenly I didn’t know what I had come for. Ghosts? I saw no ghosts, but there was a definite spookiness in the air.
The bars all seemed to be open, and people milled about, but it seemed they were going through the motions. All activity bore a conspicuous lack of conviviality. I felt a desire to sit down on a barstool and sip a Shipyard ale, but I had to get going.
I clambered down off the Pier and trudged slowly up Old Orchard Street. The piercing wail of train cut the silence, and in a minute a freight train rumbled through town, bells clanging and drowning out the roar of the ocean.
I reached the top of the hill, and crossed Old Orchard. As I passed by the St. Margaret Church, a lone cricket sang a plaintive song. I looked about, but it was hidden somewhere beneath the cover of fading hydrangeas.
It was time to go.

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Portland, Maine: Everywhere you go, there’s America

Sept. 20, Portland, Maine – I’m at Starbucks in north Portland, and it seems like Saturday is slipping away. I drove down the coast last night in desultory fashion.
I pulled into the RV camping ground at the Falmouth Walmart. It’s a popular spot, with campers of all size strewn across the lot and facing in all direction. There was even a painted school bus, what looked conspicuously like a hippie caravan, parked at the far fringe with a cardboard sign in the window which read, “Help! We’re Stuck!”
It was early, but I was tired and hungry. This morning I got up and went across 1 to the McDonald’s, got my free coffee and consulted the Great God Google for directions to the Portland Planet Fitness on Marginal Way.
When I got there, I turned on the propane and made a quick and easy breakfast: two fried eggs with cheese on top and two pieces of 12-grain toast. Then I took a deep breath and girded for my workout.
As I walked through the parking lot, I absentmindedly looked down at a license plate and suddenly remembered that Maine is “Vacationland.” Which brought me back to last night’s frustrating drive along Maine’s beautiful coast. For one, it was dark, so I didn’t get to see a whole lot of beauty. More significantly, I was troubled.
When I reached comely Camden town, I recognized my problem. Each coastal town was prettier and more than the last. They all boasted of their stately Victorian inns and their quaint and cozy cottages with shiplap siding painted in pretty colors.  I wasn’t supposed to be on vacation. I don’t even have a job, for Christsake.
I began to rebel against the pretty.
I found myself longing for the familiar and tawdry, the ubiquitous eyesores of corporate stripmall culture. Give me the Burger King and the Dairy Queen, the Big Mac and Little Caesars, and get me out the hell of here.
And I had what constitutes a minor epiphany.
America is beautiful, but America is not pretty.
Among other things …
America is a hooker with a black eye and a heroin-dealer boyfriend.
America is Charlie Parker dead at 34 and Dick Cheney alive at 73.
America is a 43-year-old miner dying of old age.
America is a 19-year-old girl passed out at a fraternity party.
America is a bloated corpse washed up on an oilslick beach.
America is a 7-year-old Honduran boy who traveled 1,700 miles all by his lonesome just to steal your minimum-wage job.
America is an ocean of oil and no one to blame.
America is 48-hour meth bender with bath salts for dessert.
America is an evangelical preacher with a 15-year-old paramour.
America is an honest banker and a senator with a broken spine.
America is a $10 million mansion on 9 acres with 8,000 square feet, 7 marble fireplaces, 6 bedrooms, 5 bathrooms, 4-car garage, 3 living rooms, 2 parents and 1 child.
Well, you get the point. All I’m saying is I didn’t come this far to see pretty.
I came for the Walmart parking lot and the McDonald’s wife (and free small coffee during breakfast, through Sept. 29!). I came to discover the real America, wherever and whatever that is.

***

Well, back to Planet Fitness, Marginal Way, Portland, Maine.
I strolled though the door, signed the guest register and beheld the largest, most spacious, most wonderful Planet Fitness I’ve seen. And I’ve seen a few. I’ve been in nine facilities in four states. This one, on Marginal Way near downtown Portland, features two sprawling floors chock-full of machines of every kind. There’s even one room reserved solely for mats, which I’ve never seen.
I panted my way through a bit of stretching and assorted exercises Then I stood up and gazed out the window. Immediately I saw I’d come a long way from Aroostook County. I had ventured into the golden heart of Downeast.
And it’s not just the luxury Planet Fitness. Right out the window, a majestic Trader Joe’s rose from an ordinary large macadam lot. First one I’ve encountered since leaving Pennsylvania.  Eastern Mountain Sports sits one door removed from Trader Jo’es.
Suddenly I realized Maine’s Portland is not all the different from Oregon’s. Bike lanes. Big box stores selling the latest in outdoor adventure gear. Trader Joe’s and its tasteful array of wines and cheeses And of course it’s easy to find a Starbucks is easy.
And now that I’m here, perhaps I should discuss something a bit more useful, like life in the Behemoth. For the seven of the past eight nights, I bedded down in the always capacious parking lot of the Walmart. It’s just too damn convenient, and most of all, it’s free.
This is my 27th day away from Pennsylvania. If you throw out the three nights Max, Becky and I camped at Promised Land State Park, I haven’t spent a penny on lodging.  Nine of them have been courtesy of Sam Walton’s largesse. I’ve spent five in supermarket parking lots and two at Planet Fitness.
If you find yourself beyond the reaching of corporate comfort, options always exist. You just have to be careful. Max and I spent three nights in New York City camped on Occident Avenue, next to an apartment building. That left us a 1.5-mile walk to the ferry each morning. We weren’t troubled until the last night, when I was awaken by the half-siren of NYPD Blue. I rushed to the window in the back, peeled open the blinds and said, Yes Sir? Well, he said they’d gotten some calls about the Behemoth, and I’m sure they had. There were some pretty fancy homes perched on the hill across Occident from that apartment building. When I told him we’d be out in the morning, he said, “Cool.”
And that was that. Becky, Max and I spent three nights camped on the street in the Treme section of New Orleans, and not a soul bothered us.
Despite all those lonely nights in the parking lot of the Walton Family Inn and General Store, I’m pleased to report I haven’t broken the streak. Sixteen months ago, somewhere in western Georgia, Becky and I resolved to spend no more money at Walmart. So far, so good. But, you know, I am grateful for the lodging.
I’d rather stay somewhere else, parked somewhere off in the woods or along the seashore. And you can do this, it’s just not convenient. And it’s not easy.

******

I endured the workout, showered and returned to the camper. On the subject of bathing, we just don’t use any of the Behemoth’s plumbing facilities. We decided early on we’d rather not deal with that shit, so to speak.
And in 19 nights since parting ways with Max and Becky, I’ve showered 11 times. Planet Fitness every time. That $20-a-month membership has turned out to be a steal.
Well, I left the Planet and stopped in at Trader Joe’s.
God what a goldmine. No matter why you find one, Trader Joe’s is always a veritable madhouse. Especially on Saturday. I bought four bottles of 3-buck Chuck and then proceeded to get lost in north Portland.
I found a McDonald’s, where the easy wifi access usually clears up this problem. Not today. My laptop battery died abruptly, and there were no outlets. I left and drove on. I drove blind for about 20 minutes before I stumbled into Shaw’s supermarket, which is essentially Acme with an Osco Pharmacy. I bought a pint of half and half and one of those small containers of cottage cheese with pineapple on the side.
As I drove out of the parking lot, I said to myself, “Where now? Yes, Starbucks.”
When you’re alone for any extended period of time, you start talking to yourself. It occurs naturally. For long stretches of the day, you have no one else to talk with.
I was surprised the first time I noticed I was thinking out loud. I’m no longer surprised.
In fact, I have quite amiable conversations with myself. I rarely disagree with myself, and while I castigate myself quite often, I always forgive myself.
As I turned onto Auburn Avenue, I chanced to see the big sign listing all the fine stores in the Northgate Shopping Mall. Right up there in bold, green letters was S-T-A-R-B-U-C-K-S. I looked back to the right and saw it staring at me. It’s right next-door to the Shaw-Osco. Told you it was easy to find a Starbucks in Portland, Maine.
What an observer I am.
Well, here I sit. I’m going to get moving now, and see if I have anything interesting to say.

 

 

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Road snapshot: Bangor to Belfast

Sept. 19, Belfast, Maine – It was past 9 last night when I finally stopped prattling on about potatoes and left Houlton. I’d had vague notions of driving the length of the Maine coastline, but in deference to the oppressive juggernaut of time, I decided a compromise was necessary.
And so I jumped on I-95 and headed south. After now and then, when I feel the need for a quick change of scenery, I suspend my tacit rule against driving on Dwight David Eisenhower’s monstrous interstate highway system.
It wasn’t long before I began to think of my friend Brett, the gas jockey at the Daigle Oil Company station in Presque Isle. He’s the guy who said the most desolate stretch of highway anywhere is the road between Houlton to Bangor. My faith in him only grew as I drove for a mind-numbing 40-mile stretch without encountering a single car, truck or RV in the southbound lanes. The only living soul I saw was a female deer perched in the grass below the roadside. Her left ear jutted out prominently, as if she were interested in hitching a ride south.
I also thought of my pal Stacey Eulrich Griffin Jr., who promised me I’d see a moose in Allagash. I worried maybe he was only a halfright prophet and, instead of seeing a moose in northern Aroostook County, I’d meet one in the middle of I-95 at 60 miles per hour. It’s an eerie sensation, sharing a big, old interstate highway with unseen ungulates and jumping shadows. I muddled my way along, driving 50 mph in a 75-mph zone, eyes darting about in search of wayward moose. I made sure the camera was at my side. If I somehow missed the 1,000-pound moose standing in the middle of I-95, I didn’t want to miss the photo opportunity.
Well, I still haven’t seen a moose. Not since Glacier National Park, anyway. I made it safely into Bangor at midnight and headed straight for Planet Fitness. I worked out, and more significantly, bathed for the first time since I was here Sunday morning.
It felt good to be clean, but now I was cold. Damn cold.
The overnight low in Bangor was 32. I got some gas after leaving the gym, and my fingers turned numb in the brief time outside. I drove north one exit in the direction of the Walton Family Inn and let the Behemoth run a while, hoping to heat up the joint. Then I reached into the cab from the camper, turned off the engine and jumped into bed, fully clad in blue jeans and sweatshirt with hood pulled over my head. And that’s how I looked when I awoke this morning around 8.
I put on my sneakers and hit the road. I found my way to 1A, and spotted a Goodwill. I swerved left into the parking lot, strode right in and bought two L.L. Bean sweaters, a University of Maine hoodie, a pair of lined pajama pants, a pair of gloves and a hat with ear flaps. Thirty-one dollars later, I figured I was ready for almost anything the New England autumn has up its sleeve.
A half hour after that, I was in Ellsworth, where 1A meets up with Coastal Route 1. I stopped at Hannaford and bought a bag of ice, a bagel and a head of broccoli crowns. I repaired to the Behemoth, turned on the gas, heated the bagel and made a turkey-and-cheese sandwich with grilled onions and homemade horseradish-mayonnaise-mustard sauce.
Ellsworth, I learned, calls itself the Crossroads of Downeast Maine. I found that to be true. I got crossed-up but good after leaving Hannaford. First I flirted with heading toward Acadia National Park, but I remembered this isn’t a vacation and I should save that for a time when Max and Becky are along for the ride. So I swung around and headed west on 3. I didn’t realize it also was 1, so I went south, then north, then south again before pulling myself together.

The First Congregational Church of Christ in Ellsworth, Maine.

The First Congregational Church of Christ in Ellsworth, Maine.

I rode Main Street through downtown Ellsworth, which is also U.S. 1. I was almost out of town when the light at Water Street went red. I tapped my fingers on the steering wheel impatiently, then looked at the red brick building which stood kitty-corner to my left. A banner hanging from the facade announced it as the Emmaus Homeless Shelter.
That old nagging voice of my conscience began to whisper in my ear again. A homeless shelter in the middle of this affluent tourist hamlet seemed like a striking incongruity. And so I found a parking spot and trudged toward.
I rang the buzzer and entered, immediately stumbling upon a scene that looked like a battered woman in conference with a staff member. I lowered my head and backed off a few steps. Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea, after all.
Eventually Mary came out to greet me. She said she’s been working here a year. I told her my story and shrugged my shoulders meekly and said there but for fortune go I.
She said they have 25 beds, and they are always full. There is a long waiting list. With the temperature taking a nosedive, that list will only grow. I said I knew privacy important, but I wondered she might know a resident who might want to share his or her story. Mary said she didn’t know, but I’d have to talk to the director, Nichole. She would be back in about an hour. Mary gave me the phone number, and I walked off to kill time.
I stopped in at the J.B. Atlantic Co. and bought a few postcards, a cup of coffee and a calendar for my moms. Then I went back to the camper, which was in a two-hour free lot beneath the stately brick Ellsworth City Hall building. I added half and half to the coffee and wrote out three postcards, then set out for the post office.
Before leaving, I tried Nichole’s number twice. It was busy. By the time I had finished my business at the Ellsworth Post Office, I my passion for the story was waning. Maybe the idea was pure exploitation. In any case, I already had the basics for your run-of-the-mill, drive-by story.
Ellsworth oozes quaintness. Its streets are bracketed by handsome buildings made of red brick. They are lined with chic gift stores and trendy cafes with names like Maine-ly Meat on Main, The Grasshopper, and the Main Ground.
Ellsworth’s the kind of tourist haven where you can buy apple-chai candles made by the Yankee Candle Co. and balsam-fir pillows with pictures of loons cruising on a lonely lake, then cross Main Street and spend a lovely hour or two sampling fine wines and aged cheeses. It has old art deco theater called the Grand, which closed in 1962 and reopened in 1975 as a performing arts center.
Ellsworth is a place where the air smells of searing fish and baking chocolate; where the majestic spire of the First Congregational United Church of Christ dominates the skyline; and where you cross the Union River on an old arched bridge that has geraniums and lobelia overflowing the baskets affixed to its rails.
Amid all this picturesque affluence, at the bottom of the Main Street hill, hard by the Union River, across the street from a fine, three-story brick house that houses the state Democratic Headquarters (Michaud for Governor 2014!), sits a homeless shelter with 25 beds that might just be the hottest ticket in town.
See there? I had the story all wrapped up. No need to talk to an actual person. Nonetheless, that nagging voice, and a sense of professional guilt, prodded me to give it one more go. I walked through the door, dodged a woman bearing a giant casserole dish stuffed with homemade macaroni and cheese, and waited for Mary.
Ah, there she was.
“Oh, you’re back,” she said. “I’ll just be a minute.”
During that minute, I overheard voices in the adjacent office. Well, one voice. It belonged to Herr Direktor, Nichole. She was giving poor Mary her marching orders.
And Mary soon emerged and dutifully reported that now was not the best of times. However, she said, a house meeting is scheduled for Monday, and if I wanted to come back then I might get a chance to talk to the residents.
I said that was unlikely, but politely thanked Mary for her time and walked out the door. As I crossed Main, I felt the first spark of a slow burn. I didn’t care that Nichole sent me away, but I began to think about how I’d loitered around tourist-town Maine for more than an hour waiting for her, and how she couldn’t be bothered to poke her head out of the office, say hello, shake her head sadly, and say it isn’t a good day for talking to homeless folk.
All the sudden I was happy I’d returned to the Emmaus Homeless Shelter. I hadn’t worked up a boiling sense of indignation in some time, what with all the people I meet being so candid and wonderful and downright engaging.
I was glad to have not met Nichole Gulowson (sometimes I love the Internet. And yes, I am petty and vindictive).  Speaking of the World Wide Web, I read a letter she wrote recently, announcing the departure of longtime director Sister Lucille McDonald. I’ll bet Sister Lucille would’ve looked me in the goddamn eye when she told me today wasn’t a good day to bother the denizens of Emmaus Shelter. I know it.
I crossed Water Street and angled in the direction of the Behemoth. As I stoked my dander into a righteous ire, I looked down and noticed my fly was unzipped.
Well, it was a homeless shelter, after all. And I’m about a natural fit as they come.
I had a good chuckle at my own expense, then drove onto Church Street to have my senses jarred by the ridiculous opulence of the First Congregational Church. I admired those six classical columns topped by those fancy Ionic capitals, and that alabaster spire towering about the Union River valley.
God, I wanted to get the hell out of town.
Important journalistic tip: When you’ve succeeded in working yourself into a seething lather, it is critical to translate it all into words before passion cools and you realize the whole affair was small beer. I can’t emphasize this enough.
And I’m glad I did so, because by the time I’d reached Buckport and noticed a sign for Carrier’s Mainely Lobster, the target of my wrath had already shifted to the American shopkeeper’s infinite weakness for terrible puns. Already I’d seen Mainely Music, and Maine-ly Meats on Main, and I’ll bet the list goes on forever.
And it does, too.
I did a quick search on whitepages.com for Mainely businesses in Maine and found listings for about 75 of them. The roll call includes Mainely Tile and Mainely Trees; Mainely Vinyl and Mainely Grass; Mainely Bingo and Mainely Crafts; Mainely Publishing and Mainely Eyes; Mainely Plumbing and Mainely Hair; Mainely Baby and Mainely Nails; and Mainely Scooters and Mainely Wireless.
My favorites: Mainely Hawaii and yes, Mainely Ticks.
And you know what? Every last one of those entrepreneurs probably wet their pants with glee when they came up with the name. Every one of them thought it was the most clever name in the history of mercantilism. That’s the problem with puns.
Nine out of 10 of them are stupid, and they’re all born of a desire to be unique being a copycat.
The world of business is a wheezing old cliche.
See how that works? I had barely made Searsport, and I’d nearly forgotten all about the invisible Direktor Nichole Gulowson.
I was just beginning to wonder where the hell this fabled Maine coastline was when I was startled by the sparkling blue waters of the Penobscot River as I passed through Verona Island. On the far side the attractive, cable-stayed Penobscot Narrows Bridge, the Behemoth was dwarfed by a stone cliff. Perhaps, I hoped, was only a sneak preview of Maine’s famously rugged coastline.
Sadly, my newfound sense of peace and wonder was quickly sullied by the tractor trailer three vehicles ahead of me, which spewed bluegray clouds of pure, unfiltered cancer from its smokestack. When U.S. 1 swung uphill and a passing lane opened, the trucker dutifully moved into the right lane, and we all raced to get free of his noxious plumes. The first two cars made it easily, but the Behemoth is a born plodder. When the passing lane had ended, I’d only succeeded in moving up to first in line to inhale the toxic fumes. The sight of Mainely Pottery briefly lifted my spirits, and for the next 10 miles was condemned to drive in the death truck’s smokestream.
As we approached Belfast, another passing lane opened, and this time I got around Mr. Alpha Services Group of Algonquin, Ill. In this case, I felt a little bad for my annoyance, because the driver seemed reasonably responsible and courteous. He’s just a pawn in the game being played by the Alpha Services Group of Algonquin, Ill.
I needed gas, and decided to make a pit stop in Belfast. I stumbled right into a station owned by Maritime Energy. Unleaded regular was going for $331.9, the cheapest I’d seen since leaving New Jersey. I filled up, then got involved in a casual conversation with an older gentleman who had taken an interest in the Behemoth.
His name is Phil Black. He’s 83, and he drives a little Ford Ranger pickup with a cap on top and an American flag flying from the passenger window. He said he has a 32-foot RV, and he’s looking to sell it and get something a little more like the Warrior.
He was a rail-thin, diminutive fellow with a distinguished gray beard and a cap that identified him as a former U.S. Navy Corpsman. He asked where in Pennsylvania I came from. When I said the Philadelphia area, he said he grew up in Philadelphia.
I asked where, and he said he couldn’t remember, it had been so long ago. That was my first clue that maybe Phil’s battling a bit of dementia.
Then he told me about the time his mother called him to the window and pointed to the zeppelin Hindenburg, which was engulfed in flames 50 miles east in Lakehurst, N.J.
Phil’s a nice fellow, though, and he gave me his business card and said to call if I wanted a look at his RV.
Turns out Phil’s confused Hindenburg memory is likely based on an actual event. On an beautiful late-Saturday afternoon in August 1936, the ill-fated German airship toured the skies over Philadelphia for an hour, as detailed in this wonderfully evocative, detailed recollection by Jerry Jonas in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Piloted by Capt. Ernst Lehmann, who would go down with the ship at Lakehurst, it had been scheduled to land in Lakehurst at 11 a.m. Turbulent winds had changed its plans, and Lehmann spent the afternoon giving his passengers an unscheduled tour of famous spots along the East Coast.
I was pleased to learn that Phil had indeed probably seen the Hindenburg gliding above Philadelphia when he was a boy. I hope he gets that smaller camper, and I hope he hits the road with his wife the schoolteacher sometime soon.

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Road snapshot: Digging Dale’s Potatoes in Littleton, Maine

Sept. 18, Houlton, Maine – I was disappointed not to have plunged into the heart of the North Maine Woods, but I knew I better get the hell out of Aroostook County soon.
I drove south on U.S. Route 1 from Presque Isle. The surrounding landscape was dominated by umber waves of undulating fields which until recently had glowed green with potato plants.
Now there were new potatoes here, new potatoes there, and new potatoes just about everywhere. Every half mile so stood a stand overflowing with sacks of new potatoes.
Soon I would have driven up and then down U.S. 1, from Houlton to Presque Isle and back, and done so without lifting a finger in an effort to find one potato farmer. This came to me as a reproach, one I couldn’t quite banish from my head.
But I figured I had learned enough, more than enough, more than I’ll ever be able to make use of, on the folkways of The County. I had to move. I’ve already missed 13 days of Max’s first-grade experience. I’m not getting along with my wife.
The real problem is I was down in the dumps and bereft of motivation. So I rationalized. Steinbeck had made a big deal of visiting Aroostook in 1960 because it was one of the nation’s three great potato beds. He didn’t mine it too deeply, and I figured if a passing reference to rolling potato fields had suited the master, maybe I should lighten up a bit.
To use an old newspaper expression for hiding a lack of reporting behind a fusillade of fancy words, I planned to “write around it.”
And so I would reference the phalanx of alabaster arms spinning around on the far hills and how they signaled a new power in The County: Wind. And I would turn to an old chestnut, the endless cords of firewood which were stacked to the heavens in grim anticipation of the New England winter. Then I would drive through Houlton, say farewell to Aroostook and make for the ocean.
I stopped for gas at little joint in a town called Littleton. I would have been in and out and down the road but for the old-fashioned predilections of the owners, Crystal and Gordon Hagerman. Crystal, a perky brunette wearing a Maine sweatshirt, came out to greet me.
She pumped the gas. I had to stand there, so I mustered the energy to ask a few desultory questions. My heart just wasn’t in it. She said her uncle has a potato farm, and she helped out during harvest time when she was a kid.
“I like the fall,” she said. “The harvest is hard work, but it only lasts three or four weeks, and then it’s over.”
I thanked her for her time, jumped in the camper, scribbled a few notes and rejoined 1 south. By the time I passed the Baptist Church, the nagging admonition had grown into full-blown self-flagellation. How hard would it have been to ask Crystal if she might put me in touch with her uncle? She said he hadn’t started to work on the harvest yet, so he might be available. I drove another mile, turned left into the parking lot of the Littleton Full Gospel Assembly, and talked myself into going back.
And so I did. I bought a cup of Keurig-brewed Keurig Green Mountain Coffee Roasters coffee, and Crystal gave me directions to her Uncle Dale Henderson’s potato barn. He grew seed potatoes, she said. It was just around the corner, up on a hilltop off Wiley Road. She said is barn was right next to one owned by his neighbor, Bob Bartlett. I shouldn’t have too much trouble finding someone to answer my questions.

DSCF1848

I drove by the Baptist Church, hung a right on Wiley, crested the hill and, of course, drove right on by Dale Henderson’s barn. To be fair, I wasn’t sure it was the right place, since Crystal described the hill as very steep. Anything the Behemoth can climb without too much pain does not quite reach the level of steep.
I turned around, then briefly became intrigued by a swaybacked old mare staring at me from her field. Ain’t life hell? Youth races past you before you realize what you’ve got, and next thing you know, you’re waiting around to die. I hoped the old girl was happy, though I’m not sure what happiness is for a horse, let alone a human being.
I drove off and quickly turned right onto a gravel road fronted by a sagging wood house. That old house, I’d find out, was built by Tom Henderson, Dale’s grandfather.
I pulled up short of the barn, grabbed the camera and climbed out of the Behemoth. I heard voices, so I peeked in a side door. Three men worked on a large agricultural machine which I presumed to be integral to potato farming. That machine shielded me from their view.
When someone said “This OK, Dale?” I knew I was in the right place.
I strolled around to the front door and entered like I had been expected to arrive at about this time. And that’s exactly how I was received. No suspicious gazes. No interrogations. Just, “hey.”
The air inside was redolent of grease and petroleum, which smelled to me like an honest aroma. Dale, his brother Gerry and a third fellow I didn’t meet were getting busy preparing for harvest.
I don’t think I even mentioned that I’m a traveling “writer” or explained my purpose. I simply said I had been traveling about The County for two days and wanted to learn something about potato farming.
Dale smiled broadly.
“If you’re here Saturday,” “Dale said, you’ll learn plenty.”

Dale Henderson will get his first look at his potato crop Saturday.

Dale Henderson will get his first look at his potato crop Saturday.

Turns out Saturday is Day 1 of the fall harvest for Dale Henderson & Co. Dale Henderson looks like a farmer. Or maybe it was just his overalls, which were stained brown with dirt
What do I know?
Speaking of which, I’ve learned over time that ignorance can be an advantage. The human inclination, and I have been guilty of this on far too many occasions, is to pretend like you know shit about something when in fact you don’t know shit-all.
And that’s not a very efficient approach, because most people are happy to explain the rudiments of their craft, art or job if you show an interest and politely admit your ignorance. And since I’m one of the planet’s great ignoramuses, I am getting pretty good at this.
Question No. 1: What the hell is a seed potato?
They are, naturally enough, potatoes grown to be used as seeds for another farmer’s potato crop. Since 1957, Dale Henderson has planted seed potatoes every year but one.
He walked out of the barn and leaned against a big rig. On the bed was a large plastic water tank. He said he used to truck potatoes to upstate New York himself, but now he uses it to spray his fields.
He said if the seed potato is small enough, and here he made a circle about the size of a half-dollar with his thumb and forefinger, you plant the whole thing. If it’s much larger, you cut it in half and plant the halves. Then you wait, worry and hope for the best.
His father, Frank Henderson, and his grandfather Tom both grew potatoes around here. His father died in 1957, when he was in the eighth grade.
He’s been farming potatoes since.
Like most other blue-collar professions, farming is mostly mechanized now. Dale said he’ll use 12-15 part-time helpers during the harvest. During planting time, in May, it’s more like five or six. When he was a kid, Indian families would stream over the border from New Brunswick and work the potato fields during harvest.
“I remember going down there with my dad to pick them up,” he said. “We called them Indian camps. They’d camp out down by the brook until the harvest was in.”
Looking around at the ramshackle collection of discarded machinery lurking in the weeds and bushes, I could see that was a long time ago. I asked Dale about the heavy-metal contraption getting a working-over inside.
It’s called a windrower, he said. It’s the first line of the harvesting process, and he owns two of them. The windrower digs out the potatoes in rows, sifts out the dirt and lays the potatoes to the side in rows. The harvester follows in its wake, gathers up the potatoes and drops them into a truck which travels at its side. Dale pilots the harvester.
He plants 160 acres, and says in an average year he will harvest 40,000 hundredweight, or 4 million pounds, of potatoes. He ships them directly to Florida, to a farmer who will turn around and plant them around Christmastime. Conveniently, he sells his potatoes to the son of the man who bought Frank Henderson’s crop.
Is it more difficult, I asked, to for him to make profit now than it had been in 1957?
“It’s way riskier nowadays,” he said.
I asked why.
“The cost,” he said matter-of-factly. “In 1974, you could buy fertilizer for $52 a ton. Now it’s right around $500 a ton. A tractor that cost you $12,500 will now cost as much as $100,000.”
While he wouldn’t quite describe himself as part of a dying breed, he did say the cost of entering the business now is nothing shy of prohibitive.
“You couldn’t start now,” he said. “It’s just too expensive.”
No matter your age, farming potatoes is something of an annual gamble.
“You can be wiped out by one bad year. I’ve seen it happen. We’ve been fortunate. We’ve had it, but we’ve been able to control it.”
Lots of rain and fog is the worst thing for potatoes. Dampness creates a natural breeding ground for the blight, and blight is a farmer’s bete noire. Blight, if you don’t count the cruel indifference of British rule,  is the scourge which produced the catastrophic Irish potato famine in the mid-19th century. The Great Famine killed a million Irishmen, women and children and spurred a million more to leave Ireland and seek a better life in a new land. The Hendersons were carried across the Atlantic in that migrant flood.
The unpredictability of the weather leaves a farmer powerless and given to prayer and superstition. With the fruits of his labor hidden beneath the surface of the earth, a potato farmer can only wait and hope. And worry.
“You worry all the time,” he said. “You worry all summer long. You can’t see what you have. It’s all underground. A lot of people can’t take the pressure. It’s a lot of pressure.”
I asked if he’s grown eating potatoes. He said he has in the past, but that’s even riskier business than planting seed potatoes. Despite the abundance of stands along Route 1 overflowing with sacks of new potatoes, Dale said farming of “table potatoes” has nearly vanished in Maine. Where Maine in its heyday planted 240,000 acres of potatoes, he said, now it’s more like 50,000 or 55,000.
A semi truck rumbled by, its trailer brimming with a small mountain of cream-colored spuds. That crop belongs to his neighbor, Bob Bartlett. In 48 hours, Henderson’s own harvest will start rolling toward the aluminum-covered barn. They’ll be loaded in by conveyor belt and stored until about Thanksgiving, when he’ll ship the first load south.
For a guy who’s about to discover how profitable his year has been, he seems incredibly at ease. He leaned against the trailer bed and chatted like we were sitting next to each other on bar stools and drinking beer.
Well, he said it’s been a dry summer, which what a potato farmer hopes for. That makes him reasonably confident his harvest will be a good one.
“We won’t get as many potatoes,” he said, “but we’ll get better quality potatoes.”
I asked what sort of celebration will follow the harvest. A pizza party, he said. Sounds like a mundane sort of celebration for such a momentous job. I’ve worked in newsrooms that have pizza parties on every election night. Oh well.
I thanked Dale for getting me off the Aroostook potato hook, wished him well, and said I hope it’s the best damn pizza he’s ever tasted.

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Road snapshot: To bumpy road to Allagash


Sept, 18, Aroostook County, Maine – Oh, boy.
I’m a goddamn mess.
I fear I just committed the unpardonable sin of making a public display of emotion in the middle of a fast-food restaurant in Presque Isle, Maine.
Perhaps nobody noticed. I’m feeling an unfortunate kinship with Blanche DuBois this morning. I mean, not the bits about the sordid past and the gay husband and the loss of great wealth. It’s just maybe my grip on reality is growing tenuous. And certainly, my best days are behind me.
I’ll get to the kindness of strangers in a second.
Thank the radio deities for Chicago, for the bland, inoffensive, tasteless balm of “Does Anyone Really Know What Time it Is?” Because if Neil Young’s evocative version of Ian Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds” had gone on any longer, I might have broken in two. That song gets to me in the best of times. These, I fear, are not the best of times.
The song oozes an inexorable melancholy, a piercing sense of loss. The crushing indifference of the Alberta winter hangs above it all like a black curtain ready to fall.
I feel the imminence of winter.
Yesterday, after bidding adieu to Stacey Griffin, I geared up for the drive to Allagash, which represents the end of the road in Aroostook County. I bought groceries at the Shop ‘N Save. I walked through the parking lot, nagged by an ever-present pain in the upper back. A lifetime of poor posture an an obliviousness to ergonomic safety have come home to roost in the vicinity of  my left shoulder.
At, ’tis a minor annoyance and no more.
I dumped out the meltwater and repacked the cooler. As I was about to leave, I noticed I’d accidentally cracked three eggs. This became the pretext for an impromptu party.
As usual, I started by sauteeing onions and pepperoncini.  Then I fried the eggs, toasted two pieces of 12-grain bread and tossed in slices of extra-sharp cheddar. Now I had a juicy, falling-apart, grilled egg-and-cheese sandwich.
It was hard to get the hands around, and it was an unholy mess, but it succeeded in exorcising the demons still lingering from the morning’s Eggs McMuffin travesty. I washed it down with a can of Baxter’s Stowaway IPA, of which I’d just purchased a six-pack just in case I hosted a wandering family of French-Canadian migrants in the Behemoth later.
All in all, it was a swell party. The only thing missing were the guests.
Before I took off west on Maine 163, I needed gas. I stopped at the Daigle Oil Company fueling station, where I meet a square-jawed, steel-eyed attendant named Brett. He asked if he could check my oil or wash my windows. Always afraid of incurring debt, I declined. What a sad-sack human being I am.
I asked Brett the obligatory question about Aroostook County folk. He said he’s moved 50 times in his life, which by my estimation is at  two moves a year, and said he’s been in 49 states and every Canadian province.
“Oh, they’re definitely a different breed up here,” Brett said. “They walk different, they talk different, they carry themselves different. We are a bigger breed.
“My father is 6-foot-4 and 350 pounds, nearly all of it muscle.”
His mom is from Virginia. His dad is an native Aroostookrat. That explains the pronoun confusion. He’s part Aroostookrat, part military brat. But he remained firm on the exceptional quality of the County man.
“You go down to Bangor and you sit and people watch, you can pick out the County boys,” he said. “It’s just a different attitude. Up here, you have to work for everything you get. Down there, in Bangor and Portland and Augusta, it’s given to you.”
I could’ve talked to Brett all afternoon, but he had other customers to service. He handed me my receipt and went off with a wave.
I turned onto 1 north, then 163 west, and now was on my way to Allagash, via Ashland.
I politely disagreed with Brett on one point, however. He said he tells everyone the most desolate stretch of road they’ll ever see is between Bangor and Houlton.
“There’s nothing but swamp and moose,” he said.
The most desolate stretch of road I’ve driven lies between Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, and Flin Flon, Manitoba. For reasons I  won’t go into here, I traversed it one night in the summer of 2002. I drove for four hours without seeing another car. Never has my imagination run so rampant with unseen terrors.  At the end, I was rewarded with a spectacular show from the Aurora Borealis.
I’d see no Northern Lights tonight, however. I did see potatoes. The Aroostook County roadsides are running over with sacks of new potatoes. In some places a 10-pound bag sells for $4. In others it’s $5. You can buy 5-pound bags, too. If I didn’t have an unopened bag of red potatoes stuffed into a camper cabinet, I’d stop a buy a sack.
The further north you drive, the more you begin to notice the preponderance of French surnames. Pelletier. Gagnon. Blanchette. Bouchard. Boucher. Perrault. Theriault. Ouillette. Saucier. Nadeau. Desjardins. Labonte. Daigle. Corriveau. Pinette. The list goes on an on. It’s like thumbing through an all-time register of Montreal Canadiens.
Once you get to Eagle Lake on Maine 11, your attention is directed toward the growing ranks of Acadian flags.
I thought of Nelson Cote. He’d like it here. I thought of Steinbeck’s migrant farmers. I kept driving, through unpaved work zones and over steep grades that reduced the Behemoth to a plodding, desperate 20 miles per hour.
At Fort Kent, where 11 meets up with U.S. 1, I stopped to mail a postcard. Fort Kent was built in 1839, during the heated early days of the Aroostook War. More than 60 percent of the people here speak French as their primary language. The Muncipal Center is also the Centre de Municipalite. Again, I thought of Nelson.
Figuring I’d have to come back this way, I decided to push on to Allgash, roughly 30 miles west and south on Maine 163. Allagash is the gateway to Maine’s remote northern woods.
I kept in mind Stacey Griffin’s prophesy that I’d see a moose, and nervously shifted my eyes left and right while I made my way through the tiny hamlets of St. John Plantation and then St. Francis in grandmotherly fashion. I still saw nary a moose, though I did see the lurid aftermath of a raccoon-automobile mash-up. Pink entrails festooned the road surface. I almost could’ve reached out and grabbed a handful of duodenum.
Speaking of moose, I drove past the Moose Shack on the western fringe of St. Francis. The proprietors feature pizza, subs and other “moosellaneous” fare. Really.

Autumn knocking at the door of the Allagash.

Autumn knocking at the door of the Allagash.

Despite my glacial pace, I soon reached the outskirts of Allagash. If you accept that Aroostook folk are a different breed than other Mainers, you might consider Allagashians a breed apart from run-of-the-mill County folk. Every 25-50 yards (and for God’s sake, please don’t speak of meters) Armerican flags fly with a silent defiance from roadside telephone poles. Long does she wave.
As you approach Allagash, the road opens up to reveal a tantalizing preview of autumn’s brilliance.  I was still looking for downtown Allagash when 163 came to an abrupt end and tossed me onto a rutbucket roadway of dirt, gravel and heartache. I muddled along for about two miles until I came to an impasse in the form of a gatehouse. A long wooden gate blocked the road. The light signal was a bright, red X. No passage without permission, boy.
The gatehouse was closed up tight, but there was a callbox. I looked about anxiously. I shuffled my feet. I stood still. I contemplated the callbox, the darkening woods and the rough road ahead. I considered my options.
I mulled calling, just to talk to another human being, but the falling curtain of darkness infected my soul. I am a master of hesitation.
The specter of bears plagued my mind. I wasn’t worried about bears per se. Not too much, anyway. It was just that I’d passed a sign in another town wishing bear hunters good luck. That image remained fresh in my brain. I’d hate to venture out into these brooding forests and get winged by some overzealous hunter who had mistaken me for a bear.
I figured this should be an unlikely calamity. I mean, I don’t think I look anything like a bear. For one, I’m fully bipedal. For two, I’m clad in a bright, blue sweatshirt that, while it probably is starting to smell nasty, does not betray an ursine odor. Yet I know strange things happen during hunting season.
Also, I worried about the need, for, you know, a restroom. I understand bears are legendary for using the woods, but again, I’m no bear.
I gazed past the gate and noted the sign informing travelers they are entering the Irving Maine Woodlands. I wasn’t sure just who the hell the Irvings are, but I was beginning to suspect they have this entire region on lockdown.
A cursory Internet search revealed they have achieved a virtual monopoly on life up here. Run by descendants of Canadian magnate K.C. Irving, the Irving Group of Companies has its hands into just about everything.
They have the whole region integrated, vertically, horizontally, three-dimensionally. The pulp-and-paper wing owns these woods and the roads which pass through them. You must secure their permission before entering.
They’re into fossil fuels in a big way. Irving gas stations are everywhere I’ve been in New England. They’re flush with oil refineries, oil tankers, oil distribution terminals. They’re into shipping, ship building, construction, engineering. Everything.
Oh, and just in case the need for docile, forgiving press coverage should ever arise, they own a flotilla of newspapers and radio stations.

I had reached, quite literally, the gateway to the Maine's northern woods.

I had reached, quite literally, the gateway to the Maine’s northern woods.

I knew I wasn’t going to make that call. I took a few photos, for documentary purposes, then climbed back in the Behemoth and made a U-turn. A bumpy mile or two later, I was back in the land of paved roads and American flags. I crossed over the Little Black River, and noticed a little shack to my left. A sign identified it as the Little Black Checkpoint and said all travelers must check in here before entering the North Maine Woods.
I felt my cowardice had been redeemed. I would have had to come back here anyway. The sign also said it was open till 9 p.m. daily. I parked the camper and went in for a look-see.
The human mind is a funny thing. Every town you approach in the gloom of darkness seems an ominous nest of misanthropes and stranger-haters.
And every place is the same. Every place is full of people who own dogs and cats. Everyplace is full of people who have children and grandchildren and husbands and wives and lovers.
Every place is full of people struggling to navigate their way through life’s perilous straits. They work difficult, dreary jobs, or they have no jobs at all. They worry about the safety of the children and the faithfulness of their partners.
I’d already noticed the Allagash is rife with people named McBreairty. I was about to meet a member of the McBreairty clan. And she is no stranger-hating misanthrope.
Mary McBreairty runs the Little Black Checkpoint. She retired from the military and came home. She’s an artist, painting landscapes and portraits in bright watercolors.
I told her about my dream of reaching the northernmost point of Maine. She shook her head sadly and pointed to a wall map which showed me I had a ways to go. Visitors must pay $24 to go into the woods and camp for a night. If you just want drive-through pass, it’s $12.
I asked her my by-now hackneyed question about Aroostook County visa vis the rest of Maine. She said of course things are different up here.
“They have industry, towns and civilization,” she said. “Up here it’s all woods.”
She of course was sweet and helpful. I asked her another of my standard questions, about whether the arrival of autumn ever loses its power to amaze the habitual New England denizen.,
No way, she said.
“I wake up in the morning, I’m awestruck again,” she said. “Day by day.”
Of course, she lives in a house with a window onto the St. John River.
We talked, and I confessed my purpose, vague as it is. Finally she said there was someone else, another McBreairty, I might want to talk to. She rang Darrell McBreairty, historian, novelist, poet, photographer and conscience of the Allagash. Send me right over, he said. Mary gave me directions. She talked slowly and deliberately, because I think she sensed I am a little challenged.
I thanked her for her patience and generosity of spirit, and went off to see if I could find Darrell McBreairty without getting miserably lost.
That’s a subject for later. I have to get out of this damn Presque Isle McDonald’s and get moving toward the coast. I have miles to go before I’ll see myself inside another wifi-providing, artery-clogging, drive-through, fast-food chain restaurant.

Mary McBreairty at the Little Black Checkpoint in the Allagash.

Mary McBreairty at the Little Black Checkpoint in the Allagash.

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Road snapshot: McDonald’s, Presque Isle

Stacey Eulrich Griffin of Aroostook County.

Stacey Eulrich Griffin of Aroostook County.

Sept. 17, Presque Isle, Maine – They kicked me out here about nine hours ago, as midnight settled over those big yellow arches. The manager was sweet about it, saying they had to close up.
When I packed my stuff and approached the lobby, I saw she wasn’t kidding. The entire night crew queued up and followed me to the door. The lobby had closed at 11. I felt a little sheepish.
I made the short drive north on U.S. 1 to the Walton Family Inn & General Store, where I proceeded to get a lousy night of sleep. I shouldn’t have drunk black coffee so late at night.
By the time my mind stopped racing, my ears filled with a sleep-depriving cacophony. Voices wafted over from the Tim Horton all-night drive-through window. This nuisance eventually gave way to the rattle and rumble of semi trucks downshifting and turning off of U.S. Route 1. Finally, as the darkness began to soften, came the dawn-alarm caterwauling of seagulls.
I spent a fitful night on the Behemoth’s normally comfortable bed, helpless to silence my own thoughts or the ambient clatter. I’ve been deep in the mire lately, battling the twin perils of loneliness and hopelessness. Back in Berwyn, our recently purchased Toyota Prius needs a $3,000 makeover. Max is in first grade. I miss him desperately, and sometimes I feel foolish for being so far away. My home life is falling apart. My prospects for coming out of this unscathed are dimming daily.
The only thing that saves me the abyss are the people, the incredible cast of characters I meet day after day. One moment they’re strangers, the next they’re not. They allow me into their lives for at least a brief interlude. They restore my faith in human decency. They seem to lift me when I need lifting most. They remind me why I took this cockamamie journey in the first place.
After I got thrown out of the Caribous library last night, I made a tactical retreat to Presque Isle. I had a notion to buy an $8.99 hoody sweatshirt at Marden’s, the Maine surplus store. Mine was still wet from my walk in the rain.
I’d never heard of Marden’s till I ran into Alice Chicoine & Co. at Baxter Park on Monday. I think it was Debbie who told me about the bumper sticker which says, “We Got Our Governor at Marden’s.”
Next thing I knew Marden’s was everywhere. The Presque Isle store, alas, didn’t have a sweatshirt in my preferred size. While the large fit fine, I feared all that velvety cotton would lose two sizes in one wash cycle. In any case, my sweatshirt would dry, and what did I need with two hooded sweatshirts? I can’t wear both at the same time.
So I left empty-handed, and came here. When I returned this morning, I broke habit and ordered food. Usually I just get coffee and eschew the fast-food fare. I got an Egg McMuffin and an Egg White Delight McMuffin. At $2.49, they’re kind of expensive for what they are. I peeled off the ham slices. I’m no vegetarian, but ham never entices me. When it was over, I kind of wished I’d made myself breakfast in the Behemoth.
I wasn’t here long when Stacey Griffin approached and asked if he could plug his phone into the second outlet in the restaurant’s lone receptacle. Naturally, I asked him about the peculiarities of Aroostook County.
He didn’t betray any ire or carry a grudge against Maine for stealing it out from under the British Crown. He just said life is a little more laid-back up here, a little slower.
Now that I’m into my second day, I think I can say people up here definitely are a different breed than Mainers of the popular imagination.
“The wages aren’t as good,” he said, “but it’s a nice place to come for a vacation.”
I was surprised to hear he’s just 55. I figured he was at least 10 years old than me, if not more. I guess he’s walked a rough road. His right arm was cradled in a sling, the result of a fall taken while working on some stairs.
His family have been Aroostook people for a long time. He said his grandfather, Thomas Garfield Griffin, served as sheriff of The County. His dad, Stacey Eulrich Griffin Sr., was a cop for 16 years before burning out.
“He got sick and tired of the violence,” Stacey said. “One time there was a woman who was estranged from her husband. She couldn’t feed her four kids. They were starving, and the father wouldn’t help out. One day she told all the kids to go find a hiding place, and then she blew them away with a shotgun, one by one. My dad had to deal with that.
“He had been a sergeant with the military police in Germany, too. He didn’t like killing.”
Stacy Jr. put in 28 years driving a truck for Sears. His grandparents, Thomas and Ruth Shaw Griffin, had 13 kids. His dad had six brothers and six sisters, and they all had to help out on the farm.
Stacy looked down at his watch. He was about to call a cab to take him to an appointment at the courthouse downtown. His pickup has a problem in the fuel line, and his brother gave him a ride here from Washburn. I offered to give him a ride, and he accepted.
After I cleared a space for him, he climbed into the Behemoth. As we took off, I could hear him struggle to catch his breath. He said he’d summited Mount Katahdin twice, and canoed the St. John River. He heartily recommended a three-day trip on the St. John.
A heart attack struck him down when he was in his 40s, and it seems he never quite bounced back. He’s lived up and down Aroostook, from Van Buren to Caribou to Washburn to Presque Isle.
He said the courthouse visit concerned a personal dispute with a former friend.
“He kicked me out my house and got me throwed in jail,” he said. “This has been going on for three years, and I’m sick of it.”
Courtesy of the Bangor Daily News and the dubious miracle of the Internet, I see where Stacey was indicted by a grand jury last year on counts of theft of services and terrorizing. In 2011, he was fined $250 and given three days in jail for violating a restraining order.
Well, life is difficult at best. Who can know what struggles another person as endured? Who can know the torments that plague another man’s mind? I know nothing of the circumstances that led to Stacey’s legal problems, besides what little he told me.
And I have no reason to doubt him. He seemed like an easy-going, decent fellow. If he was threatening the his nemesis, I can believe that fellow had it coming. Then again, maybe I’m just gullible that way.
I told him I planned to head north in Maine as far as possible, and he said I’d find myself in Allagash. They call it “The Allagash” up here. I asked him what I’d see in the Allagash.
“Big animals,” he said. “The biggest animals are up in the Allagash. You’ll see a moose, for sure.”
I guess I’ll see about that.

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