When the days become as hot and unctuous as the glaze on a cinnamon bun, I start thinking ahead to that day when my alarm wakes me up in the middle of the night, I put myself into a pre-packed car, and I race north on I-95 before the sun rises, crossing the Piscataqua River Bridge slightly after dawn.
For some, the summer retreat to Maine is a kind of fantasy of unspoiled New England life. For still more it is a cool(er) place with cheap(er) Atlantic shore real estate. And for everyone it is a safe space to learn and repeat hackneyed truisms about authenticity and "slowing down."
Sure, it's all that to me, too. But mostly, the irresistible thing about Maine is that it's the most mind-bending English-speaking habitat on the continent that's a reasonable drive from where I live.
Some journalists like to draw condescendingly facile lessons about life from their Maine "summahs." Perhaps the nadir of that genre was penned a decade ago by Ellen Goodman, when she wrote about summers spent on an island in the Casco Bay:
I come here each summer to stop hurrying. My island is no Brigadoon: WiFi is on the way and some people roam the island with their cell phones looking for a hot spot. But I exchange the internet for the country road. [Boston Globe]
Maine is where Goodman gets away from "multi-technological-tasking everywhere," and sends an actual paper postcard that carries a "stamp of authenticity."
Gag me. Want authenticity in Maine? Take a drive to Bar Harbor (a rich tourist haven) and sit at the bar at Galyn's. Ask one of their bartenders (almost all from out of state) about "gorilla milk" or "liquid leg spreader" and what happened to Maine's domestic abuse crime rate when Allen's Coffee Brandy switched to plastic bottles. Whatever anecdotes and legends you get, they are probably only a quarter true, and will give you an awful guilty laugh. And then you'll be just tempted enough to indulge in the sweet "Champagne of Maine" yourself. Also, the chowder is good.
Or just drive to the no-frills and very out-of-the-way "country club" in Waterville, and watch a Red Sox day game with the area landlords, car dealers, and divorcees. Then hope that the bumptious governor of the state comes in and starts talking smack a little too loudly about the rest of Maine's government officials. This should be in every tourist's guide, and yet it isn't.
Maine sometimes suffers from the unbearable whiteness of being the nation's least racially diverse state, but there's nothing vanilla about it. Maine is like gas-station flypaper for all the weirdest white subcultures. There are the Nantucket Red-wearing WASPs, sure, but they are bumping bibs with lobstermen. There's that distinctly Sling Blade-y, southern feel that comes up against the super-crunchy earnestness we typically associate with Vermont. Drive out west and hang with the oxycontin burnouts, and discover that they occasionally see Tucker Carlson fishing around their parts. Order some poutine.
Much of Maine's charm often feels like a performance, not at all authentic. It's as if all the "natives" see the people "from away" coming over I-95, and they start putting on a more exaggerated Downeaster accent and giving you their best "Ayuh" before collecting your filthy tourist dollars — only half of which gets reported as income, and most of which goes into their Florida vacation houses.
Maine has so much beautiful, ragged coastline, but it's also wormed through with industrial decay. There's an overarching "quaintness" that fits discomfitingly between a Bob Ross painting of happy trees and the entrapped godless despair of Ethan Frome. Look around closely enough and wonder no more why death is a more popular activity than birth there.
But, by God, there's nothing better than arriving in the West Side of Portland with the sun, and getting a Number 1 at Oh No Cafe, walking through town all day, and returning to the West Side at night for a Portland Sea Dogs game, watching Clammy Sosa eat a ballboy. It's gorgeous.
Or you can just keep driving north and spend a lazy afternoon chatting to the waitresses in Greenville about their life's ambitions: "Get drunk tonight, mostly." And then let Jack Hofbauer take you up in his pontoon plane over Moosehead Lake and tell you about the old World War II P.O.W. camp that used to be at the top of it, where German prisoners ate moose meat and blueberry pie as they worked for Maine's paper companies, while the guards were given miserable rations. You think: Really? Yes, really.
There is some part of me that dreams of a summer home or cottage there, the crown of a life's work. And I'm not entirely immune to the paeans to authenticity and a slowed-down life, either. But give me the eco-disaster preppers wielding caffeinated booze, and the pissed-off redneck-y descendants of Québécois millworkers. Let's have an ironic bean suppah with the affected, tourist-fleecing Yankees of Maine's coast, and next week dine on the state's increasingly bountiful and cheap lobster.
Any earthly substitute for heaven should be this janky, unnerving, and helplessly itself.