Why Maine? Well, I had lived there in the mid-1950s, when I was between three and eight, and hadn't been back since. I was curious about whether Bangor had changed, or rather how much it had changed, but while we were working and had limited vacation days, Maine didn't seem like the sort of place I could sell to Mark as a destination, when he could counter with any number of more exciting places to go. But now that we were retired, all I had to do was convince him it was more interesting than staying home in New Jersey.
September 30: Another change now that we're retired is that we don't have to leave on Friday nights or Saturday mornings to maximize our time, and the traffic is *much* lighter on Sunday mornings. So it took us only about seven hours to get to Portsmouth, New Hampshire--including a stop for lunch. Lunch was in Vernon, Connecticut. We had found a barbecue place that we liked there a few years ago, but when we went through in February it had been closed for renovation. Well, now it's September and it looks even less ready than before. So we went to the same place we went to in February--Angellino's, a pretty good Italian restaurant.
We got to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, about 3PM. It took us a while to find the old port area (Strawberry Banke), but when we did finally get there, we were able to catch part of the Portsmouth Maritime Folk Festival, which consisted of about a half dozen individual singers or groups performing a capella sea chanteys. This was a free concert on the lawn of the museum area, and the weather was just perfect for it--sunny and in the high 60s.
When that was over we drove around a bit more. Portsmouth is very "quaint" in parts, and the harbor is very nice-looking, but the maritime museums all seem to emphasize the houses people lived in rather than ships, so we decided to skip them.
Since we were going to Seabrook Station the next morning, and since motels in Seabrook were considerably cheaper there than in Portsmouth, we drove back to Seabrook to the Best Western there. Dinner was ribs at Captain K's.
October 1: Our first stop today was the Seabrook Station Science and Nature Center. This was only a couple of miles from the Best Western motel, so Mark figured he might as well drive. (Normally I drive while he reads or writes, two things I can't do while riding.)
Have I ever told you about "Luck of Leeper"?
First, we crossed the interstate to discover that the local road and next intersection were under construction. When we got to the intersection, we had to turn, so I took a guess and told Mark to turn left. As we turned, the truck in front of us turned also, to reveal a sign for the Seabrook Station Science and Nature Center which said it was straight ahead from where we were. But there was also a sign on that road saying "No Entry" the way you see on the ends of one-way streets. So Mark turned around to try to approach it from a different direction.
Not only couldn't he turn into the road, even the businesses on that side were inaccessible due to construction. In sheer desperation we pulled into a gas station under renovation in the hopes that the construction crew there might know how to get to the station. When I got out of the car, the first greeting I got from them was, "I hope you're not going to ask us for directions, because we're not from around here." When I said that I was in fact curious about how to get to Seabrook Station, they said that they couldn't give me directions, because how did they know I wasn't a terrorist? Eventually, I determined that there was another entrance, about a half mile down the road in the direction we had been going before--but also that the station had been closed since September 11.
By now, Mark decided that when he decided to drive, that seemed to summon up the construction and confusion demons. (The first time we drove together was cross-country right after our wedding. As soon as he took the wheel on I-80, all traffic was re-routed onto Des Moines city streets because the interstate was closed for construction and after half a dozen blocks of stop-and-go traffic driving a manual transmission after having just learned how to drive one a week earlier, he decided it was my turn to drive.)
Well, we found the other entrance and, yes, the Science and Nature Center was closed. At least so we were told by a fairly heavily armed guard and who would argue with him?
So we decided just to give up on New Hampshire (for now) and head for Maine.
We took I-95 to Bangor. They were just building this when I left Bangor in 1959. To emphasize how long ago that was, we found an oldies station on the radio to listen to, and its songs were newer than when I was in Bangor. The leaves were just turning and that at least looked like the Maine I remembered.
The foliage is not as obvious when you first arrive in Maine, though, because almost as soon as you cross the border, the trees are overwhelmingly pines. I know that Maine is the Pine Tree State, but it seems as though they have overdone this a bit and decided that they needed to plant thousands of pines that people would see just as they arrived.
After a while, though, the percentage of pines decreased and the foliage became more brilliant. Another change was that now Freeport seems to form a boundary south of which is three-lane each way and has a moderate number of cars on it, and north of which is only two-lane each way, less recently repaved, and almost empty.
We got to Bangor and had lunch at the Asian Palace. I think I can say that Bangor is not a major center for good Chinese food.
We then drove to 18 March Street, where I had lived as a child. It was easy to go there, since when we left Maine in the 1950s they were just building the Interstate and there is an exit only a couple of blocks from the house. It was smaller than I remembered it, but also the street connecting March Street to the next street over was much shorter than I remembered, and the hill up to the fairgrounds (down which we used to sled) was much less steep than I remembered it as being.
From there we drove the six blocks to what used to be the Larkin Street School, and is now the Brown & White Paper and Party Goods Company. I was pleased to see the old brick structure standing-- it must be almost a hundred years old, if not more. But again, things were not as I remembered. Larkin Street itself ran much closer to the building than before--really, since we used to line up between the school and the street and there really was no place left to do that. The back playground looked smaller than I remembered it, though it couldn't have changed in size. At any rate, it was now overgrown with weeds and trees, so it was hard to judge.
The Paul Bunyan statue and the Daily News building were about the only landmarks between the house and the school that were there then and are still there now. The other major thing I remember was the Cole truck yard, and it isn't there any more. Now it can be told--in the wintertime to save going two extra blocks (a block down to Main Street and then a block back up to the school), I used to cut through the truck yard, across the auditorium front, behind the Daily News building (jumping down a three-foot drop), and through someone's yard. (The Daily News is now surrounded by a fence, so that wouldn't work anymore anyway.) My mother on reading this will probably have a fit. :-)
We drove to the downtown area of Bangor, which has changed a lot in forty years. For one thing, there are a lot of one-way streets, so getting around isn't all that easy. We went into the library, which I remembered from when I was young, and discovered that 1) it had been completely renovated, and 2) had an amazing collection. Both were due to a multi-million-dollar gift from Stephen King (or more accurately, the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation). The whole place is much better lit than when I was there--part of this was due to more windows in the expanded section, and part to better lighting inside and lighter-colored shelves and furniture. The collection is amazing because, due to the enlarged building, they didn't have to cull any books. So, for example, there is an entire shelf of biographies of Kaiser Wilhelm, most of them written before World War I. The science section has astronomy books by Percival Lowell--in their original editions. And so on. For someone who loves reading old books, this place is heaven--better than any other library I can recall seeing, and certainly better than any other library in a town with a population of 33,000.
We drove around a bit. A photo book we bought at the downtown bookstore indicated that much of what I remembered is gone. For example, the movie theater where I saw "The Ten Commandments" was torn down around 1973, and the YMCA where I took swimming lessons was torn down and a new one built in the same place.
October 2: We drove to Bucksport for Northeast Historical Film (yes, that's the name--not "Society" or "Association" or anything). This is an organization devoted to preserving film and artifacts of the film industry in New England and particularly Maine. It is housed in a working cinema of the "Neighborhood House" type. (It claims that cinemas fall into one of the following architectural types: Casino, Opera House, Nickelodeon, Cinema, Movie Palace, Neighborhood House, Mall Cinema. These are pretty much chronological.) There is a small display in the lobby about the history of filmmaking and cinemas in the area.
Across the Penobscot River was Fort Knox--no, a different Fort Knox, built in the early 1800s as a guardian against British invasion from the north. From the fort, we had a classic picture view of Bucksport with its white clapboard church and steeple, perfect fall foliage, and river in the foreground.
We had a seafood lunch at Jasper's in Bucksport, including lobster bisque. One must eat lobster in Maine. That was where I first acquired a taste--my mother used to go shopping and buy two live lobsters. She would put them in the bathtub until dinner time and I would watch them. Then she'd cook them. (This all sounds very bloodthirsty or something, and if I actually had had to kill and cook them myself, I would never eat lobster, or for that matter any meat.) At dinner, my parents would get the tails, and my brother and I got the claws.
On the way back to Bangor, we stopped at the Big Chicken Book and Antique Barn. This used to be a big chicken barn (duh!), but had been cleaned up and converted into a very large antique store (ground floor) and used book store (second floor). It was so long it reminded me of a sort of cut-rate Trinity Library "Long Room." Mark bought some old "Life" magazines for his siblings and us from the weeks they and we were born, but we didn't actually find any books that interested us.
On our return to Bangor, we had enough time for the Cole Land Transportation Museum. This was established by the owners of the Cole Trucking Company (mentioned earlier) and covers land transportation in Maine (no camel caravans here, though there is a "Desert of Maine").
October 3: Today we went to Searsport and the Penobscot Marine Museum, a group of eight buildings from the seafaring days, including a town hall and several mansions. There is also a church from that era, but this is still a "working church" and not part of the museum.
In the library and museum there was an extensive exhibit of 19th century artifacts from the area. One of the most famous books from that time was "Log of the Skipper's Wife" by Dorothea Honora Moulton, as edited by her son James W. Moulton, often cited as a wonderful example of early American women's writing. However, when her original diary was released for public examination, it turned out that most of the wonderful writing was James's. I didn't copy down the long sample they had, but basically she would write something like, "Arrived in Brasil today. Very hot. Greeted by half-dressed natives" and he would turn this into three paragraphs of poetic prose about the palm trees.
We also went to the Hudson Museum at the University of Maine at Orono. It was a bit difficult to park, as this was "Stephen King Day" there, and there were various panels and talks scheduled which attracted a larger than usual crowd, but certainly nothing compared to what a similar event would draw in Boston or New York. The museum itself focuses on indigenous peoples, not just from Maine but from the entire world, so there were extensive Meso-American and Pacific Northwest exhibits as well as ones pertaining to the local groups. (I guess Europe is not considered to have any indigenous peoples, though I'm not sure why not.) v Dinner was a traditional lobster dinner at Atlantic Seafood.
October 4: Having seen all of Bangor we wanted to, we headed south again, to Brunswick and the Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain Museum. Chamberlain was the commander of the 2nd Maine on Little Round Top, and much has been written about him that I will not try to cover here. The museum was his old house, which had an interesting history. It started on an adjacent plot, then was moved to its current location (this was much easier when one didn't have to deal with plumbing, electricity, etc.), then raised up a story and a new first floor built under it. It is filled with Chamberlain's possessions and memorabilia, both from the Civil War and from his time as President of Bowdoin College. Some of the better known pieces are not there, however, such as the sword and scabbard that was hit by a bullet during the battle on Little Round Top. (That is in the State Museum in Augusta, and they don't want to give it up.) The tour was informative, though obviously slanted towards the more favorable aspects of Chamberlain's life. One biography I read of him, for example, talks about his attempts to turn Bowdoin in a semi-military academy, with more regimentation than the students wanted, and there was a revolt against this in which the trustees ultimately backed the students. During the tour, they just say that he instituted the first sort of ROTC training at Bowdoin. (This biography wasn't in the gift shop, though it's possible that it being towards the end of the season, it was just out of stock.)
From Brunswick, we drove to Freeport. When I lived in Maine, Freeport was known for the Desert of Maine. Now, of course, it's known for L. L. Bean (and all the other outlet stores that have sprung up there). We went to L. L. Bean, but all we got were a pocket compass, some toothbrush covers, and a hat for Mark. (Now that we're retired, we don't need to buy new clothes for quite a while.) We also went to some other stores and bought some shoes at the Reebok store for much less than they would be back home. But most outlet stores are for the sorts of name brand things that we don't buy anyway, so we did not spend oodles of money here.
October 5: Today we went to "America's Stonehenge." This is a site of stone structures in Salem, New Hampshire, but more small passages and cave-like structures than the great standing stones of Stonehenge. (In fact, it used to be called the "Mystery Caves.") No one is sure who built it, or why. Well, that's not true. Quite a few people are sure, but they tend to disagree with each other. What the site's owners would like you to believe (and it is privately owned, rather than a national or state site) is that all this was done by European explorers pre- dating the Vikings. (St. Brendan's name comes up, though others think it was the Phoenicians.) The descriptions talk about how the bigger standing stones are aligned with the sun on the equinoxes or other special says, but there seem to be a lot of big standing stones *not* aligned with the sun, and it almost seems more like they just pick which stones are important after the fact.
After this we drove down to Salem, Massachusetts, certainly the better-known of the two Salems. We walked around the downtown, but skipped all the various "witch museums." (If there were only one or two, we might have gone, but when there are four competing witch museums, somehow none of them sounds very worthwhile.)
Dinner was ribs at Hilltop Steakhouse in Braintree.
October 6: We got up early and went to see Plymouth Rock before all the tourists arrived. I had seen it before on a high school class trip, but now of course I know more about it--like for example that the rock itself was kind of put there in the 19th century and has no known connection with the actual landing. Stuff like that.
We had breakfast at the All-American Diner, a wonderful oasis of classic American breakfast food (and prices) in a desert of upscale Pilgrim-themed businesses.
We then went through the Pilgrim Hall Museum--okay, but when you've gone to high school in Massachusetts, not much of this is new. Along the water was a replica of the Mayflower that they are building. Also along the water is a memorial to Dawn E. Candlen, who was apparently part of the lifesaving brigade and "gave her health" for it. (It wasn't clear on what that meant, but I found later that after she had rescued a young boy, she was pulled under and though she was recusitated, she has remained in a coma since then. I imagine the local people know this, but since there are a lot of tourists, a plaque explaining the whole story might not be out of order.)
It was now noon and we were trying to decide what to do next. After deciding not to do this and not to do that, we realized that being retired meant that returning home on Saturday was a perfectly reasonable option--it wasn't like we were wasting a valuable day off (Sunday), because we could have a day off any time.
So we went home.