Sept. 13, Bangor, Maine – Autumn is barreling down on the north country with a subtle ferocity. The pleasant days can fool you and give you a false sense of security. The blankets required to get warm at night remind me that summer is gone and fill my head with fears that winter might be hard on the heels of the New England fall.
I am having some technical difficulties up here. For some reason, and I’ve seen it happen before, none of the McDonald’s locations in Maine seem to have electrical outlets. They’ve got the free wifi, but my battery lasts about 45 minutes without electricity. I have backup laptop, an old HP Mini, but the keyboard has gone haywire and I can’t make any sense on it. Not that I make all that much sense on a perfectly operative keyboard.
And so after striking out at the McDonald’s across Broadway from Planet Fitness last night, I awoke this morning at the Walton Family Inn & General Store. For the second day running, I resolved to make myself breakfast. This time I’d make good.
I stopped in at the Hannaford on Broadway, got some coffee, then got to work on breakfast. I sliced and sauteed half a vidalia onion (Welcome to Cooking with Wally!), then tossed in a handful of pepperoncini. Loathe to dirty more than one pan, I dumped the onion mixture onto to a paper plate and fried two eggs. When the were done, I slid the eggs on top of the onions. I broke a pita in half, lined the inside with extra-sharp cheddar, and grilled the bread. Then I put the bread on top of the eggs and onions, flipped the whole mess over and dined in style.
When I was done, I returned to the supermarket to use the restroom and purchase a bag of ice. I emptied out the cooler and did the dishes with the melted icewater. When I’d finished that, I did little cleaning up around the joint, which was a terrific eyesore.
I was just about to sit down and drink my coffee when Ernie Pyle and some of his friends came tumbling out of an overhead cabinet and fell on the little dining table, wiping out my coffee and creating a godawful mess in the process.
Such is the unpredictable nature of life in a six-wheeled studio apartment. I cleaned the spill, then repaired to Planet Fitness to do a little sweating. Now I am cleaned up at a local outpost of the International House of Bitterness. (I wonder when Keurig Green Mountain Coffee Roasters will augment its rising profile with a series of Internet-friendly cafes?)
By the way, after 25,000 or more miles of crisscrossing this country, I am not sure I can say anything concrete about Americans, save one thing: Americans are mad, absolutely nuts, for drive-through convenience. Already today I have witnessed cars queued up in ridiculous numbers at McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts and here at Starbucks.
A little while ago I went outside to talk with my sister, and marveled at the scene. The snaking line had trapped a woman and her friend trapped in a compact car. With just a little help from me, she negotiated a 62-point turn in order to escape her predicament. The kid in line just behind her bumper could only smile and join me in marveling at the absurdity of it all. Eventually he turned around and gave up his place in line to someone else.
Now that I’ve got all that housekeeping stuff out of my system, I’ll try to do a little catching up.
Yesterday I drove 165 miles, almost all of it on U.S. Highway 2, from Gorham, N.H., to Bangor. Thursday night I slept in the parking lot of the Walton Family Inn & General Store, huddling desperate beneath blankets in an effort to warm my frozen digits as Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor sliced each other to ribbons. As summer recedes and autumn moves in, New England nights are not to be trifled with.
I drove east through Gorham proper. Gorham is a way station on the Appalachian Trail, and I had a nagging thought I should stop and track down some thru-hikers. I told that nag to still itself and continued in my eastward journey.
Before long I had crossed into Maine. Almost on cue, the lovely white birches that give their name to the New Hampshire mountains began to be less conspicuous on the roadside. Though I’m pretty sure I was still in those mountains. The welcome sign warns that Maine is open for business. I am pretty sure that’s some sort of ideological message. I hoped this obsession with corporate welfare means that the McDonald’s here are all open 24 hours and the Walmarts all allow overnight parking.
I pulled off 2 at Bethel, a quaint tourist town that is also home to the Gould Academy, a private, boarding school. Fewer than 30 miles away via automobile, Bethel is a world removed from Berlin, N.H. The streets are tidy and devoid of weeds. The businesses, far as I could tell, are open for business. And the people seem to be bracing for winter instead of bracing for the coup de grace.
The off season is here, and that means ample parking along Main Street. I parked the Behemoth, strolled into the Shop n’ Save and see a deal I could not resist: a dozen brown eggs for $1.69. Inspired, I resolved to make breakfast for the first time since parting ways with my family.
First I walked up and down Main and looked over the place a little. I stopped in at a gift store and bought a half-dozen postcards. I need to write to Max. Still in search of coffee, so I visited DiCocoa’s cafe and bakery. Even though it is well past noon, and forgetting my vow to cook breakfast, I got seduced by a homemade bagel. When you add in the cream cheese and coffee, I spent more on this meal than any so far: $5.62. The eggs will have to wait for another day.
DiCocoa’s has a real upscale-granola vibe, which I can’t decide if I like or hate. I sat down and casted a sideways glance at a mother and her two toddlers who have taken up residence at a nearby table. A guy at another table is chatting her up in a way I imagine might get annoying. Her little boy is about 2, right smack in the wheelhouse of the train-loving phase.
I thought of Max, how we used to delight in watching episodes of Thomas the Tank Engine in the mornings before I went off to work (back in those hazy days when I went off to work on a regular basis). At least this boy was playing with a Curious George train. Thomas, or Percy, Gordon, Toby or even James, might have made me weep. Everywhere I stop lately I am confronted by mothers and their toddlers, and the resultant melancholy is driving me to distraction.
I considered sticking around to explore Bethel some more. Instead I got back on 2 East.
In another half hour I’m navigating the twists and turns 2 takes through Rumford. The smokestacks on the horizon suggest this might be another hard-bitten mill town on the banks of the Androscoggin River. My thoughts return to Berlin.
Next thing I know I’m in Mexico. Sometimes the name of a town is sufficient to defeat prevailing indolence and chide me to get out to do a little ambulatory exploration. I turn around before I’m out of town and drive west again, looking for a suitable parking spot. When I inadvertently cross back into Rumford, I park at the Hannaford on the hill, buy a cup of Kuerig-brewed Green Mountain coffee and then walk across the river bridge into Mexico.
I confess I did this largely so I might write “I walked across the river bridge into Mexico.” Kind of puerile, I know. Now comes the hard part. Psyching myself up and finding someone to give me a story. I loiter outside the library. I note the sign on the door says it’s open till 4 on Friday. I have no idea if it’s past 4 yet.
I shuffle about a bit, gaze down at my feet as if there are hidden reservoirs of inspiration inside my sneakers, and walk on. Without my phone, I’m not sure what the hell time it is. I circumnavigate the library building and walk downhill into the lot behind it. I finish my KGMCR coffee and deposit the cup in a metal garbage pail in a little gazebo between the fire department and the river. I’m not alone. A little girl, shepherded by her grandmother, frolics about with her stuffed snake.
I asked Grandmom about the imminence of fall. Do folks around here still revel in its glory?
“It’s not the people who live here,” she says. “It’s the people who don’t live around here, the tourists, who make a big deal of it. It happens too fast for us to even notice.”
She did say that 21/2-year-old Layla’s effervescence and restless curiosity tends to awaken her to some of the world’s overlooked wonders. Her eyes have opened to see all sorts of things, buildings, trees, creeks and more, she had no idea existed.
I asked the rhetorical question of what makes us adults such myopic curmudgeons.
She shrugs her shoulders.
“Responsibility,” she says.
I bid her adieu, hoping she will soon rediscover an appreciation of the New England fall. To think otherwise is too depressing.
I run across the post office, go in and mail a postcard to Max. I also see an old-fashioned clock hanging on an old-fashioned wall. It’s 3:30. My thoughts return to the library, and I circle around and again walk east on Main Street, aka U.S. 2.
I look across the street at a man out front of an antique store. He catches my gaze and unleashes a friendly wave. I think he might be the guy, but first I have to check out the library. I might not want to, but I have to.
I walk in and nervously peruse a metal shelf stocked with fliers and assorted community literature. Eventually I take a deep breath, pivot and accost the librarian. Serendipity is in my corner once again. I am fortunate to have stumbled in here on Friday, Sharon Madore’s one shift of the week.
She just started here in Mexico after putting in 17 years at the Rumford library. Funny how routinely I become paralyzed at the prospect of annoying a stranger, and how often they drown me in the milk of human kindness. You’d think I’d come to expect it by now.
She says, straightaway, the mill is at once the salvation and ruination of Mexico (and Rumford). It is a paper mill, currently owned by the NewPage Corporation. The NewPage Corporation has entered into a merger deal with the Verso Corporation, which owns two other paper mills in Maine, including one on the Androscoggin in Jay. Verso is located in Memphis, Tenn. NewPage has its headquarters in Miamisburg, Ohio.
Such is the vulnerable trap in which the 21st century mill town finds itself. People plod along from one day to the next. They keep their heads down, fight the good fight and hold their collective breath, hoping like hell some group of fashionably dressed men doesn’t drop the hammer on them from a thousand miles away.
I ask about Mexico. I can’t resist asking if the people here call themselves Mexicans. She smirks but forgives the question, saying she’s heard the term used but that it’s not preferable. (She, alas, lives in Rumford, so she cannot be a Mexican if she wanted to.)
I tell her about my visit to Berlin, New Hampshire, as if to say “things could always be worse.” She shakes her head sadly. She doesn’t need to be told this.
“It’s shows what can happen when a town is dependent on one business,” she says. “It’s very scary.”
She’s lived in other places, even Europe. But now she’s home, holding her breath and bracing for the next shock.
“This is a nice place to raise kids, but there are no jobs,” she says bluntly. “There are no jobs.”
A mill that once supported upwards of 3,000 workers now employees roughly 700. Verso only counts 2,100 employees in its three U.S. mills.
And the sad truth is, it probably will get worse. Mexico, as well as Rumford, are perched on a crumbling promontory, a ledge that has been crumbling for 50 years, waiting for the final tremor to send them tumbling downstream to oblivion.
“There are lot of people on disability, and a lot of senior citizens on fixed incomes,” she says. “I’m not judging. I’m not trying to be negative.”
A patron approaches her desk, book in hand. I make a tactical retreat and give her room to do her job.
I turn back toward the community-news shelf. I gaze out the window, the sharp sun forcing me squint. Across the river, white smoke billows from a stack and floats downwind to the east. The fate of this community rides upon that smokestream, and is every bit as tenuous.
The patron stout fellow with long, gray hair tied in a pony tail. He introduces himself as Steve Colby. He looks as if he could be a mill worker, or laid-off millworker. Sharon Madore addresses him as Mr. Colby, and treats him with kindness and respect.
“Thank you for patronizing your library, Mr. Colby,” she says after checking him out. “I don’t know how much longer it will be here.”
After Steve Colby walks out the door, I ask Sharon if the library’s situation is really that shaky. She says absolutely it is. It is my turn to shake my head sadly.
She knows the merger, which is now in the hands of attorneys and judges, augurs nothing good for the workers and their families.
“The board of directors, and the executives, will make all the money,” she says. “I’m sure there will be layoffs. I’m not trying to be negative, but you know how business works. A community depends on its tax base. If it doesn’t have a healthy tax base, it can’t have a library. If we had other business here, maybe we’d be able to withstand the stress better. It’s just scary.”
Public libraries provide vital community lifelines, and they’re all the more vital in struggling communities.
“We do everything,” she says, her tone sinking deeper into another level of worry. “In the winter, people come in here to get warm. And the Farmer’s Almanac says we’re in for another brutal winter. They come to use the computers.”
Her husband, Mike, lost his job in the mill after 41 years. Fortunately, he had the technical training and know-how to land a job elsewhere. Most millworkers are not in such an enviable position.
“There is a good side to life in a small town like this,” she allows. “There are a lot of suicides, and people in a small town reach out to help. Maybe you don’t get that in a big city. But …”
Her voice trails off, but the but says it all. I thank her for being so friendly, sweet and sentient, say goodbye and begin the not-so-long walk out of Mexico.
I walk back over the Swift River, which divides Mexico from Rumford, and up the hill to the Hannaford and the Behemoth. The Hosmer High School athletic fields sit just below the supermarket at the base of the hill. I can’t help but notice “thank you” sign tacked to a 4×4 post in the grandstand which looms over the baseball field:
Thanks first goes out to Aubuchon Hardware, for supplying the grandstand paint. I’ve seen Aubuchon stores all over New England. They have this region locked up tight.
A thriving remnant of the French-Canadian migration, the company was started in 1908 by William Aubuchon. He was teenager when his widowed mother left Canada and settled in Fitchburg, Mass., in 1901. Aubuchon once refrained from publishing the phone number of its stores in the eccentric worry phone calls might distract the sales staff from giving their undivided attention to customers.
I was more interested in the subsidiary note of thanks. It goes out to the inmates of the Oxford County Jail in grateful appreciation for their labor.
What a world!
I steer back onto 2 East and soon leave Mexico behind for good. Only when I get downwind does the foul stench of the paper mill invade my nostrils. I have resolved to drive on toward Bangor, hoping to recover cell phone service at some point. It’s getting lonesome out here with autumn zeroing in on my soul, and I’d like to touch base with my family.
I plod on, past Dixland and East Dixland, and Wilton and East Wilton. Now I am in Farmington. I stop at the McDonald’s and go inside. No outlets to plug into. I am kind of relieved, because I’m not in the mood to stop. I want to keep moving. I used the facilities, then the exit, and walk next door where Trask Orchards has set up an apple stand.
They are priced by the peck and bushel. I’d love to by a peck of apples, much in the same way I wanted to walk across the bridge to Mexico. But I’m on my own, and I’d hate to see them go to waste. They are also sold individually for 75 cents, and I ask the friendly representative if I might buy two.
He smiles and says sure, then tells me to pick any two I like. I recuse myself from the decision on the basis that he’s the expert and I’m just a passing novice. He picks out a large one, than gives me a choice of a big green one or a smaller reddish one. I take the small one. I pay him, and he seems grateful for my business. It’s the first day of the season, he says. The apples have not reached their prime.
I bite into the smaller one as I walk away. I made a good choice. It is a little tart, but crisp and full of juice. I double back to tell him how tasty it is. I say I’d love to taste one when the orchard peaks, and he says that should be in a week and a half. I wonder where I’ll be then.
I drive off again and rejoin 2, making quick work of the Trask Orchards apple. I immediately bite into the second one, and immediately realize it’s nowhere near as good as the first. It’s a bit soft, and more than a bit sour. Oh well, he warned me. I am happy with the transaction just the same, and wish Trask Orchards nothing but the best.
I keep making my way eastward in steady but slow fashion. The towns along the road seem evenly spaced out. Every 30 miles or so a small but significant town pops up where the weary traveler might access the multifarious wonders of 21st century corporate culture. Everything in between is a relic of another age.
Next up is Skowhegan, which I first heard from the lips of Fred Thurlow in Wallingford, Vt. I drive through town and pull off at a rest area which fronts the Kennebec River. It is a fetching spot for a picnic, and I dip broccoli florets into hummus. I try to eat a vegetable every now and then. It’s not easy when you’re on the road and left to your own devices.
I step outside to read the historical marker. There’s that Benedict Arnold again. Seems wherever I go, he turns up. Arnold passed through town in October of 1775, leading a force of 1,100 rebels. They traveled on the river in wooden bateaux, bound for Quebec City. This place was called Canaan then. The townsfolk volunteered their sons and oxen to help get Arnold’s boats over treacherous Skowhegan Falls.
It was rough going by all accounts.
One of his officers, a Captain Thayer, wrote the following:
“Last night our clothes being wet were frozen a pain of glass thick. This proved very disagreeable, being obliged to lie in them. The people are courteous and breathe nothing but liberty.”
I’ll try to remember those men in their frozen clothes when it gets cold tonight. Having paid my respects to liberty, I move on up the road. Before too long I reached Newport, where the McDonald’s is swamped inside and out. The line inside is long enough. Outside, the drive-through line nearly defies belief. Again, no outlets.
By now it’s past 6:30. The Internet inform me I am a half-hour from Bangor. The Planet Fitness there closes at 9 on Fridays. If I hop on I-95, I should get there in plenty of time.
And so I do.