The last time I was north of the Stillwater Avenue exit (exit 193) on I-95 was back in 2004 when I was doing research for my first book.
My last substantial road trip north, however, was further back than that when my son was eight-years-old. He’ll be turning 29 next month.
Our young family visited my oldest friend , Greg, in Presque Isle. It was during potato season and it was also my maiden voyage to Aroostook County, or “The County” as most people refer to it. It seemed like a long trip and I was taken by the open spaces and lack of people. After raising a family and spending much of his adult life as a resident, Greg’s now back closer to home in Bangor.
Work was what brought me back to Maine’s largest county (area-wise) and possibly its most unique one. Without going into much more detail (I’ve been told I can’t write about work on the JBE), I made the five-hour trek north from home early on Monday. An opportunity to connect with clients presented itself and I decided it was time to break through my own geographical ceiling. It was Presque Isle or bust!
Interestingly, it’s not much farther for me to drive south to New York City, than the 277 mile trip Presque Isle. When you drive south in New England, population density increases. Going in the opposite direction produces the opposite effect. Population density in NYC is 27,000/per square mile. Presque Isle has 9,692 people for its entire population, and 125 people per square mile.
There are of course other differences between northern towns like Presque Isle and bigger towns and cities to the south. Some of these might be the lack of culture, fewer high-end restaurants, and less in the way of economic opportunities. There weren’t a lot of dining options for me in downtown Presque Isle on a Monday night in November. I walked to Pat’s Pizza.
Motoring northward, I passed two exits representing some special personal history. Exit 227, for the towns of Mattawamkeag and Lincoln reminded me of my trip to interview Herb Libbey for When Towns Had Teams. The year was 2004, during the fall and I spent an afternoon with Herb at his home in Mattawamkeag, learning about one of the Maine’s great local town teams during the state’s town baseball heyday. Herb’s no longer with us, but his baseball exploits were recognized when he was inducted into the Maine Baseball Hall of Fame in in 2004..
Up the road a piece, 37 miles to be exact, exit 264 whizzed by on the right. Patten/Sherman Station is where we exited I-95 for one of our best family vacations and my very first visit to Baxter State Park. Patten is also the home of the Patten Lumberman’s Museum, which we passed on our way to Baxter’s Matagamon gate and entrance in 1989.
The mere passage of the exit reminded me of being 27, a young dad, and how much Mary, Mark and I treasured that trip. I was reminded again of what I remembered of Patten’s rural character and the drive to Baxter’s northeastern entrance. The road paralleled the East Branch of the Penobscot and offered us an amazing mix of farms, meadows, and a dense forest region unlike anywhere else in the state.
Over the last year, I’ve gotten to venture out and see parts of Maine that I hadn’t been to for years, if not decades. This summer it was Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park.
It’s nice returning to Aroostook County; it’s been far too long. I wish I had a bit more time to visit a few of the surrounding towns and do a bit of poking around at the wind site on Mars Hill. There is a pulse and vitality in Aroostook and Presque Isle that wasn’t here 20 years ago. The population purge that began in the 1970s seems to have ceased. In fact, Presque Isle actually saw an uptick in its 2010 Census numbers, gaining people for the first time in 50 years.
Lots more to check out in and around the St. John Valley, but it will have to wait ‘til a future visit, as I’m hitting the road to make it back in time to teach my final writing class tonight.