Category Archives: Destinations

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The people behind the plane

Fly-in in Greenville this weekend–it’s all about planes.

Fly-in  in Greenville, Maine

Gary Norris at the fly-in in Greenville, Maine

FLY_180
Gary and Maureen Norris
The white Cessna 180 bobs and shifts on the sparkling waters of Moosehead Lake. Gary Norris and his wife Maureen pull their canoe off the pontoons and tie the seaplane up at the dock. The announcer checks their time and broadcasts “Second place.” Maureen yells out a resounding “Yes!” then bounces up and down and jumps into her husband’s arms. It is the Greenville Fly-in, and Gary and Maureen have just finished their run at bush pilot’s canoe race. Energy levels are at a bursting point, and this couple is charged up.

“We live and breathe this weekend,” Maureen says.

“We missed a few years ago. And that was really hard,” Gary adds.
The sweet little plane nestled against the shore did not look so pretty four years ago. It was Gary’s first plane and a childhood dream come true. “I always wanted a plane as a kid, but never in my wildest dreams did I think I would own one.”

The Cessna had been a vivid orange. “We called it the flying pumpkin.” Maureen says, They flew it at the competition in Greenville but in the second year the engine went.

Fifty- two weeks until the next fly-in, and as long as they were putting in a new engine, they figured they might as well do a complete restoration. This may not be logical to everyone, but for Gary and Maureen it was a natural conclusion. “We devoted every weekend and many a week night for a year to this plane” Gary says. “A new engine, and we gutted the inside and stripped the paint.” They had it repainted white. Why white? There is no answer, but white it had to be. Gary owns a flooring business, and all the company trucks are white. His personal vehicle is white, the Toyota Landcruiser they bought to keep at camp on Moosehead is white, and Maureen‘s Denali is white.

Gary is soft-spoken and resolute, Maureen exuberant and sparkling, and together they get things done. People call them Rooster and co-pilot. Maureen is a convert, though. Although her dad was a pilot, planes were simply not her thing. Gary, however, has been obsessed since he could crawl. And it wasn’t just planes, it was seaplanes. “I’d hear one when I was a kid, and run down to the dock to see it come in. A DeHaviland Beaver. What a plane.” Gary has made most of his dreams come true, but has yet to get a DeHaviland. “We keep buying megabucks” Maureen quips, but if the Dehaviland comes into their lives, chances are it will be bought with hard work and total focus. A brief stint with Amway reinforced Gary’s natural tendency to visualization. “See what you want, pin a picture on your refrigerator, and concentrate on getting it. You will.” For Gary this works. “I buy what I can afford” is his philosophy, and if he needs to work more to afford something, that is just the price you pay.

“I dreamed of planes as a kid, but never even thought for a second I might ever sit in one, and owning one? No. Not a possibility. We were poor, our house burned down, and I lived in a tent. Never had running water. When I was twelve I worked on a farm so I could have a little money.”

Gary is pragmatic about a pretty hard childhood. “When I was 14-15-16 I worked at a flooring company, we didn’t have money, I wanted something, I had to earn the money myself.”

But he still dreamed of flying. High school graduation, it was time to decide what to do with his life. Gary joined the army. He had wanted to join the air force, be a pilot. Fly. But his mother, who had not been able to live her own dreams, thought she was giving good advice when she told him not to bother, “Your grades aren’t good enough, forget being a pilot.” she said. Gary did not try. This is a man who sets a goal and then achieves it. But, as a teenager, he did not have the clear vision he has today. “I didn’t even try, and I regret that.” One of Gary’s few regrets.

When Gary got out of the army he came back to Maine, to his family. He worked for the same flooring company he had worked for as a kid. He might still be an installer for this company, but they went out of business. Gary had always worked extra hours, filled in for other installers, did carpet installation on weekends and evenings. “If you put down a yard a day, you got paid for a yard, if you put down fifty, you got paid for fifty.” Hard work, honest work, and it helped Gary turn from a one-man operation to a respected member of the business community. “There are bigger carpet installers out there, but we have a reputation. Even when it was just me, I was there when I said, I charged what I said.” And that has not changed.

Gary is the American Dream before it went haywire. He is living the life he wants, earning the money he needs, and facing every morning knowing he does not owe anyone anything. Most recent dream? A hunting camp in Alaska. He bought one last year, and the first time he was dropped in he spent a week putting on a new roof. “I worked until midnight more than once.” You know he is not exaggerating. And if he does not have an immediate goal he just works and saves. “He’s like a squirrel” Maureen says, “He doesn’t even know where all his nuts are buried.”

But he knows what makes him happy, and that is flying. And working hard. He is flying a 180 today, working hard everyday, and if that Dehaviland Beaver is off the refrigerator door and on the strip it will not be such a surprise.

Excerpt from Maine Vanities, a collection of essays about the people and stories behind vanity license plates.

These short portraits capture Maine individuality. There is quirkiness, compassion, and humor. While passions range from skiing to solving Mensa puzzles, and ages from 14 to 91, enthusiasm, curiosity, and delight in sharing the story behind their plate and their bit of Maine is the common thread.

Acadia National Park Bar Harbor Destinations Nature Log

A Walk with Mrs. Peel


Baittrap_Lakewood

Bait trap, Lakewood, Maine

It is a clear January morning, and the temperature outside is three degrees. The ground is white with snow that has crusted over and looks as hard and cold as ice. I feel chill off the windowpane when my hand is still inches from touching it, and the lack of wind and motion makes the world seem frozen into stillness. It is a Sunday, and the winter world beckons me outside to play. It is a day for Mrs. Peel.

Fans of the 1960s television series The Avengers will remember Mrs. Peel, played by Diana Rigg, who was fit and formidable, quick-witted, and always stylish. She was a role model, and a few years ago when I acquired a one-piece Descente snowsuit to take me comfortably into subzero weather I named the suit Mrs. Peel. Metallic gray with silver slashes on the sleeves and back, a red satin lining and space age padded shoulders, it, too, is very sixties. Add a fur hat and fur boots, sure-footed ice creepers, silk underclothing and I become invincible, as ready-for-anything and gutsy as Mrs. Peel herself.

catpawprints_Lakewood

Snow patterns on Lakewood

This was to be just a short adventure, as there were tasks and chores to do before the day was done. A small, sheltered lake a few miles from home has frequently offered tracks and animal sign and I felt like tracking, so I headed to Lakewood, easily reached down an unplowed stretch of road.

Mrs. Peel and I headed out onto the ice. It groaned and snapped, booming as it expanded, making ice as some call it. Most liquids contract as they freeze, but water, forming intricate crystals with space between the branches and spikes of each exquisite structure, expands. When it has nowhere to go it cracks and booms. There is one loud explosive bellow, then, a gentle reply. The sound bounces off the surrounding hills repeating itself more and more softly until silence returns. Lakewood is a small lake, and the booms were modest, not heart-stopping as they can be on bigger waters.

icefrond_Lakewood

Leaf-like ice crystal, Lakewood

The surface of the lake, so perfectly flat and level, was puckered with the imprints of what seemed to be a thousand small cat paws. Kneeling and tracing the outline of one imprint, I could imagine the party of prancing, leaping cats that might have left such patterns in the ice. Standing and looking across the lake I saw the focused unwavering trail of a coyote. I had passed human and dog track on the road in, and the erratic roam and sniff and run back to master trail of the domestic dog is strikingly different from an animal in the wild, for whom conserving energy is a matter of survival.

A frozen tadpole lay on the surface of the ice, apparently tossed out of a bait trap and left as an offering for some fortunate diner. Over an inch wide, the snakelike head would have become a bullfrog’s head in the spring. Life is full of hazards out on the ice.

An even smaller pond is connected to Lakewood, called Fawn Pond. Here a skim of black ice lay over a stream feeding the larger pond below. Black ice. The name is fearsome, implacable, but the underwater scene it reveals is beautiful in its otherworldliness. I lie on my belly and peer through the ice. I can see thin grasses waft slowly in the current. The sunlight pierces through to the bottom, illuminating a few gray and gold speckled rocks, but they are as far away as the moon. I cannot touch them; they are on the other side of that invisible ice wall. The untouchableness makes this world even more compelling. I am on the outside, looking in, and I want to dive down and explore. I run my gloved hand over the ice and it feels astonishing that it has no effect, that a barrier prevents my hand from simply sliding below the surface. Ice crystals form intricate leaf-like shapes and lie on the surface of the ice. A large twig shifts and dips. A caddisfly larva had changed its center of balance and clung, bouncing gently, to the branch. It wore a case it had made of bits of rock and twig and weed, and until it moved seemed part of debris on the stream’s bottom. Confined behind a wall of glass this larva, creeping, barely moving as it goes about its business, seems to have no relation to the swarms of long-antennaed shadflies, or caddisflies, that will be in my face and hair a few months from now.

deadmilksnakeFawnPond_Lakewood

weaselprints_Lakewood

Delicate tracks of a weasel or mink

At the edge of the stream something had dug a hole through the snow to the leaves and earth below. Whatever hunter this was found the prey it had sensed, and the curled remains of the slim milk snake rudely pulled from his winter’s sleep lay discarded nearby. There is no safety even buried in the dirt, below several inches of snow, and a crust of ice.

Fawn Pond was larger than last time I was here. The beavers had been busy, and a long dam kept the water from flowing to the lake. A mound of branches and tree limbs with the tiny teeth marks of the beavers was piled over their underwater retreat. Crystals, formed when the warmth from beavers’ exhalations mingled with the colder air outside, rimmed a few twigs at the top, sure sign there were beaver below. Skirting the edge of the beaver lodge were pairs of small dimpled prints, the bounding gait of either a mink or a weasel. I followed these along the edge of the pond, as they led to Lakewood and the woods road to my car. At the stream where the two ponds joined an otter had left sliding marks on the ice, and a hole where he went below the surface. Clear otter prints and chutes went over the dam, along the stream, and down the ledges back towards Lakewood. It was a steep descent, and the water fell in a series of short falls, framed by long clear cliffs of ice. The otter had cruised around saplings, bounded over small rills, and shot down steep slopes, seemingly having fun, and heading towards home. Mrs. Peel slid and wriggled right behind, leaving larger slide marks and prints for the next tracker to examine.

It was a short adventure, perhaps only two and a half miles, but there was life, and there was death. There were remote worlds and minute details. There were deer, dogs, humans, coyotes, chickadees, a tadpole, snake, caddisfly larva, otter, weasel or mink, mouse, and beaver.

Let me know what tracks you may have seen!

OtterslideFawnPond_Lakewood

Otter slide and hole, Fawn Pond near Lakewood


Otterprint_Lakewood

Otterprint along stream between Fawn Pond and Lakewood

Mrs.Peel and author

Mrs. Peel and author at Lakewood, Acadia National Park

Day trips Destinations Maine Vanities

SLOAF John Doyon

John Doyon at Sugarloaf

John Doyon, loafer

There are 365 days in a year. John Doyon skies one hundred or more of those days, and he skies them at Sugarloaf. His vanity plate is SLOAF1. He lives at the mountain from Labor Day until May, and he skis whenever he can. He skis Early Tracks, that special time before the mountain opens to the public, sometimes starting down before daylight. He skis before work, and he skis every weekend. He skis in the rain, in the wind and in the cold. He is, in short, obsessed.

John was born in Maine, but lived away for many years, returning 15 years ago after watching The Big Chill, and feeling the call to reconnect. College memories of the Carabbasset Valley drew him to Sugarloaf, and here he found his passion. He also found a circle of friends that share this passion, and form a core group of “Loafers.”

“My wife and I have more friends here than through work or family,” John says. “This mountain is a bond.” He mentions the mountaintop dinner parties, complete with china and linens, and parties where everyone shares three of their favorites songs creating a musical timeline of the group from the 70’s to the present. John selected “Stairway to Heaven,” which he used to listen to when he skied here in his college days. This generated groans and good-natured ribbing, according to John. “They said it was too long!” he exclaims, shaking his head and laughing. “But it is a classic, what memories.” Most of this group grew up in the same era as John, and share a lot of similar memories. “The Sugarloaf culture” John calls it, a tight bond of skiers and skiers’ families that have their lives, activities, and social events orbit around the mountain.

John says this group, this friendship circle, is an important reason for choosing to live here, but it clearly takes second place to being on the snow.

John starts his day before full light, taking dog, paper and coffee to the foot of the mountain to assess. He checks the conditions–the weather and the snow, and decides which skis to use. Racing skis, carving skis, skis for powder– there are skis for different conditions, and it makes a difference. So does keeping equipment in shape. “I do a mini-tune every day, and a major tune-up every ten days,” John says casually, blissfully unaware that he is reinforcing his reputation for obsession. He also keeps a chart of which skis he uses on each day, to be sure not to stress them. He keeps meticulous records of the days and hours he skies to be sure he gets his one hundred days in each year, and to push for as many more as possible “One hundred and four is the most I’ve skied” he says, “Maybe this year I can top that.”

But May fourth is the cut off. That is the day the mountain closes. “I start getting bummed out in April,” John says, “It is a dark feeling, I hate to see those first brown spots.”

“Sometimes even in June you can find a patch of snow in the woods,” he says wistfully. But John is upbeat, even the sadness of contemplating summer is momentary. His natural good nature and optimism reassert themselves. May fourth isn’t here yet, and John has skis to tune, and a mountain to ski.

Excerpt from Maine Vanities, a collection of essays about the people and stories behind vanity license plates.

These short portraits capture Maine individuality. There is quirkiness, compassion, and humor. While passions range from skiing to solving Mensa puzzles, and ages from 14 to 91, enthusiasm, curiosity, and delight in sharing the story behind their plate and their bit of Maine is the common thread.

Acadia National Park community Day trips Destinations Maine Maine destinations Nature Log

Winter in Winter Harbor

Dogs watching Wonsqueak Harbor

It's a dog's view, and I wish it was mine.

Black Friday, and we were up and out early. Our destination was not the sales and bargains the day after Thanksgiving is known for, but Schoodic Peninsula, an odd disconnected portion of Acadia National Park. Our goal was a walk with ocean views, designer breakfasts prepared by someone else, and then back home to split wood and get ready for winter.

Snow came early this year, and we were ready for snowshoes and piles of white around our ankles. We had spun though eleven unplowed inches to get to my sister-in-law’s for Thanksgiving Day where it sparkled out the windows, but now we wanted to be in it, not looking at it. We tossed our gear in the car and headed off island. It was not long before we blew off the hike, breakfast, split wood agenda and just took it as it came. We saw a road we had not been on, and took it. Unplowed and snowy we came around a curve and disturbed a small group of turkeys. They stretched their necks and single file strutted off through a path in the woods. Turkeys are a common sight, but we had not seen any in about six weeks and had commented on their absence. “Guess they feel safe now,” I said. It was Black Friday, after all. Thanksgiving was over.

Back on track, we arrived in Winter Harbor, the town just before Schoodic and our hike. Tourism may be part of its economy, but the feel of this village is that of a simple coastal Maine community. There is a bank, a few restaurants, a grocery store, a five and dime that has everything you could ever need, and not a t-shirt shop in sight.

The Five and Ten has it all.

We wandered about town before our walk, getting the winter feel of Winter Harbor. Summer folk are gone, but there is no sense of the forlornness that pervades nearby Bar Harbor with plywood coverings nailed over shop windows and the fountains in the parks covered with stark plank pyramids. The cashier at the market gave us directions to a friend’s house, and it felt good that she of course knew where he lived. We stopped at Chase’s Restaurant for a coffee refill, and left with the waitress saying they would have stopped serving breakfast when we finished our hike. She said she has lived in Winter Harbor all her life, gladly suggested places to eat in nearby towns, called us dear in typical Downeast fashion, and we parted with smiles. We did not take the time to drive to Grindstone Neck, a stretch of summer homes and awesome hills we bike in the summer, but headed straight to Schoodic. In a field off to our left we saw three turkeys grazing. After weeks with no sightings, we had two in one day. Wild turkeys know their calendar.

Spruce Point, Maine

We had no clear idea where the trail we wanted started, and didn’t really care. We turned left onto a road with no street sign, because neither of us knew it, and found, to our surprise, it led to our path. Had we been looking for the trail, we’d never have found it. The only sign indicating the trail was over fifty feet after we turned onto this unmarked road. It was steep and winding, and took us to the top of the hill we had expected to be climbing. There were no tire tracks before ours as we made the ascent. When we left hours later, ours were still the only tracks. I doubt in July we would be the only ones on the trails.

Our hike started high, and was an easy ramble with views of our home, Mount Desert Island. There were ravens, squirrels, signs of coyotes, and at one lookout, an interpretive panel with moose tracks on it. We found this a bit perplexing, as it implies this might be a moose habitat, and it is not. There are several easy trails here, we wandered them all. The snow was only a few inches deep and so we did not get to use our snowshoes, but we were the first to walk the paths since the snow had fallen, and making the first footprints is always a sense of privilege and delight.

Wonsqueak Harbor, Maine

Wonsqueak Harbor, Schoodic Peninsula


Leaving Schoodic we pass through Wonsqueak Harbor, which not only has the best harbor name I know of, but is also a classic picturesque harbor that demands you take its photo whatever the season or weather. The local dogs enjoy the view too; a half dozen were hanging out on the roof of a porch overlooking the water.

The sun was now high, gleaming on the water droplets at the tip of every branch and twig. It was time to split that wood, and so we headed home. As we neared our island we saw half a dozen turkeys along the road. I suspect they are not as stupid as their reputation suggests.

Acadia National Park Destinations Maine Otter Creek

In a fog

A small boat on the ocean, visibility twenty feet, no navigation system, and close to ten o’clock at night is not a good place to be. We did not mean to be there, but there we were, lost in the fog.

Fog changes the familiar. It has a presence, and the cool moisture is palpable. It cloaks the sharp edges of things making them a bit less comfortable, but beautiful and mysterious. I am happy walking in fog on the well-known paths behind my house. The soft gray contrasts with the dark forms of trees, accentuating their branches. It is not weather to explore new territory, however, or to stray off the trail. Driving on foggy nights takes concentration. The road disappears into the light of the headlamps, and progress is slow and tense. I only drive on foggy nights out of necessity.

To be out in a boat in such weather is foolish, and it can be fatal. We were foolish, but it was not fatal. This sounds melodramatic, but we were indeed in danger. We know better, so how did this happen? How did we end up floating, engine quieted, trying to hear a bell or sound that might tell us where we were?

We live close to the ocean, and our favorite restaurant is on an island just a few miles offshore. The Islesford Dock is on an old wharf and you feel like you are floating on water as you eat. The location and views are enough reason to go, but the food is taste after taste of heaven: Buratta cheese, rice, grain and pine nut cakes with spruce tree oil and roasted vegetables from the garden out back, sautéed kale with just the right tenderness and garlic. I close my eyes and swoon whenever I think of their food. There are usually fellow ID fans at the bar, and it is always a joy to meet fellow addicts. You can get there by ferry, but that means planning, as well as eating, around the ferry schedule. So we bought a boat.

As soon as they open for the season we head out, and during the long summer days we are back safe in our harbor well before dark. We go several times a week, it is a short 15-minute ride and we know it well. The season was drawing to an end, and we felt the need to go as much as possible before they closed. The days were also getting shorter. We asked a couple of friends to join us, and to meet us at the dock at five, but from that point on a series of unfortunate events unfolded. Individually, none of them would have been a problem, but cumulatively we ended up where we did.

Life jackets, check. Hand-held compass, check. GPS, check. Hmm, batteries are low. A few minutes were taken to find new batteries and toss them in the bag. Cell phone check. Powerful spotlight. No check. We searched the shed where life jackets and this light are kept but could not find it. We went up the road to the garage, another possible place for it. We debated. We planned to return before dark, but it would be close. We felt we needed it, and went back to the shed and found the lamp where it had fallen behind the counter we store the jackets on.

We get to the dock, and instead of the boat on the water ready for our friends; they are there ahead of us. We launch and head off, half an hour behind schedule. As we are leaving the harbor I explain we were late looking for the light. I point to it, but where is it? We each thought the other had put it in. Again the debate, go without or go back? We go back for it. We arrive at the restaurant with time to eat quickly and get home before dark, but it is packed and we have to wait half an hour to order. It is then my husband reaches for his cell phone to find it is not hooked to his belt. The fog we had seen off in the distance moves in, between home and us. The fog is there, we have to go back through it, we decide we may as well eat first. But the kitchen is backed up, and it is after eight when we finally eat. If I had a choice of last meals, this would be it.

We get underway, but it is after eight, dark, and, as my husband says, the fog is dungeon-thick.

We leave the Islesford Dock and go from one buoy to the next. After the third one there is a short stretch before the buoy at the mouth of Northeast Harbor, which would guide us home. We pull out the GPS, but the batteries we had grabbed turn out not to be new batteries. We had our powerful lamp, but it simply reflected a wall of gray. We see dim running lights of another boat, and coming close see it is a boat someone had told us was going to Northeast. We follow it. At some point one of us said, “seems as though we should have hit that buoy by now.” The boat we were following was not heading to Northeast Harbor, but to Southwest Harbor. We turn around, and think we were heading back the way we had come, but become disoriented. We take a bearing with the hand held compass, but it just does not seem possible. Maybe the compass is broken, we think. We move slowly, sweeping our light across the water to let other boats know we were there. There is, surprisingly, traffic on the water. Large shapes heard long before they are seen.

The fog is so thick and heavy our clothing is wet and our hair is plastered to our heads and necks. The constant moan of ships’ horns let us know we have company out there, somewhere. And quite close, we just cannot see them. Abbie and John, our dinner companions, are in it with us, no accusations, fear or complaint. We discuss whether we should trust the compass, and take turns wielding the light. The possibility of being out all night is a real one. We are all calm, calling it an adventure, while offering reasonable suggestions and avoiding lobster buoys. Abbie has a cell phone, but it only has a few minutes left. We decide to save it as a last resort. A large piece of flotsam emerges from the fog and silently drifts by.

Finally we hear a bell, marking the harbor entrance. We get close, and check the number, it is can number two. It is the first bell we heard since we reversed direction and so we feel it has to be the mouth Northeast Harbor. If we set our bearings and trust the compass we would see harbor lights in about two minutes. We floated, keeping the red can in sight. If it was not the Northeast can, and there was a problem with the compass, we might be heading to Ireland. We were divided here on what to do. It felt like the win or lose question on Who Wants to be a Millionaire. It was really important that we make the right choice. It was time to use a lifeline. Abbie turned on her phone.

Our friend Edgar grew up on Islesford and makes his living on these waters. He had joined us briefly at dinner, and had been hired to bring a party back to the mainland. He couldn’t be far away. We called. Abbie explained our situation, and the red can. It is not long before Edgar tells Abbie, “I’ve got you, be right there.” In minutes the Instagator was beside us, and we felt safe, and could admit just how very unsafe we had been. As Edgar bobbed comfortingly beside us and offered to lead us to harbor, the Elizabeth T. came by. Captain Danny Lunt is another man who is at home on the water. He is a local legend, known for competency and calmness. They were headed for Northeast. Edgar asked him to guide us, and we left our lifeline to follow the Elizabeth.

It was a long ride. We were wrong, we had not been at the buoy at the mouth of Northeast Harbor, so it is a good thing we did not head off following the compass. We might very well have ended up out of sight of land, and very lost.

We followed Captain Lunt, but it was still not smooth sailing. His wife Linda describes that night as follows: Wild Ride Last Night on the Elizabeth T! Rainy, foggy, Dark, and around 9:30 someone in a small boat darted from nowhere in front of us, then did the same thing to the folks behind us – NOT SAFE! Don’t know who they were, but hope they are not on the water today!

We were the folks behind them, and thank them for bringing us home safely.

The next morning my husband called Edgar. “Good morning, God,” he said. “This is the village idiot calling to say thank you.”

Some lessons come at great expense. Our only price was a damp ride with cheerful friends.

Day trips Destinations Maine Vanities

MOULES Julia Myers

An excerpt from Maine Vanities

Elegant and articulate, Julia Myers speaks with deep affection for the long and arduous days helping her husband run Abandoned Farm, Maine’s first cultivated shellfish operation. Her plate is MOULES, French for mussels. Her husband, writer Edward Myers, had MOSSELS. “Mussels was already taken,” she explained,

Julia Myers loves mussels, and moules.


Julia loved to cook moules marinières. In fact, Julia cooked mussels in every way imaginable, and she would place a discreet ad in the local newspaper announcing what mussel meal would be on the menu that week. The object was to familiarize people with the many wonderful and delicious ways to eat mussels, encouraging them to add the shellfish to their diet, and, of course, to buy them from Abandoned Farm and their vendors. The building where Julia served her meals forth was frequently jammed, with people perched on chair arms, legs dangling from the porch railing. “It was a scramble to be sure we had enough knives and spoons to go around.” It is difficult to imagine this refined and dignified woman sipping Lapsang Souchong out of export china presiding over such off-the-cuff gatherings.

“I cooked mussels with cheese, with broccoli, in soup, with pasta. There are hundreds of absolutely lovely ways to prepare mussels, although I do not think tomatoes complement them well at all,” she says decidedly. She also grew vegetables and greens, and made salads and side dishes using fresh organic ingredients. Craig Claiborne, the food critic with The New York Times, came for a meal. “As he left he commented that at least the salad was superb. I guess he was not impressed with my mussels.” But then, it may have been the wrong month. May, Julia maintains, is the only time to have mussels. She leans forward with a gleam and says in a lowered voice, “They are heavy with seed then. My husband used to call from the mussel beds to tell me there was a sex orgy going on, and I should come down. The water would be creamy with milt.”

And with plump, sweet mussels. While she concedes they are fine in June, July and August, it is the May mussels that Julia recalls with such delight. Succulent, ripe, brimming with flavor—memories of those May moules still bring a satisfied smile to her face.

I thank the many who told me the tales behind their plate, and shared a bit of their life. I will be publishing more Maine Vanities in the months to come.

An introduction to the essays:
CLKNPUR, FOTTER, SMAS, TIDWLKR–Maine vanity plates are as individual and intriguing as the people of Maine. Some are straightforward, such as THECAPT or MOMSCAR, some take a moment to decipher–Hi NRG, ME JUIF, and others leaving you wondering for days: 1OFFTAL, 7SEVEN7. But they are all communicating, all sending a message, all extending an invitation to hear a story.

Only eight characters, briefer than a haiku, yet they generate an astounding variety of puns, double entendres, palindromes, good grammar, bad, and simple joyful word play. Letters, numbers, a space or a hyphen, any combination of these is possible, as long as the total number does not exceed eight. So few characters, so many messages–as in many other circumstances Mainer’s are capable of doing a lot with a little.

An astounding percentage of registered Maine license plates are vanity plates. This is due in part to the modest fee the state charges and perhaps in part to the individuality of Mainers. It may also be self-perpetuating. As we drive along being amused or confused it is a small step to then feel the urge to come up with one’s own plate to entertain or perplex, or tell the world something about the person behind the wheel.


Who are these people with the vanity plates, why do they have them? Maine has a large number of cottage industries and self-employed entrepreneurs. Self-promotion means survival, and plates tell a message as you follow them down the road. Many plates promote the business its owner runs, ZCAB, CATER, GARDNR, and WE_BILD.

Vanity plates are also a way to share politics, faith, and hobbies. A sports fan proclaims SOXLVR, or METS_85; a politically-inspired driver a plate boasts VOTER. Family is important to many Mainer’s, and there is GRAMSCR, MOMSCAR, and HZ HRS. For philosophy: DO U LV. Plates involving hobbies include is GOLFR, SKI_NKD, I BOWL, TKE_PICS

Many are names and initials. It is common to have a couple’s initials on each of their cars, his might be KBC_JLC while hers is JLC_KBC. Some defy interpretation, or have more than one. MA2ME, is it Massachusetts to Maine, or Ma to me?

The message of a Maine vanity plate may raise an eyebrow, or a question, or simply cause a smile. But behind each and every plate is a personality, and the rest of the story.

These short portraits capture Maine individuality. There is quirkiness, compassion, and humor. While passions range from skiing to solving Mensa puzzles, and ages from 14 to 91, enthusiasm, curiosity, passion and delight in sharing the story behind their plate and their bit of Maine is the common thread.

It has been inspirational and moving getting to know the people behind these plates and their stories. I am honored that so many plate holders shared their time and their tales. “You are the story keeper,” I was told, and another compared me to a medieval sin eater. I find these descriptions apt. These stories now live inside of me. They are my burden, and my delight. They have uplifted me, exhausted me, made me weep, and filled me with hope and optimism. I hope I can convey half of their poignancy.

Mainer’s have strong personalities, and those who slap their politics and their passions on the rear of the car for all to see, and then give up hours of their time to answer questions, tell their tale, and submit to being photographed, are eloquent examples of this breed. It is a pleasure to pass their tales on.

I am hooked. I can no longer just guess what a plate might mean. I want to track down its owner, move into their world, and listen. There are many more stories out there waiting to be told, and I want to hear them all.

Thank you to all my generous subjects, I treasure your stories and have endeavored to share them with respect and appreciation. I offer apologies if I have made any errors or misinterpreted your tale.

Day trips Destinations Maine Maine destinations

Borrowers Aboard!

What to do in Maine. Downeast weekend, part 1

A devoted Mary Norton fan as a child, I saw implements and opportunities for Borrowers everywhere I looked.

The Borrowers are the about six-inch tall imaginary (maybe) humans that feature in Norton’s series, from The Borrowers, to The Borrowers Aloft ( when they head off in a raspberry basket and helium balloon) Borrowers Afloat, (down river in a teakettle) and Borrowers Afield.

Although it might be a tight squeeze for Borrowers, Harold (Buz) and Helen Beal’s 900 square feet of operating rail lines, homes, shops, banks, hospitals, waterfront and mills seems a likely residence for them. Even if there are no Borrowers hiding beside the three thousand feet of track, there is a sense of animation and life. The towns, cities and seaports are painstakingly recreated without kits, and many are modelled after existing or historic buildings. There is the old Sears building, Bangor’s brick Union Station, and the local bank. One house was built at the request of the original owner’s great-great granddaughter, who lives out-of-state but wanted it memorialized in this replica world.

A miniscule version of Stephen King’s home in Bangor boasts tiny slate tiles. They certainly look like slate, but close inspection makes the viewer wonder, how can slate possibly be cut so thin? Buz explains, “I just thought about it, and said, yep, 120 grit sandpaper will work.” He is correct. The tumbled rocks on the river’s edge look exactly like a pile of rocks, various shades of black and grey, each a different size and shape. These were not popped from a mold. “I took a big hunk of Plaster of Paris, smashed it up, then soaked ‘em in something dark or black for a few days. Tipped ‘em out to dry, and there they are.”

The Maine Central Model Railroad operates in Jonesport, Maine in nondescript white building in the front yard of Buz and Helen’s home. Drive up and chances are it is steaming around and buffs are exclaiming over the details. Even in the long winter months Buz, Helen and their nephew run the MCMR as prototype railroads are run: on schedule. Each train has an assigned number of cars, that it switches in its allotted time, as any railroad would do. The HO gauge rolling stock (1/87 scale) includes over 400 freight cars and 20 diesel engines.

Will the drunks miss the train? Because there they are, four extremely happy gentlemen leaving the tavern and heading, with arms entwined and listing southard, towards the station. Another building is charred and blackened, fire crew still on the scene, ambulance door wide open and a dog running alongside by barking. “They just got that put out the other day,” Buz says, “Piled traffic up terrible.”

His wife Helen made the over four thousand trees from twigs and branches gathered nearby. She also cut over four hundred windows for the skyscraper disguising a structural post. This couple has spent many hours palnning, painting, building, playing, and they never get tires of sharing their world.

Everywhere one looks there are snips of live, frozen vignettes of day-to-day experience. But look away for a minute and surely that arm moved, and didn’t I just see the woman pushing the baby carriage turn to look at me? Every figure is busily engaged in some activity. The solitary figure sitting below the bridge watching the river flow is an exception. Buz says emphatically, “Everyone works here, nobody sets around, yessuh,” I ask him who the man by the bridge is. Buz peers at him. “Huh, we’ll have to kick him out of town.”

Buz is on the right.

There are over 400 figures, fishing, boating, driving, or hiking the 4,000 foot high (six to us) mountains. Buz’ painted sky is slightly overcast and grey with clouds. The water sparkles and reflects, and a damp trail is left behind as the geese walk up the stream bank. Detail, detail and finer detail. I have been twice now, and will visit again, meeting new characters, seeing new scenes. Maybe I’ll go at night, when sleepy riders doze in the passenger cars, and soft light streams from the windows of the houses. And maybe I’ll see Homily wink from a private railcar as it rolls by on the way to the mountains.

Want to visit? The Maine Central Model Railroad is about seven miles off Route One on Route 187, and four miles east of Jonesport. If you want to call, the number is 207 497 2255.

Bar Harbor Destinations

Salt, and sage-flavored crickets

Part 1: Salted

As a producer of sea salt, marketed as Zeasalt®, I like to use our product. I know how pure it is, since we filter it, store it in gallon jugs for evaporation, and dry and package it ourselves. A few crystals pinched over a Caprese salad of tomatoes, homemade mozzarella and basil gives a bold finish. The bright white grains added to a hand-dipped, dark chocolate-covered caramel changes sweet to heavenly. I also keep a jar near the bathroom sink, and a mouth rinse of Zeasalt® and warm water is cleansing and soothing. But we do not eat many salty foods, and rarely add salt at the table.

I had a box of instant oatmeal packets left over from some camp weekend, and stashed them at the office for lack of a better place to keep them. We have been extremely busy at work recently, and I was working early and made a cup of the oatmeal. I tasted it and grimaced, astonished at how much salt was in it. I gamely swallowed a bit more, thinking, “Well, most people can tolerate this level of sodium, it won’t kill me,” but ended up scraping half of it into the trash. I filled my water bottle with the water I bring from home as the tap water in Bar Harbor is rather unpleasant. Our water is fantastic, coming from the Cadillac Mountain aquifer where there has never been any industry, farms, or even dwellings. Bottle in hand I went back to work. Howard asked me to look at a design he was working on. “Something isn’t right about it,” he said. “It just doesn’t look good.” I took a sip of water, looked over his shoulder, and choked, “Yeww,” I said, running out of the room. He and Melissa stared after me. “Guess it’s bad,” I heard.

But I had just swallowed a big gulp of sea water, and couldn’t answer.

How our jugs of salt water got mixed with our jugs of spring water I do not know, but they will now be labelled.

Howard was very relieved to hear it was not his design that had prompted my response.

Part 2: Excuse me, waiter, is that a mealy worm on my cracker?

Eating bugs is pretty unavoidable.

I suspect most people have swallowed a fruitfly, or chomped into an apple and then saw that other half of a worm. But most people do not seek out insect meals. The Dorr Museum, our local natural history museum, has an exhibit on insects, and offered a variety of tasty insect offerings at the opening reception.

Crickets hand-dipped in semi-sweet chocolate were an easy way to start. The chocolate was smooth and creamy, and the entire cricket hidden within was a mere aside to the chocolate. If you were not aware it was cricket it could easily have been a bit of peanut or cashew. The mealy worms were laid out like tiny strips of blackened onion on a cracker with hummus. Four mealy worms at a gulp, but again, the hummus was the overriding flavor, the mealy worms a simple crunch. Faced with a bowl of roasted mealy worms, looking like nothing except exactly what they were, took a bit more resolve. Crunch. Gone. A few more, crunch crunch. Gone. More texture than flavor here. I had been hoping for cockroach, knowing that would have meant a bit of “do I really want to do this?” effort. But there were none. The last offering was boiled cricket with sage and onion.

It looked just like a pile of dead crickets. And that is what it was. There were the little antennae, you could see their mandibles. There was no room for pretending It was a dead cricket on my toothpick. I expected a crunch, but these were boiled, soft, and meaty. Hmmm. The sage complemented them nicely. This was not crunch and gone, this was savor. The soft meaty body of the cricket, a smooth piece of onion. This was GOOD!

One woman tasted a few and said she liked the flavor, but did not care for the antennae getting caught between her teeth.

Thank you Carrie, from College of the Atlantic, for preparing this delightful tasting. And for reassuring any cautious vegetarians that if they use bottled catsup, they have probably already consumed more insect parts than they would get by eating a boiled cricket and one measly little mealy worm.

Day trips Destinations Festivals

Maine Maple Sunday Syrup. Sweet!

or maple syrup sunday, or sappy Maine syrup, whatever you call it, it is sweet.

We burned our evaporator, and so are not boiling today. But they were evaporating at the Painted Pepper Farm in Steuben, Maine. Fiddlers, baby goats, a self-guided tour through the woods, explaining the sap to syrup process.

Nature Log

Woodcock are back, we heard them a few days ago. Big fat snowflakes in a flurry on Sunday.