As Maine goes (Part 1)

(HANOVER, N.H.) — I knew I liked this guy the moment I walked into the tiny convenience store. It was 2 a.m. near downtown Portland, and he was my bearish, meaty clerk.

“How the hell are ya?” he bellowed, with a smile. “Welcome to 7-11.”

That was the entirety of our interaction, but I’m still thinking about it several days later. Maybe I was just tired, but I found his scrappy friendliness charming. It’s exactly the kind of thing I was looking for when I decided to come to Maine. Ever since I was 10, I have wanted to be a member of the Mainers’ club.

Ahem, Maine-ahs.

I should explain that when I was little, I traveled around the US with my family for two years in an old, remodeled school bus. We spent a few months in New England, but I don’t remember many specifics. Doing some witch tourism in Salem, Mass. stands out, as does winning second or third place in a running race in Providence, R.I. But Maine, circa 1993, comes back to me clearly. I remember signs for “one claw lobsters” in Camden and running my first race ever, a 10-K, in Kingston. The leaves were becoming more colorful the longer we stayed in the state, and the air had an increasing bite. In Waterville, I remember trick-or-treating with my brother and riding around town on my roller blades. That’s how long ago I was in the Maine.

Yet it has stayed with me. When you come from a place like California, where many of the buildings and streets are so new, and your town doesn’t have a real sense of history or deeply rooted community about it, Maine is fascinating. What I loved 16 years ago, and what I was looking for again, was a homey sense of place. I wanted to walk through a seaside town at dusk and see the wooden, Edward Hopper houses lit up, with smoke wafting from their chimneys. I wanted to stand by a cold, clean ocean as brisk wind whipped around me. I like the idea of Maine’s indoor culture in the fall and winter, when dark afternoons make room for things like knitting, baking and playing cribbage. My idealized vision of Maine came from my memories of it, I think, mixed recollections of seeing the movie In the Bedroom and living in the seaside town of Mendocino, Calif. when I was young.

As I headed toward the state two weeks ago, I guess my expectations were set high, though I didn’t feel that way. I was simply excited, driving through Québec’s country hills in the dark. The stars and moon were bright that night, and the knowledge that I would be seeing Maine soon carried me through yet another embarrassing border crossing. The young, energetic guy who searched my trailer was friendly and officious, but I couldn’t help but sense that something about what he found in my home disappointed him. After doing a five-minute look-see, his flirtatious vibe disappeared, and he carefully checked the outside of my trailer for secret compartments. By the time he waved me through, I felt the same, sinking shame I had coming into Canada. I’m a pretty messy and disorganized person, and whenever anyone looks through my stuff, it’s as though he/she is poking my foibles with a stick.

But no matter. Maine was ahead. That kept me going, even as I started to run out of gas and the radio signal from the CBC sadly disappeared. Maine, Maine.

It was almost midnight when I pulled into an office building’s parking lot near Portland and went to sleep. The next morning, as employees’ cars started to fill in the spots around me, I decided it was time to leave. I met up with my hosts — Mark and Barbara, my friend, Tory’s, parents. From the very beginning, they were friendly and giving, and I felt strangely comfortable, even though I had only met them once before.

I spent the next few days helping them scrub down an old, Victorian house they were refurbishing. This wasn’t the quaint, desolate Maine for which I had been yearning, but I stepped into it happily, with gratitude.

For a little while, I had a new life. I had a job, suburban surroundings and a few, quickly made friends. In the day, I was cleaning walls and windows and floors, and at night I was interacting with Barbara or the tiny, white-haired twin ladies who allowed me to park on their property. One night I particularly liked I spent watching “Project Runway” with Barbara and talking about her life and mine. I can’t explain how comforting that felt. Once again, I sensed that I probably wouldn’t be moving on because I wanted to but because I knew I must.

I think traveling is like acting Shakespeare. On stage, if you are resolute in your character and your motivation, people will understand your words. If you don’t really understand them yourself, how can anyone else? While I was in Portland, people understood what I was doing on my trip for the most part, because I had brief and clear moments where I seemed to as well. There was that one instance where someone suggested I get a lucrative job, like a police detective, instead of doing this writing thing — but there’s always an outlier, I guess.

DJ Roy, who let me cohost his show, "Liberation by Sound" on WMPG. Great guy.

DJ Roy, who let me cohost his show, "Liberation by Sound" on WMPG. Great guy.

On my first day in Portland, I went on-air at the city’s local community radio station, WMPG, with a DJ named Roy. The young dad and former special ed teacher was enthusiastic and political, and his energy rubbed off on me. We had some good, on-air conversation, but the real beauty of our interaction was when he invited me over for dinner, and I met his baby son and wife. I remember thinking then that this is what I really want my trip to be. Meeting people who are both friendly and passionate about their lives will never get old for me. As I sat in his house, eating my chicken and rice, I really did feel honored to be there. I don’t know what I want for my future, but the more people I meet who welcome me into their world whole-heartedly, the closer I feel I’m getting.

DJ Miles, Roy's 10-month-old.

DJ Miles, Roy's 10-month-old.

A few nights later, I took this energy (and my newly made cash) out on the town, and to my happy shock, got a similar hit of excitement from strangers. The Chocolate Bar, a dessert/liquor house in the Old Port, was perfect, not just because of my chocolate caked topped with toffee butter cream and sea salt sprinkles. It was because the 40-something politico and history buff who introduced me to his friends and the Siberian guy who was affable and happy to tell me about his move to the States. With his encouragement, I did my best to down a cup of absinthe, though it was a long, rough road.

Toward the end of the night, I met Rachel, a thirtyish mom of two who was drinking martinis with her boyfriend. When her guy got into a political argument with a couple college boys with their collars flipped up, Rachel and I escaped into one of those intimate and perfect interactions that are only possible between complete strangers. I told her about my trip and about how I didn’t really know what I was doing on it, and she somehow spelled some of it out for me. She was quite vital, telling me that I was doing all this at exactly the right time, and that she wanted to travel more, experience more. I don’t know if she was trying to help me take full advantage of my journey, but that felt like the end result to me.

“Maybe the point is to describe those moments that other people don’t have time to see,” she said. Or at least that’s what I remember. All I know for sure is that by the end of our interaction, I was excited to hit the road again.

Deer Isle, early in the morning. This is a taste of what you'll read about/see in the second part of my Maine story (I realize, as I write that, that it might sound kind of grand in an irritating way).

Deer Isle, early in the morning. This is a taste of what you'll read about/see in the second part of my Maine story (I realize, as I write that, that it might sound kind of grand in an irritating way, but I hope not).

In two days, with that support at my back, I left for a trip up Maine’s coastal road, Highway 1. I didn’t feel like an adopted Mainer quite yet, but I had this quaint idea that I just might once I got out into the cold, ocean-side sticks. Perhaps, I thought, I was doing research about where I might move in the future.

That notion makes me smile now, a week later. While I sometimes get frustrated at my naïvité, to live without it would be far too boring.

1 comment to As Maine goes (Part 1)

  • Mike

    A friend recommended that I read your blog when I told her that I would be making a cross-country trip next year. It sounds like the journey that you are on is similar to the one that I am preparing to embark upon (both geographically and spiritually). Your openness and honesty is inspiring. I am still a little scared to step out there and leave my little bubble in the SF Bay Area, but your accounts of your travels have given me a taste of what i can find outside of my comfort zone. Thanks.

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