Sunday, April 19, 2009

Travels With John - Tales of Another Road Trip - Part 1

I am already on record as a strong advocate of road trips to rediscover America. I learned this lesson from some of the best. Back in the January 19 posting ("Entr’acte I - Way Up in the Great North Woods") I made a reference about listening to John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley while driving through a blizzard in western Maine. In fact, I was traveling down some of the same roads that Steinbeck and Charley traveled back in the autumn of 1960. This reminded me of a previous trip I made through that region when I was purposefully following Steinbeck’s route through Maine on his great cross-country road trip, and I vowed that I would revisit this subject at the appropriate time. So this week’s and next week’s essays are a revision of an essay I wrote in the wake of that earlier trip and which was originally published in 2001 in Steinbeck Studies under the title "A Country Gone Back to Forest: In Search of John Steinbeck’s Maine." I want to express my continuing gratitude to Professors Susan Shillinglaw and Robert DeMott, two eminent Steinbeck scholars whom I first met at a gathering at Harvard University and both of whom were in part responsible for encouraging me in my own Steinbeck research and for overseeing the publication of the original essay. I look forward to seeing them again in late May at the annual meeting of the American Literature Association, in Boston. That said, it’s time to hit the road for Part I.

In 1960, John Steinbeck planned a road trip across the United States. "I’m going to learn about my own country," he wrote to a friend. "I’ve lost the flavor and taste and sound of it." Steinbeck was not the first or the last writer to consider such a trip. In 1951, Holiday magazine asked E.B. White to drive from coast to coast and write about what he discovered in postwar America. He set out from his home in Brooklin, Maine in September of that year, only to get as far as Pennsylvania before abandoning the trip and returning home claiming he was not prepared for such a trip "except in an ambulance." White preferred to stay home and write about life on his saltwater farm in Maine, a frequent topic in his essays and columns. I can’t say I blame him. As much as I find like road trips, there is something very appealing about a small farm on the coast of Maine.

The first leg of Steinbeck’s trip took him from his home in Sag Harbor, at the far eastern tip of Long Island, through New England and to the "rooftree of Maine." As it turns out, Steinbeck and I share a common understanding that any good road trip does not necessarily proceed from Point A to Point B by the quickest or shortest route. "It is not unlike me," Steinbeck wrote," that in heading toward the west I should travel east. That has always been my tendency." Mine, too. Some forty years later I headed out on my own trip through northern New England and Maine, driving many of the same roads Steinbeck traveled and trying to catch a glimpse of the landscapes and people he encountered along the way.

Having begun my road trip in Burlington, Vermont, I joined Steinbeck’s route at St. Johnsbury, in northeastern Vermont, where he turned east on U.S. Route 2, crossed the Connecticut River, and continued through the White Mountains of New Hampshire, past neat rural New England villages, toward Maine. As I was traveling in early July, I was not treated to the brilliant autumn colors bursting into flame that so impressed Steinbeck; the White Mountains were now a symphony of greens and grays. The roadside stands that offered Steinbeck golden pumpkins, russet squash, and baskets of red apples were now festooned with summer vegetables — golden ears of corn and red ripe tomatoes. The towns and villages I passed through were much the same as Steinbeck saw them (things change very slowly up in this neck of the woods) yet the shops and motels that were shuttered when he passed through were now open and brimming with guests who had escaped Boston and other northeastern cities during the Independence Day holiday. Indeed, I was also seeking respite from the heat and humidity of Washington, DC.

Steinbeck, who was driving a truck equipped with a small camper, spent his first night parked beside a small stream in the White Mountains. Lucky to find a vacancy, I spent the night in a small motel in Randolph, at the base of Mount Washington, in the Presidential Range. The next morning I awoke to beautiful weather – an azure blue sky with wispy white clouds high above the dark green summits. Route 2 enters Maine near Gilead and for the next several miles parallels the rock-strewn Androscoggin River, and from here Steinbeck rushed toward Deer Isle, on the coast, where his friend and agent Elizabeth Otis spent her summers. In his haste to reach the ocean, Steinbeck did not fully appreciate the beautiful countryside he was driving through; it appears that he paid little attention to the Oxford Hills of western Maine, where over the past three decades my family and I have spent our summer vacations, or to the Androscoggin River valley where logs once jammed the river for miles on their way down to the neighboring paper mill towns of Rumford and Mexico. These are blue-collar towns Steinbeck would have been very comfortable in. Nor did he take time to explore the rich farmland of the upper Kennebec River valley as he continued on toward Bangor.

I, on the other hand, was in no rush to reach the coast, and I drove leisurely from Gilead to Rumford and Mexico, once home to the largest paper mill in New England and still very much company towns although the paper industry in these parts has seen better days. I continued east on Route 2 through several small farming communities — Wilton, Farmington, New Sharon, Norridgewock to Skowhegan — and past cornfields and apple orchards along the Sandy and Kennebec rivers on my way to Bangor. This route probably saw more traffic when Steinbeck passed this way as it served as a major route across the state. Today, Interstate 95 is the main route in and out of Maine and Route 2 sees mostly local traffic, including logging trucks and summer visitors heading toward the more remote areas of western Maine.

Steinbeck did not make it all the way to Deer Isle in one day as he had planned and he ended up spending the night in a small motor court on the outskirts of Bangor "for the sake of a hot luxurious bathing." I chose a small motel very much like the one I imagined Steinbeck must have stayed in, and I could almost picture Charley and him in the next room, his camper parked under the tree outside my door. After a hot shower to settle the day’s dust, I passed on Steinbeck’s tumbler of vodka; I was quite happy with a bottle of warm beer that had been my copilot since I left Burlington the previous day.

Steinbeck got lost the next morning amid the confusion of stop lights and truck traffic funneling through Bangor on its way south toward Portland, or along the Airline Highway eastward to the Canadian border at Calais. Interstate 95 now runs through Bangor, accommodating most of this traffic, yet I was still forced to contend with heavily traveled roads and traffic lights trying to get out of the city. And once across the Penobscot River in Brewer, I encountered a seemingly endless chain of fast food restaurants and strip malls – mostly built since Steinbeck’s visit (unfortunately some things do change). Like Steinbeck before me, however, I was relieved to finally locate U.S. Route 1A to Ellsworth and the coast.

Fortunately, along this route I had an experience similar to one described by Steinbeck during the early part of his trip. An early morning breakfast at a roadside diner would seem to be the logical place to eavesdrop on the comings and goings of the local population. Such is not the case, however, and I have encounter similar situations throughout New England. "Breakfast conversation is limited to a series of laconic grunts. The natural New England taciturnity reaches its glorious perfection at breakfast," Steinbeck wrote. "The customers were folded over their coffee cups like ferns." This is what I chanced upon at a small diner near Lucerne-in-Maine. The booths situated along the front wall were empty and the few early morning customers, mostly truckers and workmen, sat on stools at the counter drinking coffee and eating breakfast. I joined them and ate in relative silence; all one heard was bacon sizzling, forks scratching plates, the whooshing of the ceiling fan, and the constant hum of traffic out on the highway – heavily traveled in the summer since Ellsworth, at one time the second largest lumber-shipping port in the world, is the gateway to Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park.

Although Steinbeck passed this way in the autumn of 1960, he realized how different it must be to come here during the summer months. "The summer populations must be large and the roads and highways gorged with refugees from the sticky heat of Boston and New York." I could attest to the truth of this. Summer visitors come to this area of Maine because they expect to find a rocky coastline dotted with small, ramshackle fishing villages and indented with out-of-the-way coves, each home to sailing ships and lobster boats of all shapes, sizes, and descriptions. These do exist, but one must sometimes look very hard to find them. The six miles between Ellsworth and the entrance to the park are now crowded with the detritus of modern civilization – gas stations, motels, fast food joints, putt-putt golf courses, water parks, and tourists driving huge recreational vehicles and campers of every description. Much of this did not exist forty years ago when Steinbeck drove through here. Lucky guy!

Steinbeck did not visit Acadia National Park and I was just as happy to pass all of this by and return to our original route – the narrow roads bordered by the ubiquitous lupine and other wildflowers as they cross the rocky peninsula at the head of Penobscot Bay. Here are blueberry barrens and picturesque villages such as the wealthy summer colonies of Blue Hill and Sedgewick with their beautiful homes and well-tended gardens. Steinbeck passed only a short distance from E.B. White’s farm in nearby Brooklin where his fellow writer began his own abbreviated cross-country trip nine years earlier. Having read White’s evocative essays about life on his Maine farm where he lived for years until his death in 1985, I made a brief detour to Brooklin where he lies buried in the local churchyard beside his son Joel who was a master boatbuilder here until his own death just a few years ago.

Arriving at Sargeantville at the bottom end of the peninsula, Steinbeck found Deer Isle "that nestles like a suckling against the breast of Maine." He crossed the old iron bridge "as high-arched as a rainbow" built in 1938 over Eggemoggin Reach, one of the state’s premier sailing waters, and found his way down dirt roads through fog-laced pine groves. "Each pine tree was itself and separate even if it was a part of a forest." He noted that the area reminded him of Dorset, Dartmoor, and Somerset, in the southwest of England. I crossed the same bridge – an impressive structure with its steep-pitched roadway – and from its apex there was a wonderful view of the "isle" with its quiet woods and dirt roads running from the main road to small waterfront summer cottages located on tidal coves and rocky headlands. I imagined it looked the same as it did in back in 1960 - to the north is the solitary outline of Blue Hill; to the east lies Mount Desert Island and 1,500-foot high Cadillac Mountain; to the south are the blue waters and scattered islands of Penobscot Bay. The Camden Hills lie green on the horizon to the west. I found myself once again looking toward Portugal.

While on Deer Isle Steinbeck visited Stonington located at the island’s far southern shore. The town, which is an interesting blend of genteel summer residents and rough-and-ready lobstermen and fishermen, comes by its name honestly. All along the nearby shoreline are pink granite formations and the harbor is filled with small rocky islets. There are also several quarries nearby. Given its location, it is not surprising that Stonington and the nearby Deer Isle Thorofare have long been home to prominent sailors and yachtsman. Steinbeck got into the spirit of the place, purchasing lobsters at one of the waterfront pounds for dinner and remarking: "There are no lobsters like these - simply boiled, with no fancy sauces, only melted butter and lemon, they have no equal anywhere." Today one can still purchase lobsters along the waterfront at a fraction of what one would pay in a restaurant back home (and people keep asking me why I like Maine so much).

Although Stonington is still a working fishing village with lobster boats moored in the harbor and tied up along the municipal pier, Deer Isle is home to a growing summer population and trendy art galleries and restaurants entice visitors to the area. It is not uncommon to see more cars with New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut license plates than ones with local tags. I decided not to stay long, but it would have been a shame to be on the coast without feasting on a lobster (or two). The local lobster coop had just what I was looking for – a typical "shore dinner" including twin lobsters served with steamer clams, corn on the cob, cole slaw, and blueberry pie. Steinbeck enjoyed his brief respite on the island and came to understand why Elizabeth Otis returned to Deer Isle every summer. "There is something about it that opens no doors to words. But it stays with you afterwards, and, more than that, things you didn’t know you saw come back to you after you have left." Many people, myself included, feel this way when they visit the coast of Maine. I return every summer, and I constantly ask myself why I ever left in the first place. But leave I must and I retraced Steinbeck’s return to Ellsworth.

From there he continued further "up the coast" (although locals prefer to say they are going "down east") along U.S. Route 1 through what is even today a thinly populated yet desolately beautiful region. I am curious why Steinbeck had so little to say and write about this area. As I followed his same route along the northern end of Frenchman’s Bay and past Gouldsboro Bay, I enjoyed the roadside fields of lupine and the broad panoramic view of the Schoodic Peninsula and the coastal hills to the south, and of Mount Desert Island and the impressive stone face of Cadillac Mountain at its center. The crowds of summer tourists aimed at Acadia National Park were behind me now as the coastline grew more wild and isolated. Like Steinbeck before me, I passed through several villages – Steuben, Millbridge, Cherryfield, Columbia Falls, Jonesboro, Machias, Perry, and South Robbinston – where lumbering, fishing, and clamming are still the major industries. Millbridge, where the Narraguagus River opens to the sea, claims to be the Christmas wreath capital of the world, and the photogenic town of Cherryfield, also on the Narraguagus River, was once a prosperous lumber town and shipbuilding center. The barque Belgrade, famous for carrying over fifty local men around Cape Horn to the California gold rush, was constructed here, although the town is now hailed as the blueberry capital of the world since nearly 90% of the wild blueberries grown in the United States are harvested in this area (hence the practice of eating blueberry pie after a traditional lobster dinner). By the time Steinbeck came through here in 1960, the blueberry harvest was over. In July, however, the rocky barrens were in full bloom as I continued eastward beyond the Narraguagus where balsam firs began to line the road, and towns and farms grew smaller and further apart.

The whitewashed New England villages giving way to the unpainted and weatherbeaten structures Steinbeck saw as he passed this way. "The houses had a snow-beaten look, and many were crushed and deserted, driven to the earth by the winter." The only town of any size along this route is Machias (including East Machias and Machiasport), another center of the blueberry industry. It was here that the first naval battle of the Revolutionary War was fought when the upstart Americans captured the British schooner Margaretta and convinced our founding fathers of the importance of establishing an American navy.

Having traveled to the easternmost point of the United States, Steinbeck could have turned west at Calais, on the Canadian border, and driven 90 miles along State Route 9, the Airstream Highway, back to Bangor and from there continue his westward journey to California. Instead, he held to his promise to travel to the "rooftree of Maine." Following Route 1 north around Cobscook Bay and away from the sea, Steinbeck paralleled the St. Croix River where Champlain and his band of French explorers landed in 1604. Here he entered the vast and seemingly endless forests of northern Maine. "I felt as Peary must have when he approached what he thought was the North Pole." Ironically, it was here that Steinbeck crossed the 45th parallel, the half-way point between the Equator and the North Pole.

NEXT WEEK: Travels With John - Tales of Another Road Trip - Part 2"

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