Sept. 14, Millinocket, Maine – Every so often, the road threatens to swallow you whole. The cold bites colder, the clouds appear darker, the people look alien and the world seems mean.
Today was one of those days. Turns out I never gave much consideration to the psychological travails of solo travel when reading Blue Highways or Travels with Charley.
But there are obstacles to clear. It does get lonesome from time to time.
As it was, today started just fine. After holing up at Starbucks last night till closing time, 11 p.m., I again bedded down at the Bangor Walmart on Stillwater Avenue. I woke up to a phone call from my wife, which is a sweet way to greet the morning. I cooked breakfast. I worked out. By rights it should’ve been a perfect day.
Maybe it has something to do with the warning lights that illuminated the dashboard of our Prius when she was driving it to Media this afternoon. The specter of having to replace the hybrid battery is ominous indeed.
Anyway, I returned to the Starbucks on Bangor Mall Boulevard, where I squandered a good hour trying to perform a simple copy-and-paste maneuver on the HP Mini. The copying went fine, the pasting was an exercise in frustration. I sank a little lower and decided I needed to break the cord with Bangor. For the record, folks up here pronounce it Ban-GOR, which takes some getting used to.
In an effort to get somewhere else, and fast, I hopped on I-95 and drove north. I left around 5 p.m. In a few miles I saw a sign, common in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, warning of the moose hazard. Funny how Maine dutifully and lovingly urges you to be careful not to end your life by slamming into a bull moose, but it lets you drive 75 miles per hour. What do you suppose will happen when you’re zooming down the interstate at 75 and suddenly find yourself staring into the eyes of a 1,000-pound mammoth?
In any case, I figured I had an hour or more before moose and deer started leapfrogging across the interstate.
About a half hour in, a group of bikers passed me by like I was driving in place. Eight motorcycles flew by me. I noted that of the nine riders on those eight bikes, not one wore a helmet. Some covered their -heads with do-rags. Others just let their silver locks fly in the breeze. I hoped none of those freewheeling fellows would meet up with a moose.
I pulled off the interstate at Medway and headed for Millinocket, which lies 10 miles west on Maine 157. I’d been here before, in 2002 after hiking Mount Katahdin at the tail-end of hiking the 100 Mile Wilderness. I stopped in Medway to mail a postcard home.
Looking for a photo opportunity, I gazed across the street and spotted the heavy artillery. Maybe it’s just my “the world is ugly and the people are sad” mood, but I couldn’t help but wonder why we are so in love with all things martial.
Here’s this little hamlet blessed with a picturesque natural setting, sitting at the confluence of the east and west branches of the Penobscot River, and the first thing the raveler sees is the 105-millimeter barrel of a very deadly gun.
Are we some belligerent, muscle-flexing bastards or what? It’s like we’re always trying to goad some asshole into kicking sand in our faces, just so we can break out the big guns.
My dad, by the way, was a tank instructor in the Army during the Korean War. I don’t think about that often. He seemed to like the Army. He was forever praising its discipline-honing opportunities. But he just didn’t seem the type. He was a gentle man, a bona fide nice guy. Bellicosity didn’t seem to be his thing.
Perhaps Army drill sergeants seemed like Teddy bears growing up in the same house with his father.
As for the tank, it does have a fascinating history. In addition use by the U.S. Marine Corps during the first Iraq war, it was employed by Egypt and Saudi Arabia during the same conflict. More interesting still, it was in the service of the Israelis during the 1973 Middle East War. But my favorite nugget concerns it use by Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. That’s right, while we were cozying up to Saddam Hussein and looking the other way when he was gassing Iranians, at least they had the use of an American-made tank. Never want to put all your eggs in one basket.
Soon I had reached Millinocket, where I was greeted by what’s becoming an annoying problem, a McDonald’s franchise in Maine without outlets. I must have stopped at seven or eight, and I’ve come to expect this situation.
Haven’t seen one with them in Maine so far. I so a guy hunched over his laptop, and I asked if he knew why this lamentable condition of powerlessness seems to hold throughout Maine. He said he’s a newcomer here, and therefore couldn’t ask my question.
This opened up a direct line of questioning, and so we got to talking. His name is Dan Nelson, and he’s not belligerent at all. He’s an engaging friendly sort. When he said he used to live in Washington State, and then spoke the words “Kitsap County,” I nearly fell over.
Dusk had come and gone, but the day seemed to brighten immeasurably.
Dan and his wife moved up here in June from Palm Springs, California. He hated Palm Springs. Rues the day he ever moved there.
They spent a lot of time and miles RV traveling, and they ended up spending six months a year at an RV camp in Desert Hot Springs, Calif., on the other side of I-10 from Palm Springs. After doing that for four or five years, they relocated permanently to the Palm Springs area.
“I always said I never wanted to live in California,” he said. “That’s one place I never wanted to be. Maybe I’ll feel differently about that after spending a winter up here.”
His wife grew up in Corinna, a little town in central Maine. But she’d been gone a long time. Her maiden name is Michaud, and they just discovered she’s distant relatives of Mike Michaud, the Democratic candidate for governor.
By the way, I think I mentioned the big news: Maine is open for business. As I guessed, that slogan is the brainchild of Maine’s big, fat, slob of a Tea Party governor, otherwise known as Paul LePage. I saw in the Bangor paper today where the governor ducked a debate with Michaud and independent candidate Eliot Cutler.
He had plenty of time to crow about the fact that, thanks to the use of public money, his pet slogan will soon appear on a race car in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. Austin Theriault, a 20-year-old Mainer, will drive that car in one race in Kentucky.
Young Mr. Theriault has been sucked in but good. If people learn about Maine’s tourist attractions and the fact that its open for business, he allowed, well, only good things can result. I know Americans are an increasingly uneducated lot, but I thought most had heard about Maine.
Digression ended, back to Dan Nelson. He’s been everywhere, man. He grew up in Hastings, Nebraska. He’s so new here he doesn’t have wireless Internet service at home. He comes here to check how his beloved Cornhuskers fared. He’s even a Seattle Seahawks fan. His dad was in the printing business, and he went west for a job at the University of Washington bookstore.
He said his wife moved to Bothell, Wash., for her senior year in high school. They lived on Bainbridge Island, then moved over the Agate Pass bridge and lived on Hood Canal, just south of the submarine base at Bangor.
So, he’s been, or very nearly, from Bangor to Bangor.
Just hearing those place names perked me up. And I’m now sitting in the cab of the Behemoth, parked right outside the Millinocket McDonald’s, using the wife while charging my laptop on the inverter my incredibly wonderful father-in-law gave us.
So, at least for the moment, I figured out a workaround for the Maine McDonald’s conundrum. And now it’s time to wrap this up and find someplace to sleep.