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.
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 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.