Road Trip to Downeast Maine

In some respects, once you get off Interstate 95 and onto Route 1 heading north through Maine, it feels like you’ve been dropped back in time. The houses get farther apart, the fields more rock strewn, and the cars on the road and people fewer. The Northern Appalachian Mountain region and adjacent well-known rocky coast of Maine is breathtaking in natural beauty. What the glaciers carved, pushed, and molded as they advanced into what is now the Bay of Fundy is raw and magnificent.

After reading about Lubec, Maine – dubbed the most easterly town in the continental U.S. – we decided to pack a few glad rags, our pal Harry (the dog), and head due north to see it for ourselves. The timing was perfect. With family duties temporarily suspended in that lull between summer activities and the start of the new school year, we left the protective bubble of life in Mattapoisett and took off to see what we could see. What we saw filled us with mixed emotions.

There are vast stretches along Route 1 in Washington County that speak of a by-gone time. Gothic revival homes sit next to fallow pastures growing weeds and wildflowers as the houses – in their various stages of shedding life for dust – crumble and blow away. Few of the older buildings show any signs of recent activity. Once lovely curved decorative wooden swags and long porches tip down and down again as gravity pulls them to a final resting place. Even the brilliant hopeful sun and glistening blue skies did not illuminate any possibilities – only loss. People have fled the land. It cannot support a prosperous farm economy in a world where industrialized agriculture rules. Small family farms are no longed needed or wanted. Our northern rural America is shadowed with abandonment.

We drove on with hope that once we reached Lubec, the feeling of loss would lift and fly away on a gull’s wing. Along the way, we were gifted with coastal scenes that filled our field of vision to perfection. For me, almost nothing is more spiritually satisfying than a view of the ocean, especially here in New England. I’ve seen the Pacific Coast, the Gulf Coast, and the Atlantic Coast clear down to Key West. Yes, those watery views are all grand. But for me, with these northern waters coursing through my DNA, there is nowhere else quite as splendid. Harsh, but splendid.

We drove into Lubec girded in the knowledge that it was a quiet place near the Canadian border offering views of dramatic tidal swings. Once you arrive via Route 189 into the heart of this tiny town, there is a narrow street that sweeps along the shoreline and away again aptly named Water Street. From here, the land slowly rises from the high tide mark to a height of 50 feet or more giving the homes situated on the bluffs magnificent sightlines to the Atlantic. The tide was coming in when we arrived. The current created small wavelets and eddies, like tiny whirlpools, and held a steady-as-she-goes purpose as it has since time out of mind.

It was a very long drive from Mattapoisett to Lubec. With only a couple of rest stops for us travelers, coupled with some navigational challenges, it still took a little over nine hours before we parked and climbed the three flights of stairs to our room at the inn. Upon opening the door, we were rewarded with a rush of fresh salt air filling the room from an open window that faced the oncoming sea. And there before our windshield-weary eyes, we beheld the Bay of Fundy. The tides here are some of the most dramatic in the world, scaling and descending 20 and 30 feet twice a day.

With the incoming tide, the small baitfish were pulled along, followed by seals that bobbed in leisurely dining preoccupation. Their heads glistened like black onyx, their eyes scanned the grassy knoll where a handful of tourists (us included) oohed and aahed over the sea creatures while the residents went about their business, unfazed by the sight of large sea mammals in their natural environment versus in an aquarium. The sleek swimmers weren’t more than 250 feet from us. So close, and yet so far away, in these cold north Atlantic waters.

That night as Harry settled into the unfamiliar scented surroundings and Paul, my husband, finally rested after hours behind the wheel, I wondered how residents of the area survive living in a place with such stunning economic depression. Did the beauty and quiet make up for the worry of keeping the home fires burning and the family fed during long winter months? I would later learn that the median household income is right around $30,000 a year.

Tourism is, of course, high on the list. Maine’s license plates usually bear the word ‘Vacationland.’ And there are the obvious industries such as paper mills, shipbuilding and fishing. Collectively, however, these industries barely support the needs of its aging population, which is reported to be the oldest of any other state. Young people have been leaving Maine for decades in search of higher wages and a more comfortable lifestyle.

Maine’s slogan is ‘The Pine Tree State’ and certainly the vast unspoiled forests of the Northern Appalachian Mountains are testimonies to that truth. Its motto is Dirigo, which translated from Latin means “I direct or I guide.” The founding fathers thought this motto significant, for they believed Maine knew what was best for its prosperity and safety. That sentiment holds true today in spite of economic realities that have plagued the state since its birth.

Maine has had a few very good decades, but generally speaking it has lagged behind the rest of the states in terms of personal wealth and economic growth. The University of Southern Maine prepared a study for the Brookings Institute ( Maine Economy: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow by Charles Colgan) in 2006 that points back from Maine’s history to present conditions, drawing conclusions that were intended to aid the state with its economic recovery. Alas, that has yet to really happen.

What the study pointed out is that Maine overall needs to embrace the reality that old industries can’t support population growth and sustain it, that it isn’t really sustaining an aging population whose needs are increasing not decreasing. Technology-driven businesses, finance, health care versus manufacturing, logging, farming and fishing are the future the study reported. I read it to mean that Maine needs to come up at least to the 20th century. It doesn’t want to. And in my heart, I don’t think I want it to either.

I want to go to places like downeast Maine and feel the quiet drape around my shoulders. I want to watch the lobster fishermen toss their lines out in the dawn and return with enough catch to support their families at the end of the day. I want to feel as the Roosevelt family did … that this place on earth restored one’s soul and allowed one’s thoughts to ebb and flow with the tides without a five bar connection to the world.

As we find ourselves swallowed up in the pace of modern life, even here in Mattapoisett, we need places like Lubec to bring us back to ourselves. Even though the sad images of shuttered buildings, empty Main Street storefronts, decaying farmhouses and weather-beaten spirits prevail in this region, I believe we still need the slowed-down pace lest we flame out as a species. But then again, what do I know. Or maybe it is just my poetic side that believes all of that. And yet, I can’t stop thinking about the people.

On the last evening of our visit as I walked Harry around the tiny village square, we were swarmed by a group of little girls. The kids were gathered at this location because a very tired looking Masonic Lodge was holding an annual barbeque and live music event. A few hardy locals sat at picnic benches stationed outside the lodge building as a duo attempted a few Beatles songs – their desire to attain harmony was challenged, but no one seemed to care. After each song, the fifteen or so attendees clapped warmly.

My new friends had too much energy to sit around. They were fascinated with Harry, wanting nothing more than to fluff his soft coat and ask me questions about where I was from and what kind of dog Mr. H was. Most shared stories of being bitten by a dog or wanting a dog or how much trouble their dog caused, all the while interrupting one another and vying for my eye contact. I’ve seen this before, children eager for an adult to simply listen to them with undivided attention. And so I gave it to them and received in return their innocent warmth.

I asked them where they were from, what they wanted to be when they grew up, and what they did in the wintertime. Every single one of those precious little girls said they planned to leave the area when they got out of high school. Not one of them said they would stay living in the area. When asked if they thought the place was pretty they said yes, but … they needed to work some place else. One child said in a voice that sounded very old and tired, “…it’s just too hard here.”

On our last morning, Harry and I were once again outside walking. An older gentleman drove up and parked beside the postage stamp sized park where we had watched the seals. He opened the trunk and removed gardening tools. He filled his watering can and proceeded towards a barrel filled with glorious annuals. These barrels and other flower containers were positioned all around the village, even in front of closed-up shops, which added to the contrast of renewal versus decay.

We exchanged pleasantries and he told me he was responsible for all the flowers in town: buying them, caring for them, it was his project. He said, “The locals would never do this – they have other things they need to spend their money on, like food…” He was not a local; he was a summer resident, one that fled each winter to Palm Springs, California. He told me that non-locals were called “PFAs” by the townies. That stands for “people from away.” I asked if the local economy subsisted on tourism and lobster fishing. He said yes and went on to say, “…but barely, they couldn’t even keep the nursing home open or the health care clinic, those are now located in Eastport (a small city about 38 miles away by road or about 2.5 miles by boat on a good day when the ferry can shuttle back and forth).” We nodded together in acknowledgment that that was a sad commentary on the area. I wished him a good day and went back to the room with a view.

We had taken in the sights of Lubec and Campobello Island, concurring that the natural splendor was intact, but my heart was heavy for the people who live there: the townies and more importantly, the kids. They need and want the income generated from the PFAs that migrate there each summer, but resent them at the same time.

I wondered why the area was called ‘downeast’ and found this on the internet from Down East Magazine: “When ships sailed from Boston to ports in Maine (which were to the east of Boston), the wind was at their backs, so they were sailing downwind, hence the term ‘Down East.’”From now on, there will always be special place in my heart for this place and its people.

My take away is this: I want to hold onto the memory of the seals sliding like blue indigo silk across black velvet waters in the rising tide and that lone eagle we saw on the beach at Campobello. I’d rather remember those little girls frozen in time when youth flushed their cheeks, and hope – though believed to be hiding in locations anywhere but at home in Lubec – still buoyed their dreams of a better life to come as they skipped away from me to play tag. In that heartbeat, I wanted to shelter them all from the harsh realities of life.

And all those sagging shapeless houses, I’d rather think of them as black and white postcards from the past that may yet have a future, a tomorrow. Maybe one day, the free market economy will find a way to make such forlorn places viable homes where the townie’s sons and daughters will want to stay and raise their own families, not finding themselves instead just bits of flotsam and jetsam like so many others have done.

By Marilou Newell


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