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.
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.