Sunday, April 26, 2009

Travels With John - Tales of Another Road Trip - Part 2

At the conclusion of last week’s posting, John Steinbeck, on a autumn, 1960 trip around the United States which he later described in Travels With Charley, had reached Down East Maine and the easternmost point of the United States. Having pledged from the outset of his trip to travel to the “rooftree of Maine,” he continued north and inland on U.S. Route 1 around Cobscook Bay and up along the St. Croix River where Champlain and his band of French explorers landed in 1604 and which now constitutes the border with Canada. Finally he had entered the vast and seemingly endless forests of northern Maine. This week I pick up Steinbeck’s trip as I follow his route through the northern tier of Maine, and his continuing journey back across New Hampshire and Vermont on his way to upstate New York and all points west. Thanks go out to my wife for sharing her fantastic collection of Maine postcards and for making available these fine reproductions.

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.

As I traveled northward across The County in early July the white and purple potato blossoms were just beginning to appear in the fields. New Potatoes were available at some roadside stands, and in the towns I passed through there was already talk of the upcoming autumn harvest. Schools throughout northern Maine close for a month so that the children can participate in the harvest, and just about everywhere I looked I saw potato barns and equipment sheds at the ready. The business district of Caribou was crowded with the offices of potato growers, brokers, and shippers, and large potato warehouses stood beside the railroad tracks running through town. The pickers – many of them are still French Canadians from nearby Québec and New Brunswick – would not arrive for several more weeks.

Having reached the top of Maine at Van Buren, Steinbeck turned westward along the St. John River, which like the St. Croix earlier on, forms the border with Canada. I followed this same route as it passed through the lumbering and paper mill towns of Madawaska and Upper Frenchville, to Fort Kent and the northern terminus of U.S. Route 1 (which begins at Key West). These communities were established by Acadian refugees from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and although they are situated on the American side of the river, they have a great deal in common with their Canadian sister communities. One still hears a French patois spoken on the downtown streets.

At Fort Kent, Steinbeck turned south on State Route 11 and so did I since this was the only route of return unless I wanted to go back down Route 1. The Great North Woods with its many rivers and lakes envelops the intruder with pine forests. I proceeded down what Steinbeck called “the long reach of Maine,” through the small towns — Walgrass, Eagle Lake, Winterville, Portage, Squa Pan — well known to fishermen and hunters but to few others. Even today this area is much the same as Steinbeck found it almost fifty years ago; it had once been more settled, but many of the farms and settlements have been abandoned to the ever-encroaching forest. “Maine is just as long coming down as it is going up, perhaps longer,” Steinbeck confessed.

The town of Masardis is situated at the confluence of the Aroostook River and St. Croix Stream, and here the forests once again give over to fertile farmland and potato fields. “What I remember are the long avenues in the frost, the farms and houses braced against the winter,” Steinbeck wrote. “The flat, laconic speech in crossroad stores where I stopped to buy supplies.” He lamented that the “treasured and nostalgic picture of the village store, the cracker-barrel store where an informed yeomanry gathered to express opinions and formulate the national character, is very rapidly disappearing.” Today this is very much the case. Even in rural Maine these “Ma and Pa” stores cannot compete with the larger chain stores that seem to spring from the earth in even the smallest towns. Though one can still find an eclectic assortment of foods and other necessities, many of these small general stores have turned into video rental emporiums in order to survive. Luckily, one still finds the occasional local old-timer or two biding their time over a cup of coffee and solving the problems of the world.

Steinbeck returned to civilization at Millinocket, a bustling lumber town and, since the early 20th Century, home to the Great Northern Paper Company, one of the largest paper mills in the United States. “The mill towns, with all respect, are a knot of worms. You come out of serene country and suddenly you are tossed and battered by a howling hurricane of traffic,” Steinbeck observed. While in Millinocket he also noticed that “the air smells of chemicals, the rivers are choked and poisoned.” Although the Federal Water Pollution Clean-Up Act of 1972, led by U.S. Senator (and former Maine Governor) Edmund Muskie, who grew up near the paper mills in Rumford, has brought about an improvement in the air and water quality around Millinocket and elsewhere. I could still detect the strong, sour smell of fermenting wood as I drove through town. The paper mill has now fallen on hard times, filing for bankruptcy in 2003.

“For a time you fight your way blindly in the mad crush of hurtling metal and then suddenly it dies away and you are in serene and quiet countryside again.” Neither Steinbeck nor I had any good reason to stay in Millinocket any longer than was absolutely necessary, and we both quickly escaped back into the all encompassing forests. “And there is no margin or overlap. It is a mystery but a happy one.” Steinbeck had originally planned to visit nearby Baxter State Park and Mount Katahdin, Maine’s highest peak and the northern end of the Appalachian Trail, but the threat of an early winter storm forced him to finally turn west and begin his long trek across the United States. “I had dawdled too long and it was getting cold and I had a vision of Napoleon at Moscow and the Germans at Stalingrad. So I retreated smartly.” He followed State Route 16 through the woods for almost 30 miles as it skirted countless lakes and ponds. There was little evidence of human habitation; just a few scattered houses, trailers, and cottages among the towering pines and shorter hardwood trees. “It’s very odd — I haven’t been very far from New York yet but I seem to have been on another planet.” It is still very much like that today. Back on U.S. Route 2, he retraced his route through the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The autumn colors, so radiant just a few days earlier, had already begun to fade, and in some places the evergreens were encrusted by hoarfrost and the mountains quieted by an early snowfall. He spent a night along the Connecticut River, at Lancaster, New Hampshire, and that evening he wrote to his wife telling her that he had driven “rough and twisty” logging roads and described Maine as a “monster big state” and “a big empty place where people have been.” The next day he drove across Vermont and passed into New York near Rouses Point, on the northern end of Lake Champlain, leaving New England behind on his way across America.

Reluctantly, I left Maine behind and made my own way back across New Hampshire and Vermont to Burlington where I caught a plane home to Washington, DC. As I drove I thought back on my trip through Steinbeck’s Maine, a country still going back to forest. Several decades later and I was surprised, actually pleased, to find that so little has changed since John Steinbeck and Charley drove these roads. Both he and I mused about the places and the people we encountered along the way. Steinbeck needed to go on searching, to rediscover his America and figure out where he belonged. I am content to remain in Maine and perhaps this is why I choose to return here year after year. In Maine I have found the flavor and taste and sound of America. I need not look any farther.

NEXT WEEK: Entr’acte III - A Day on the Bay

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