Category Archives: Day trips

Day trips

DONKIES Claire Wallace



Haffas Farm. Family name? Think again. “Half-assed, of course,” chuckles Claire Wallace. “My husband and I both had full-time jobs and no spare time, and then we bought a couple of asses without really knowing what we were doing. Pretty half-assed, don’tcha think?”

Claire is small and lively, hurling loaves of bread through the air to feed her herd. She used to have horses—wild mustangs—until she visited her daughter in Virginia. There, at a farm show, she saw donkeys and walked out saying, “I’ve got to have me a mule.” And so she acquired Jack. She bought him thinking he was eight or nine, and she laughs as she recalls dealers saying, “You bought old Jack?” He was probably closer to thirty, she admits, but “he gave me lots of babies.”

“I didn’t want to go home to Maine without a donkey, and that’s how I got Jack. But I didn’t know how much donkeys holler, either. I opened the door once after we were on the road, and he hollered so bad I slammed it shut and wouldn’t open it again till I got home. I told my husband, ‘Come out here and listen to this.’ I opened the door, but Jack was silent. It took three days before he began to holler again.”

She points out Gladys Done, named because it took her so long to be born. “I birthed her right here, but she just didn’t want to come out. When she finally did, I just took her in my arms and said, ‘Ain’t you glad it’s done?’” Claire grins, delighted at her joke. “And that’s Elvis,” she says, pointing to a shaggy donkey, “cuz of the long hair. This here is Molasses, see it’s got asses in it! And Clementine, one of Jack’s babies. She is a darling, for sure.”

Not every one appreciates asses, though. She was chastised by her boss for having people talk to her about Jack while she was at work. “People used to come in and ask how my ass was, heck, we thought that was pretty funny. But the manager didn’t. Said tourists wouldn’t understand. So I had to tell them to stop.” The state wouldn’t let her have Halfass on her license plate, either.

“I told them, ‘Read the bible, you’ll find asses there, so why can’t I use it?’”

“I was born right by that telephone pole,” she points to it with her ready laugh. “This was my grandparents’ place, called Verandah Flats. They rented cabins. There was a two-hole outhouse and a pump in the kitchen. ‘Running water’ they advertised. Yeah, if you put it in a bucket and ran with it.” Claire bends over chuckling. “But I don’t know how they did it, grandfather on crutches, a forty-year-old horse on the back pasture to feed. It’s a lot of work having animals.”

She has no regrets, no wishes she had explored the world a bit more. “Why?” she asks. “I see folks I went to high school with coming back now. They went away, got rich, and now they want to come home. But they spent thirty years in some noisy city. Can you believe it? All that time working to save money so they could come back here. Heck, they shoulda done like me, just never left. I have it all right here.” She gives one of the donkeys, Clementine, a big hug. Half-assed Farm? Think again.


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.

Day trips Destinations Festivals Maine destinations

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

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.

Day trips Destinations

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.

community Day trips Destinations Maine destinations

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.

Day trips Destinations

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

Roads less travelled

Abandoned road near the old radio base on Otter Cliffs

Roads connect us. They get us to work, bring us to visit family, and take us to distant adventures. Road trip—the words conjure an expanse of asphalt disappearing into the distance and luring one on. Roads are plowed, patched, swept and maintained so we can get where we want to go. Part of our infra-structure, they seem permanent. I live on a simple village street, Grover Avenue, and cannot imagine it disappearing.

Roads do disappear, however. There is not a town in this country that doesn’t have abandoned roads. Once traveled daily, these roads are now devoid of purpose. Trees creep in from the sides, the surface cracks and vegetation emerges. Rocks, branches, and debris fall on the road and are not removed.

Roads are closed and neglected for a number of reasons. A sharp corner might be smoothed and straightened, leaving a curved section frequently renamed with the qualifier “old.” There is Old County Road, Old Goose Road, Old Turnpike and Old River Way. If there are no homes on the section, it very quickly becomes unpassable. I once lived on Winthrop Road in Deep River, Connecticut. It was straightened, and a beautiful stretch that curved along a marsh was bypassed. No one lived on that section, and so no one drove on it. Taking it one day for nostalgia I rounded the curve by the marsh, and braked. A card table with blue paper tablecloth, candle in a jar, and a few food stains blocked the way. Some cheeky celebrants risked the random driver, and held their party right in the middle of the road.

Old Bridge on Grover Avenue

Other roads become uncared for if they no longer go anywhere. A straight, tree-lined path leads to what was once the naval communication center near Otter Cliffs. The facility was moved to a neighboring town, and the road then simply went to an abandoned site. It too became abandoned. The wooden sign pointing the way down the road to Otter Point has grown into the tree it was mounted on and looks like it has bark lips devouring it with a gruesome grin.

Sign to Otter Point

Closed roads are derelict, uncared for, unused. They beckon, raise questions, and connect us with the ghosts of those who once traveled these routes daily. Their history is palpable. A footpath along the Narraguagus River is wide and tucked closely to the river bank. It is an excellent spot for watching eagles and osprey feeding, a mink dodging along the rocks, and the silver splash of returning alewives. But looking at the way the flat wide surface was dug into the hillside revealed it was once a road. We followed it until it intersected with a old rail road line. There were traces of it on the other side, but that section had not fared so well, and we soon gave up and returned to bird watching.

Road along Narraguagus River

My road may someday be an overgrown trail with remnants of foundations, or it may have vanished under the weight of development. It has already begun to recede from regular use. It was once the main road connecting the villages on either side of Otter Creek. After a steep hill below my house, called Ben’s Hill, the road passes the head of Otter Cove and then twists along, following Main Brook. Fifteen years ago is was passable by a car you did not care too much about. Today a rugged vehicle can make it to within sight of where it rejoins the new main village road, but is no longer passable. When I moved here, it was a through street. Now, I live on a dead end.

It takes so little time for a road to change from a daily part of life to a mysterious path drawing us in. It disappears in the distance, behind encroaching branches or around a corner. It asks us to remember that it once hummed with activity and ably provided a way for people to get from one place to another.

Sagging bridges, mossy foundations, weathered signs, they are all there, on the road less traveled. Wander one, and listen.

Day to day Day trips

Flattery. Simple Pleasure #4.

Filling the wood box, a frequent task, is satisfying. There, a chore is done. Chopping, slicing, sauteeing, blending flavors, and creating a healthy entree with flavor is another job that makes me feel good. Saturday morning was spent filtering through towering piles of envelopes, scraps of paper with now-mysterious telephone numbers and newspaper clippings that no longer seem of interest. There is once again room on the desk for a cup of tea. That felt very good indeed. All those good feelings were earned with hard work. It isn’t smugness that amplifies the good feeling, but a Yankee sense that is it deserved, no need for awards, ribbons, or a pat on the shoulder.

So how can one explain the light and simple pleasure that totally random flattery engenders? We return to our seats from the dance floor, and a young woman at a table nearby says, “You guys are great, we wish we could dance like that.”

We don our embarrassingly similar fur hats as the wind is cold. We toss hatchets and check out blacksmithing at the Cramer Museum in Camden. “I want one of those,” a stylish woman with a colorful cloth cap says, pointing to my husband’s warm badger hat.

“I love your boots, where can I get them?” a teenager says admiring my furry goat boots.

After parallel parking in a very tight spot, a passerby says, “Nice job.” I used to be able to do it in a space about three feet longer than my car, but years of living in Maine have blunted that skill, and I am pleased some of it lingers.

These comments from strangers make me glow. I didn’t have to get splintered and dirty lugging wood, or overheated in front of a stove to hear the honeyed words. My Yankee ethic says maybe I do not deserve them, but I love them. Some of this flattery is admiring skills, which can be justified as deserved, but mostly it is simply a compliment on choice of apparel or the cheese I serve.

What a simple pleasure flattery is. It conveys appreciation and approval. Sincere flattery is a gift any person can give to another. There is no cost, there is no effort, you simply open your mouth when you see some one doing something well, or looking great, or with an interesting piece of jewelry or artifact and tell them.

Flattery feels good from both sides. How lucky we are to have voices, to be able tell our fellow travelers on this planet that we see them, and that seeing them doing something, wearing something, making something, gives us pleasure. How lucky to be standing in the grocery line, and have the shopper behind us say, “those crackers look great, what aisle did you find them in?” reaffirming that we have good taste, made a good selection, and appear friendly enough that the person feels comfortable asking us about them.

What fun when an admiring comment generates a story. “Impressive,” I say to a woman balancing an armful of groceries. She laughs, and tells me she waitresses, and can line plates up her arm.

Give a gift and get one, flatter someone today.

And I, of course, think you are brilliant to be reading this blog.

Day to day Day trips Festivals Maine destinations

Spring snow, sweet syrup

Boots and shovels then tee shirts and rakes, stoke the stove and open the window, freeze, thaw, freeze, thaw, spring, winter, winter, spring—March in Maine is neither fish nor fowl.

“I’m ready for spring,” even the devoted winter fans have been heard to say as March shifts from cold to warm and back. Spring is a tease, revealing the creamy blooms of snowdrops one day, and then hiding them again under six inches of snow. The winter coats and mittens were boxed and ready for storage, but a recent snow flurry caused us to pull them out and bundle up. For those of us who really love winter, this on-again, off-again is a needed weaning period. We are happy to have one more chance to don our fur hats and feel snow on our faces. The hats were boxed up, but we really weren’t quite ready to stow them in the attic and admit winter was over.

This morning the world was white again. Knowing this may be the last snowfall of the year, we don’t wait, but get up and head right out to play before going to work. But while the flakes are wet and real, there is no threat behind this snow. The winter lion has been declawed. We laugh fearlessly in its face, coats on, but not zipped. We know, too, that the snowdrops and hellebores will come to no harm. This is spring snow, saying a gay farewell. It lacks the seriousness of storms at the start of winter, which bring their cold breath and warnings of long nights and a frozen world. It is wet, and even though it covers the ground, it will soon be gone.

Alternate freezes and thaws are also what makes the sap run. Collecting maple sap and boiling it down for syrup is a tradition for many Maine families. It requires little investment, just a tap, a jug, a pot and a fire.

Syruping fits smoothly into daily life here in the Creek. Half an hour or so to set taps for a few days, then collecting now and then between hiking and dinner, and then boiling in the back yard. When there was more family around, it was done on a larger scale. Now, we tend the fire while making a few starts at cleaning up the yard. An old burlap back is stuffed with the weeds we pull off the garden and becomes a target for a few rounds of archery practice. We swap stories. I tell of my dad boiling sap in the kitchen, and peeling the wallpaper off the walls. I hear of my husband at eight or nine years of age using quart canning jars, the ones that had wire hoop handles, to collect sap, and how he had to collect many times a day. His grandfather helped him make homemade taps from discarded bits of tongue and groove planks. They whittled a slice of the groove side, giving it a point to pound into the tree, and the sap would run down the groove into the quart jars.

While things have improved–we now use plastic hose that fits into an opening cut in the caps of recycled milk jugs–it is still very low-tech. That is part of its appeal. It is also a way to be outside and moving around. Snowshoeing is over, ice is not safe, and biking is only possible on particularly warm days and even then many of the roads in the park are still covered in snow. Tapping trees, hauling heavy buckets of sap, bringing in spruce to keep the fire going, these are all ways to keep from stagnating.

The season is short, too. It is over just before you get tired of emptying buckets and smelling like smoke. These are all perfectly acceptable reasons to tap trees and make syrup. We might do it just for them. The jars of deep gold, thick, sweet syrup are just fringe benefits. Otter Creek Gold is maply, more flavor than sweet, slightly smoky because we boil it over wood, and the best maple syrup on this planet. Sugar, or rock maple trees have more branches and a greater surface area to produce sap. They also have a higher sugar content. Their syrup is sweet, and maply. Our syrup is maply, and then sweet.

But how sweet it all is. How satisfying to make flavorful syrup to pour on flapjacks, drizzle on ice cream, use in salad dressings, meat glazes and baking. We bottle some in tall elegant bottles, make Otter Creek Gold labels, and give them as gifts.

Syrup time is sweet. If you cannot tap and boil, you can certainly taste. Sunday is Maine Maple Syrup Day, and many sugar houses are giving tours and tastes. Go sample, then get yourself some taps.

Day trips Destinations 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.

Day trips

Chaga Chaga Coco Pop

Chaga. I just like saying the word.
Maine Huts and Trails along with Dr. Max Jacobs held a mushroom walk and talk. And we learned about Chaga. Max stated it has an ORAC value of over 62,000 (ORAC measures anti-oxidant value, Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity). Blueberries come in at 2,400 per cup. and yes, we did have him repeat that number. The website where he and his brother sell chaga soap says 300 to 500 times as much anti-oxident power as blueberries. That was enough to incite our interest. Biking a few days after the walk we found this beautiful piece of chaga, and are drying it to make tea. Blueberries are pretty tasty, though, they’ll stay in my diet.

Chaga, Inonotus obliquus, is a parasite that grows most commonly on birches, and is hard, black and gnarly. Folk medicine traditions have it healing tumors, blocking cancer, enhancing immune function. The black outside contains 30% betulin, while the inside is rich in fungal lanostanes. So we will use the whole thing in our tea. The betulin is supposed to fight cancer.

We went on this walk seeking to learn new mushrooms, and in addition to the medicinal chaga, we are now on the look out for Black Trumpets. It was also an excuse to get into the woods, and explore another piece of Maine. The Maine Huts and Trails offer other walks and talks, as well as yoga and x-c skiing. They have an off-the-grid, up-the-trail compound. Self-composting toilets, solar and hydro-power, full time chef, great food, and immaculately clean. This was a spur of the moment trip, and we chose to stay Mountain Village Farm B+B in Kingfield, and though the huts were very inviting, our plush towels and home-cooked breakfast with eggs from the chickens outside the window was pretty good. So were the creamy oatmeal and thick wedges of grainy bread.

Little escapes from the capital of the world remind me that there are other places worth visiting. The unfamiliar creates that delightful sense of discovery. The Wire Bridge, crossing the Carrabassett River, is a row of planks suspended by wires in graceful arches, with shingled towers anchoring it at each side. Built in the 1800’s, I had never heard of it. We saw a drawing of it at a restaurant in Kingfield, and so checked it out the following morning. And did yoga suspended over the river! And now we know where Pluto went. (Underground near Norridgewock)