It rained as Steinbeck and Charley continued north along the eastern edge of Maine. From time to time he would pull off the main highway to explore the narrow gravels roads where the dense pine forests crowded in on all sides. The Great North Woods of Maine, a thinly populated area of forest and lakes where deer, bear, moose, and other wildlife outnumber human inhabitants by a considerable margin, reminded him a great deal of his own native northern California. The forest stretched to the horizon in every direction, and even today they continue to reclaim areas that were farmland not that long ago. “The forests are marching back, and where farm wagons once had been only the big logging trucks rumble along.” Lumbering and paper manufacturing continue to this day in the small towns of Woodland, Brookton, Eaton, and Danforth.
The landscape began to change as I followed Steinbeck’s northerly route. At Weston the forests receded into the distance and I began to drive past apple orchards and neat farms with cultivated fields of hay and corn. At Hodgdon I arrived among the checkerboard patterned potato fields of Aroostook County, the largest in the United States and referred to locally as simply “The County.” Everyone knows what you are talking about.
Steinbeck visited Aroostook County at the height of the potato harvest. Having driven through miles of seemingly endless forests, Steinbeck emerged into “fields with the crumbly friable soil potatoes love.” Throughout the eastern part of the county, near the towns of Houlton, Littleton, Mars Hill, Presque Isle, and Caribou, he watched as mechanized potato diggers moved across the fields and flatbed trucks filled with barrels of the starchy tubers raised dust on gravel roads running along berms used to protect the fragile crop from the harsh weather of northern Maine. Before departing Sag Harbor, Steinbeck confessed that his journey would reveal its design as he traveled. Now, on the thumb of America protruding between Québec and Atlantic Canada, he had finally found his answer. “Maine was my design, potatoes my purpose.” Of course, Steinbeck was no stranger to potatoes. Suffolk County, on the eastern end of Long Island, is another leading potato-growing area in the United States.
NEXT WEEK: Entr’acte III - A Day on the Bay