Maine is big, and has a long coastline. I mostly know about the coastline, where I live. There were, in the almost thirty years I have enjoyed life here, a few expeditions inland, cross-state to Montreal and Quebec City and New Brunswick. Bad roads, strange people, some holding shotguns, not loaded but broken open, and as I drove by the strange people kept one hand in one pocket, no doubt holding some perfectly good shells. I drove into a gas station and nobody came out to pump–yes, a regular pump, with a glass cylinder filled with orange-colored gas and a handle. I went in and there were strange people, one in a wheelchair. I said I needed gas and the person in the wheelchair asked why. Someone locked the door behind me and we sat around for a while, looking at each other. “I am from away,” I said, and a hairy person said, “No kidding.” Were they going to rob me? After killing me, of course? Any torture? Did I care?
I remembered my coastal neighbor, a gnarled man named Jezz, leaning down from the antique that he says is a tractor, after I shouted up that there was a dead raccoon in my pond. “In Maine, if you don’t care,” Jezz shouted, “it don’t matter.”
“Do I care?” I asked the wheelchair person.
“Kingdom come,” he answered. Or maybe she answered. The person’s voice was high but came from a hole within a stubble. The person and the other strange people bowed their heads and spoke in tongues. So did I.
“You praying too?” a hairy man asked from behind a counter stacked with sardine cans from long ago. “Sure as hell I’m praying,” I said. The atmosphere lightened. “OK,” the wheelchair person said. The store’s door got unlocked. Ten dollars’ worth of gas got pumped. I handed over two fives. “Covers it just barely,” the hairy man said. Nobody shot me as I drove off.
So much for inland Maine. Stephen King has a camp in inland Maine. There’s also the bright side.
Maine: the Way Life Should Be, the sign says just after you cross into the state, from down south, or allthemotherstates, as Mainers define the rest of the country, where life is not the way it is supposed to be. Don’t you like that? I do, not so much because of its blatant arrogance, although there’s that too, but because of the pleasant emptiness that starts behind the sign. Traffic begins to thin down just about at that waypoint. That’s where home starts. “I’m home,” I say to whoever is in the car with me. There’s another good sign a hundred miles up the road: Be Alert, Think of Bert. Bert who? Who cares Bert who? Bert wasn’t alert. He didn’t live to enjoy the Maine coast, much longer than the 250 miles the schoolbook has it. More like 3,500 miles long, because of all the necks, coves, peninsulas, islands with bars that come up at low tide.
You know there are two types of Mainers? There are Mainers and there are From Aways. I’m a From Away. I have only lived here thirty years. If I had born-here kids they would be From Aways too. From Aways are stupid.
Like Alex, who wandered in, late 1960s, as a hippie-cum-flower-child-cum-homemade-Buddhist. For a day job he walked a chihuahua. The dog belonged to an old lady. This story is set in Bar Harbor. The “bar” in Bar Island is a stroke of glistening, solid-looking gravel visible at low tide. It connects to an island. Alex walked Chi along the bar to the island that’s mostly part of Acadia National Park. Alex, strolling along behind the hairy house mouse, got tired. He sat down and fell asleep. When sudden rain woke him the bar was gone and didn’t return until many hours later. Chi dragged Alex home then, to a lack of welcome.
A beautiful coastline we have here, along a clean, cold sea, dotted with the heads of seals, loons (an endangered species of large diving birds), eider ducks and gulls. One is tempted to go boating. “Mind you always know exactly where you are,” Jezz, my neighbor, after selling me his wooden sailboat, mumbled. Others confirmed the hint. Keep your finger on the chart. Check your instruments. Name the passing islands. Watch your depth. Know your weather. Even Mainers get lost here. The ocean isn’t known to forgive too much foolishness. Lobstermen, out of fuel and without their cell phones, drift out forever. Scallop draggers with their iron-bottom scrapers hoisted up too high turn over and sink in 300-foot-deep seas. A cargo boat, loaded with sardines, rips her bottom on a razor-sharp ledge, loses her crew and feeds happy mammals and birds.