A Love Letter To the Real Maine
The typical Maine license plate has the word ‘Vacationland’ written in bold red letters at the bottom. To be from this place is to be from a world that people only dip into for short stints of time, leaving just before the snow. It’s easy to package my home into the confines of an L.L. Bean catalog — a lighthouse serving as a beacon in the Atlantic, a salty dog lobstermen in Grundens, someone chopping wood while wearing flannel. Those are all parts of my home, yes, but they aren’t all of it.
The Maine I grew up in looks nothing like Acadia National Park, although it was on the water. I grew up on the banks of the Penobscot River in Winterport, just another small town off Route 1A, just another river passing through, but this one was too dirty to swim in — even after the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Penobscot was still recovering then from more than a hundred years worth of sewage and logging waste, its water a perpetual sludgy rust that my friend got a staff infection from once.
But like true Maine kids we’d jump in anyway, if only for a few moments of relief, finding washed up treasures of tattered fishing nets, interesting bottles and plastic barrels you could fit anything in. A 12-foot baby pilot whale even found her way into the cove one June, staying for a few days before making her way out to sea.
Marsh Stream was better, and when I could catch a ride into town, I spent my middle school summer days sitting in creak beds and dunking under when horse flies struck.
To be from Maine means to be humble and hardworking, open-hearted and proud of your roots. When I was 13, I was old enough to be part of that, so my mother sent me to rake in the Frankfort blueberry fields. I didn’t necessarily need the money — what little I could scrounge then was spent on penny candy from El-Hajj’s and Tuesday night movie tickets at the cheap seats — but it was a requirement in my family to know hard work. That same August my older sister worked as a chamber maid at the Travel Lodge in Bangor. While she made minimum wage picking up other people’s used condoms with toilet paper, I raked berries for $3 a 5-gallon bucket — a wage I understand now is at least 50 cents higher than what most of our state’s rakers make.
I think I made $50 that August, and not because of the low wage and heavy buckets. Working in the fields meant you could come and go whenever you wanted, and while some of my friends worked all day there, banking at least a grand before the summer was over, I chose to sacrifice the opportunity for a new kind of freedom — one away from my parent’s control.
That same August I took my first confused, gulps of bong smoke, trying desperately to get high on top of Waldo Mountain in the backseat of a high school junior’s Jeep. I tried hitchhiking for the first time, only to get picked up by my disapproving uncle. I gathered enough courage to swallow panic and leap from a granite quarry’s ledge — grabbing my ankles like the graffiti instructed. Because if you can’t follow directions at a quarry, you’ll end up face down in that eerie crystal water like my mother always warned.
In small-town Maine, we start early — partying in gravel pits with locals who are twice our age, driving down dark, gravel camp roads with boys we remember from kindergarten, outrunning sheriffs on our two-strokes because we know they’ll never catch us. It’s all part of growing up here, and I turned out fine.
But like everywhere else, some of us never do leave that early start behind. And while to a certain crowd, Maine is known for its lobster rolls, to another, it’s the birthplace of the 2011 bath-salt epidemic.
When I finally made it to high school, Winterport had to merge with the Bangor suburb of Hampden. It didn’t take me long to give up Marsh Stream for the Bangor Mall. I started shopping at Claire’s, searching for anything rhinestone enough to allow me to fit in with these girls I didn’t yet know. This was a crowd I hadn’t met yet — who vacationed with their families in Cancun over April vacation, who lived in developments with rural sounding names like ‘Deer Hill Lane,’ who drove Subarus straight off the lot on their 16th birthdays.
My sister and I learned to drive on my father’s 1989 GMC Jimmy that he had bought from a work friend. He used to take us barreling down the Back Winterport Road and over to the Winterport drag strip to practice. Soon after my sister turned 16, we convinced him to sell it, claiming it was too embarrassing to drive to field hockey practice. He listened, he sold it, but he loved that truck. And now that I’m on my second year living off the grid in Washington County, there have been numerous times when I wished I could get it back.
Maine is a pretty big place, and since high school, I’ve been able to live all over it — Orono, Belfast, Rockland, Mount Desert Island, Portland… I even left completely for awhile, but my Irish-German skin burned in the Caribbean heat. A body like mine thrives in cold weather, and to this day when I think of comfort, I remember a specific moment in winter — lying in the snow in my snowsuit, looking up at the great white pines above me as the sun began to set at 3 o’ clock in the afternoon. It’s those serene times spent alone that make me love where I’m from.
Downeast Maine is where I seem to find the most of those moments — paddling across Spring River Lake in the morning, with only a deer swimming to the other side for company. When I moved to Portland I searched everywhere for those secret spots where I could only hear nothing, but the only day I got the Presumpscot River to myself was the day they found a dead body in it.
While many of my friends, coworkers, and family leave their home states to live all over the world, I continue to come back here, even in winter. Sometimes this bothers me, I do write for a travel publication after all, and it seems I haven’t been able to leave my own roots behind. But while Maine is everyone else’s Vacationland, it’s my home. And I don’t seem to have been born a creature that can leave the nest for long. I’ve come to know that like my mother, and my mother’s mother, and the mother before her, I’ll probably grow old here. But that’s never seemed to bother me much.