Thursday, February 16, 2006

Down the coast of Maine

(Top to bottom)
Photo 1: Getting my bearings

Photo 2: The blueberry barrens outside Machias.

Photo 3: The Road to Nowhere (aka, Lubec).

Photo 4: Helen's: Home of Maine's best blueberry pie.

Maine seems like a large state, especially when you travel east and west. In reality, however, Maine’s land mass is 39th in size, compared to the other 49 states. This fact alone makes me appreciate the sheer size of the rest of the country.

Downeastern Maine has its own folklore and the deeper you drive “down” the coast, the more parochial and distinct the area becomes, particularly compared to trendy Portland, the state’s hub. Washington County, Maine’s easternmost county, has the dubious honor of being the poorest of the state’s 16 regions, or counties.

Tucked away from the rest of Maine, the state’s most geographically isolated area is also known for its distinctive culture, traditional industries such as fishing and logging, as well as blueberry barrens—it also has the state’s highest unemployment rate, which in 2002, was touching 9 percent, double the state average.

While the natural beauty of the region is breathtaking, most of the inhabitants are too busy scratching out a living to pay particular attention.

As I began my 56 mile trek towards Machias, on barren stretches of U.S. Route 1, which leaves Ellsworth, the summer’s tourist mecca, for the deeper regions and points eastward, I passed the entrance to Acadia National Park, New England’s only representative of the nation’s system of parks. As a native Mainer, I’ve only been up Cadillac Mountain once in my life. I rarely venture near Ellsworth, or other so-called tourist attractions in the summer. Partly due to my distaste of crowds, but also, the summer is usually taken up with other pursuits. Even picturesque Bar Harbor, a magnet for the summer hordes from away, is a place I’ve only been to a handful of times, most often, in the fall, or dead of winter, when the tourists have scurried back to their places of origin and commerce.

Many Maine writers have attempted to capture this part of the state. None comes closer, in my opinion, in capturing the quirks, culture and unique way of life of the region, than the late Ruth Moore. Born in 1903, Moore wrote about the people and places that even today, still evokes some sense of distinction, in a culture increasingly homogenized and processed. While Moore is often characterized as a regional writer—a label she came to detest—her writing captures the geographical place of her birth and life, as well as any writer before her, or since.

As often happens with writers, Moore’s reviewers often missed her social critique and commentary on Downeast life that characterized her works. Like Sarah Orne Jewett before her, Moore’s characters and places in her books, stood as testaments to a rural way of life, straining to maintain a foothold, in the face of encroaching industrialization.

On my return journey from Machias, I stopped in Ellsworth, Tuesday afternoon, and found the town library. Between appointments, I spent about 30 minutes reading some correspondence, in the form of letters, that have been gathered from Moore’s life. High Clouds Soaring, Storm Clouds Driven Low: The Letters of Ruth Moore (Blackberry Press, 1993) contains over 500 pages of correspondence that Moore had with writers, editors, and other local figures throughout her life. Edited by a fine local writer in his own right, Sanford Phippen, a regionalist and a contemporary of other writers, like Carolyn Chute.

My trip was long and the initial driving tricky, from the aftermath of Sunday’s northeaster, but it was worthwhile on several fronts. It provided some needed income from my contract marketing work that I do for Maine’s premiere help wanted website. The trip also afforded me a chance to visit an area of my home state that I don’t see often enough; plus, I dropped off some books, and taped a segment for a vibrant community radio station, WERU, in East Orland. And maybe the best part, I got to partake of Helen’s Blueberry Pie in Machias, Monday night. If you are ever in this part of the state, drive through town and look for Helen’s Restaurant on the right. With down home cooking, fresh seafood and unbelievable reasonable prices, it’s better than most of the upscale and overly-hyped places of southern Maine.


weasel said...

"Ellsworth, the summer’s tourist mecca".

Good god. If a tourist winds up on vacation in Ellsworth, they are doing something very, very wrong indeed. Ellsworth is an armpit; a place so flea ridden it makes Rumford look like Colonial Williamsburg by comparison. Tourists go through Ellsworth, which is why they have some of the most expensive gas in the state there.

Next time we hang out I'll have to give you the skinny on living and working in eastern Hancock County and hanging out in the "WC o' Maine"- ol' Washington County, the Mississippi of the east.

weasel said...

I'm sorry Jim, I know it looks like I always nit pick at your posts (although you will keep throwing out these unsubstantiated statements I'm probably no better at fact checking myself!). I want to add that I think the photos and post are great and a good read. I too love Helens but I never have enough room for pie after the fried clams!

Jim said...

I suppose a better rendering might have been, "Ellsworth, the summer tourist's jumping off point for Bar Harbor and other points Downeast."

I would concur with your characterization of Ellsworth.

I found myself pondering, as I again rambled D'east (I last was there conducting interviews for WTHT, Fall of 2004), is how little of Maine I actually experience. I've visited Florida, for gawd's sake, more than Bar Harbor!

Strange indeed.