Friday night, we were headed north on Route 1, our destination Down East and Machias. Miss Mary said she wanted to spend the weekend walking beaches she remembered from days past, gathering rocks, and spending a few days away. I love an impromptu road trip and being mobile as much as anyone, so I needed little persuasion when it was mentioned two weeks ago.
On our way down the coast, we were listening to Maine Things Considered. Another variation on a familiar theme; a continuation of the kinds of news narratives that have become like a chant and always the same—Maine is going in the wrong direction—with an “expert” rattling off facts, or riffing about the dire consequences facing the state because of some chain of events, or demographic ticking time bomb leading us downward towards impending disaster.
Maine is an “old” state when considering demographics; we are the oldest state in the country if median age is the factor under review. This seems to be of tremendous concern to varying groups, because there have been several news stories about this issue over the past few weeks. Rarely does anyone offer solutions or an alternative course from the one we’ve been on for the last 60 years.
Some want us to import younger residents. Others are coming up with terms like “economic homesteading.” I’m not even quite sure what that is, other than what was being discussed Friday evening on the radio.
If we continue with the existing narrative and way of doing things, the problems causing the hand-wringing could cause life as we know it to become nearly impossible. Change is difficult for many to visualize and even consider. There is an unwillingness to consider a different story and outcome. Socialization has a lot to do with this.
Whenever I’m driving east on U.S. Route 1, I love passing over the bridge that crosses Taunton Bay. It’s a Rubicon of sorts for me; once I cross that water body, I get a sense that I’m traveling back in time because that’s what it feels like to me. Passing through Hancock and Sullivan, there’s a shift of sorts; something imperceptible if you’re too busy to notice. The traffic thins noticeably and all-too-rare stretches of deserted highway loom up ahead. The commerce and overbuilt nature of Ellsworth and places to the south and west fade in the rear view mirror. Traveling eastward, the landscape and architecture hearken back to Maine as it existed somewhere in the past. Development and progress—at least the type that’s been etched in the minds of planners and policymakers—hasn’t completely made over and forever changed this region of the state.
To developers and others continuing along their merry ways of Happy Motoring, holding tight their theology of never-ending progress, Washington County and rural places like it need to be “fixed.” Of course, “fixing” inevitably means some variation on the theme of exploiting the land, the resources, or its people.
The last time Mary and I were east of Ellsworth, it was in 2007. That was the summer when we rented a place, sight unseen, in Steuben. Bernie was still alive and Mark and his girlfriend drove up from Boston. What a glorious August week we had.
We drove down Machias way one day and Mary spent an afternoon at Jasper Beach in Machiasport; she loves rocks and Jasper was a unique beach experience, so much so that it’s stayed with her. That afternoon six years ago was behind her suggestion that we “just get away” for a few days.
Jasper Beach is framed on both ends by glacial bedrock that’s millions of years old. It is considered a pocket beach. Because the rocky cliffs at either end of the ½ mile beach are easily fractured by the eroding waves, the beach is chock full of a red volcanic stone that is not really jasper, but a fine-grained stone called rhyolite.
Saturday morning, the beach was shrouded in fog. It was impossible to see more than a couple hundred feet when we first arrived. An hour later, the mist began lifting. We spent three hours lost, walking along the beach, looking at rocks, enjoying the sounds of the waves shifting the stones along the seashore, as well as exploring some of the sea caves at the east end of the beach. In a world that’s constantly “on” and filled with activity, this respite was enjoyable and restorative to both our souls.
I’m no geologist, but it was obvious to me just walking and exploring the beach that Jasper is a unique geological formation.
We could have remained there, but decided to leave and visit some other neighboring locations. That’s the press of time, even during so-called getaways.
By lunchtime, we were headed down Route 187 and the peninsula leading to the town of Jonesport, and Beals Island. Like many of Maine’s narrow strips of land bordered by the Atlantic, it required a 13 mile drive along a winding road, nearly due south, towards another section of Maine’s craggy coastline we’d yet to visit in the course of nearly 50 years living in the state.
What I know about Jonesport-Beals is framed by local high school sports legend. The town and island across Moosabec Reach, have turned out a trove of talented basketball players. For one stretch in the 1970s, Jonesport-Beals High School dominated Class D basketball like few other teams in the last 75 years.
Led by legendary coach, Ordie Alley, the Jonesport-Beals Royals won six state Class D championships during the decade of the 1970s, when they dominated the class in Maine. Alley, who coached at the school for 39 years, directed the Royals to a total of 9 state and 13 Eastern Maine titles before retiring in 2005.
Mary cares little about Maine basketball history. She was content experiencing another part of Maine. We’d also have time left in our day before returning to the hotel in Machias, for stopping by another beach, this one at Roque Bluffs State Park. More rocks and shells for Mary.
Living in southern Maine leaves one jaded. Even in a small town like Durham, we’re a short drive to restaurants, and only 35 minutes from all the treasures in and around Portland. Life in rural parts offers different choices.
Mary had mentioned seeing that there was a wine and cheese shop in Machias that morning, when we were headed out of town. We mentioned how it would be fun if there was a wine tasting somewhere that night in Machias. We were doubtful about that one.
The French Cellar sits on Water Street, near the Machias River. Walking into the shop, we were greeted by a display case with a variety of cheeses, and a cute shop with a wide selection of wines, beers, and various ciders.
I introduced myself to Rob French, after he finished up with a local customer buying wine for a dinner gathering that evening . We chatted and Rob told me that we were in luck; there was a wine tasting that night from 4:30 to 6:30.
Mary suggested we pick up a bottle of wine and a snack for the room, as we hadn’t had lunch; the lobster shack on Beal Island was closed for the season. Back to the hotel for a pre-wine tasting, tasting. Then, a short power nap and we were ready for whatever nightlife Machias was ready to lay on us. At least we were geared up to head back down the road to The French Cellar where we mingled with locals, drank more wine, and listened to a duo playing folk songs.
I don’t know what the answer is for rural communities like Machias. When politicians lack the creativity to transcend narrow ideological prescriptions and enact policy that is damaging and harmful to people struggling to get by, it’s hard to muster optimism, at least in the short-term. Yet, real solutions may reside in places that others aren’t looking at, or haven’t considered yet.
If government isn’t the answer as hard-line types love to parrot ad nauseum, then the answers may reside in the people. That’s what some people believe, men like Wendell Berry, who has written about people-powered solutions, and has led by his own life’s example. There are others who believe that the land that’s often been pillaged and preyed upon for much of the 20th century, might offer a way forward in the 21st.
Sitting in a restaurant a ½ mile out of town, Skywalker’s Bar and Grille, another local business that’s opened in the last year in “economically-deprived” Machias (that familiar refrain, again), we met a young woman who moved back to area and wants to make a difference.
Amy, our server for dinner on Saturday night, talked about coming back home from Portland, to enroll at UMaine Machias, in their GIS program. After spending time on a variety of grassroots initiatives and serving in the Peace Corps, she returned, bringing youthful energy, optimism, and skills to bear on local challenges and issues.
I was reminded of a similar visit to another rural part of Maine, Aroostook County, in March. That’s when I met Chace Jackson for the first time. I was encouraged by the similarities I saw in both Amy and Chace. Both of them would do well and succeed wherever they decided to take up residence. They both returned to their roots, committed to helping their rural communities build something new and lasting.
That’s the kind of news that offers hope to small towns and rural places, and it counters the drumbeat of doom and gloom that old narratives lack the capacity to get past.