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.
Always stay in contact.
“How are you doing?” my wife’s voice says in the phone, and I say, “I’m at Little Duck, the sea is like glass, watching gray seals diving near orange granite rocks. The seals aren’t gray, they’re sparkling green.” “It’s blowing hard here,” she says. “Better find a harbor. See you alive tomorrow.” Another Maine aspect. Different locations, different weather, no matter if the locations are less than ten miles apart. Various climatic zones cut into each other here, so you never know what’s what and what will be what and on behalf of what. There’s the cat’s-paw, a sudden blast of wind directed straight at your puny vessel as she putters along on a hardly moving sea, calm enough right now, but the paw, coming from the next cloud, has claws, and likes to topple the unwary.
Maybe that’s why the open sea can be empty on a good day in the midst of the holiday season. Harbors like Camden, Rockport, North East and South West harbors, Bar Harbor itself of course, Eastport on the Canadian border, and all the southern ports I can’t remember the names of don’t send out their million-dollar yachts too far. Directors, executives, brokers, takeover artists prefer picnicking in safe coves, their splendid Maine-made vessels tied to sturdy moorings, with the kids buttoned up in their life jackets and the chef cooking in the cabin, the wife watching TV down below, and the mistress up on the bow, one magnificent leg up at a 90-degree angle, one magnificent leg stretched out.
The dot that shows up in my binoculars, far out in the east, slowly approaching, most likely will turn out to be a foreign sailboat. I was out in the bay at midnight once, rowing my cedar dinghy under a full moon, when I was hailed by the skipper of a weather-beaten fifty-foot vessel that said Auckland, New Zealand on the transom. Yachtsman wanted to know where he could have the girls dig clams for breakfast. Invited on board, I got introduced. The man had been a banker. Looking ahead one day and seeing nothing but repeats, he sold out to his partners, bought the old two-master and wanted to sail to nowhere, possibly forever. But he knew he could never handle the boat alone, and that’s when tourist Swiss sisters smiled down from the quay. That was years ago. The girls were older now.
A flat-bottomed boat, kept steady by huge oval sideboards, that showed up at my dock last summer, asking for drinking water, came from Hamburg. The crew, after covering their technology shorts at huge profits, were aiming, after exploring the Maine coast, to go around Cape Horn, then settle in the Marquesas. “Where Gauguin lived, you mean?” “Jawohl,” they said. They were going to paint too, and their wives believed in weaving. They talked about palm fronds.
Maine adventures. There’s bear hunting, ridge running, coyote trapping (but coyotes have two litters a year, and they’re smart), otter watching (one visits my pond and barks happily when it sees me). There are turkeys between the sweet fern now. I got used to seeing four eagles at a time, and up to a dozen ospreys, but the turkeys are new. My Internet sources say American turkeys were extinct but were reintroduced from Spain, via offspring of genuine USA wild turkeys that some conquering don took home. Whaddayaknow! Wild local turkeys defy my dog, calmly hop-march around the outhouse as my guardian barks, snarls and drools.
Is this exciting country or what?
“Can’t make money in Maine,” Jezz tells new From Aways sniffing around for a shed on an acre.
I tell them that too. We have hardly any industry left. The last leather manufacturer in Bangor surrendered to China recently. The L.L. Bean sportsman catalogue, even when preferring to buy locally, adds more and more import products. The boat-builders, sure, but commercial fishing licenses are hard to come by, and the government buys fishing boats to take them out of production. The Maine-built multimillion-dollar yachts have a limited, possibly shrinking, market. So what do you do down here? Let’s keep down the population.
“Still some room here,” the new From Aways say.
“Tough climate,” I say.
“If you must face the climate,” Jezz says, “please bring your own money.”
So that would be the retired crowd, which, by its very nature, tends to die out on its service providers. It gets quiet here in winter. “All by your lonesome,” Jezz says. “And for the summer we have the black flies, oh, aren’t them little pests wicked. Them don’t sting, you know, they tear a piece off. Can hear them chomping as they fly home to tell the others. Bug spray? Hah.” He whispers: “Cancerous poison.”
I nod. “And there are little bugs too. Indians call them no-see-ums. Big biters. And deer flies–ferocious, zoom around your head when you try swimming in our cold, cold waters.”
“There are them skeeters too,” Jezz says.
“Dengue,” I say. “High fever, unbearable muscle ache.”
“Ticks,” Jezz says. “Lyme disease we have now. That’s a killer. Better cover up when you wander into them woods. This ain’t no hot-pants country.”
I mention the hippie horse farm that closed down because the horses froze. It was forty below.
“So why do you live here?” the newcomers ask.
True. I work and communicate with a PC. I could do that anywhere, as my brother pointed out while visiting briefly, experiencing rain, drizzle and fog. If he had stayed I could have rowed him out of the cove to watch the sun set behind Blue Hill, driven him up Cadillac Mountain on Mount Desert Island to be breathless while taking in panoramic views, showed him finback whales, the largest creatures ever to live on this planet, not thirty feet from the boat, taken him past miles of glowing blueberry fields, bought him a lobster roll for lunch. We could have walked with white-tailed deer on Swans Island, eaten home-baked ice-cream pie on neighboring Frenchboro with its hidden safe harbor. There are the mysterious swamplands in spring (or any season) off Route 69; there is the empty Interstate 95, perfect pavement, parklike ever-wide shoulders all the way to Canada and back. We could have flown to the inland lakes in a seaplane.
“The weather!” he said.
Sure we have weather. So we wait till it changes. Nobody has to camp out in the rain. We have houses here. Hot showers. Clean water that comes out of the well for free. Organic food grown on idealistic farms. Hormone-free meat. Aqua-culture salads grow in a factory across the road. Salmon grow in pens in the bay. Soon there will be haddock too. Lobster eggs, no longer eaten by the almost-extinct cod, produce good harvests. The state adapts.
“Taxes are high.”
Very, I agree. So don’t live here. So as not to pay high taxes.
“Hawaii,” my brother said. “Go live in Hawaii.”
Yes, I’ve been there. Hawaii, especially the big island, is heaven.
“You don’t want to live in heaven?”
Nah. Maine is close to Europe, my old stomping grounds, six hours out of Boston, five hours out of Bangor if you can fly with the lobsters on the Xmas jumbo-cargo. New York is very close, and there’s a train out of Portland now. Nice train. Montreal, I’ve been there for lunch, in a neighbor’s plane.
Isn’t that frightening? Soon the From Aways will invade us. The climate is changing. Snowmobiles were useless the past few mild winters. Florida birds are coming in for the summer; I saw a giant egret in the cove yesterday. Vultures are common now, even in winter. A cardinal is singing as I write.
Up north, however, winters are still tough. I’ve been looking at maps. There are snowmobile trails there, into infinity and beyond (beyond being Canada). Looking down during the plane ride to lunch in Montreal, there was the vast forest. True, there were nasty beetlelike machines scratching part of it away, but I read about paper-factory promises to replant the clearcuts. All-terrain vehicles can manage the snowmobile trails in summer. What grown-up boy wouldn’t like to try that, dressed up as a space character in leather, helmet, gloves. “You’re against Jet-Skis too,” my wife says. Yes, when other folks ride them. Jezz says he’ll come along as soon as I get one. As long as it’s mine, Jezz says, for he is against From Away foolishness. Although, as long as you don’t care, it don’t matter.
And yes, he helped get rid of the dead raccoon fouling the pond. As for the strange inland folks, they did let me go. Good people (whether you get to know them or not); pristine, exotic, endlessly explorable coast. Great state all over. But please, let’s keep that quiet. “There’s taxes,” Jezz says. “There’s bugs,” I say. “There’s weather,” all of us say. Can’t make money in Maine. But then, can’t spend it too easily either.