My abrupt transition back to the American mindset most resembled a rough landing in threatening weather about 50 miles south of the Canadian border with Maine. I'd become accustomed to the verdant remoteness and simple modesty of Canada, so to encounter a sudden rash of expensive homes and restaurants, high end retail outlets and harbors full of fancy boats gave me the sensation of being mauled by a lifestyle. All the trappings of the Bar Harbour set were in evidence as I passed through village after village. I kept running across enclaves of sophistication that weren't nearly proportional to the number of residents they served - a sure sign that your town has been overrun by the privileged.
So it was with palpable relief, then, that I spied the lavender limned contours of Wild Blueberry Land on the side of Highway 1 outside Columbia Falls, Maine. All throughout Canada I had been pining for something as simple as a group of awkward mannequins giving vivid expression to a strong theme, but Canada hadn't yielded up much more than a handful of giant avatars (some good ones, admittedly) to feed my roadside attraction cravings.
Wild Blueberry Land, on the other hand, was an entertainment bonanza!
What an admirable commitment to theme. Everything, absolutely everything, was drenched in cartoon blueberry blue paint and some of the objects were even spherical to boot! The owners operate a wild blueberry farm (wild blueberries being smaller and tastier than what we usually get at the grocery) and they use their own harvest to produce all manner of blueberry accented delights: ice cream, cake, muffins, cookies, bread - you name it. The shop is also stocked with rows of outlandish blueberry themed trinkets and shelves packed with classic summer vacation souvenirs, because you just never know when you might need a rubber tomahawk or a lobster shaped bottle opener.
Strolling around the shop I was thrilled to discover the Wild Blueberry Land throne room where ordinary, everyday customers like me can choose to take on the burdens and joys of ruling Wild Blueberry Land by simply selecting either a crown or a tiara (or both?!) from one of the shelves proffered by tiny soldiers on either side of the throne. I thought this fellow made a particularly beneficent looking ruler:
Restored to an equilibrium of sorts, I departed Wild Blueberry Land and headed toward my evening's lodgings in the minuscule town of Winterport, Maine, As I passed through the town of Bucksport on my way, I stopped to photograph an intriguing bridge and discovered the adjacent Fort Knox Historical site in the process. I resolved to make an extended visit to both the bridge and the fort first thing next morning.
After a pleasant evening spent in a cozy antique filled room at the Old Winterport Commercial House (built in 1883 as a stagecoach stop) I rose and made my way back to the Fort Knox Historic Site through a dense installment of fog. The fog made things look exactly as I thought they should on a rainy fall morning in northern Maine. Well, keeping in mind, I guess, that my impression of what it should look like was almost entirely informed by eavesdropping on Mark while he watched every last episode of the 60s Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows a couple of years back. The theatrical dome of dense fog did indeed make a perfect backdrop for wandering among the ruins of the enormous granite clad Fort Knox built at great expense in 1844 - now a warren of cavernous empty rooms and dark winding passageways. The site is reputed to be haunted, but noisy unrestrained toddlers were the worst manifestation of evil I experienced while there. I did enjoy seeing the cannons and reading about the intensive labor required for each firing of the mechanism. Dirty and dangerous work indeed.
I was impressed by the large number of ventilation shafts cleverly designed and built into the structure to help dispel smoke and other noxiants produced by warring. The brickwork that lined the vaulted ceilings was intricate and beautiful to behold.
The barren granite walls of the fort weren't able to hold my attention for long, though, so I headed off to exercise the other half of my admission ticket - an elevator ride to the top of the Penobscot Narrows Viewing Tower. The tower sits atop the bridge that I'd stopped to photograph the day before and reaches 447 feet into the air. It's just a quick one minute elevator ride up to floor...two!...where you'll find yourself suspended in a a cube of sturdy windows overlooking the Penobscot river in an unencumbered 360 degree view.
By the time I stepped off the elevator, the fog had lifted just enough to give clear definition to the paper factory across the river which was busy belching plumes of smoke from its multiple stacks and adding to the lugubrious feel of the scenery. Looking down, I loved the geometry I saw in the web of steel cables anchoring the tower and the sinuous curves of the road passing beneath the bridge.
It dawned on me as I swept my eyes from horizon to horizon that this would be a sensational place to ride out a really wild norwester' - can you imagine how scary and spectacular that would be? Ah well, time to quit gawking and take the elevator back down to the first floor - I had many other tourist attractions that merited my attention this day.
My next stop was Perry's Nut House in Belfast, Maine. Perry's opened in 1927 and has catered to aficionados of roadside commerce (the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, even) from that day forward. In it's earlier years, it was supplemented with a large and impressive sounding collection of oddities which were displayed alongside flocked moose nodders and bags of pecans. Today, the store still offers a variety of nuts by the pound and a respectable array of toys and tacky souvenirs, but it has largely abandoned any efforts at showmanship after having removed all but a few examples of the wacky taxidermy that was such a big draw in years past. I do have to give Perry's credit, though, because while it may be a bit lacking in the two-headed calf department, it's definitely the only place I've ever been where you can enjoy a free sample of fudge (your choice of 12 delicious flavors!) while examining an ancient Egyptian mummy crammed unceremoniously into a glass display case next to the cash register.
It's the mummy and its purported story that actually made my visit worthwhile. Here's the tale, gleaned from a sign that was taped to the top of the counter: A world explorer of local fame visited Egypt in the 1920s when it was fashionable to dig up a mummy and bring it back to America as a souvenir. The idea was that you'd have a big party when you returned (think: robber baron) and unwrap the mummy as a party game. Any treasures discovered in the course of removing the bandages were given as party favors to the guests. The disrobed corpses were then just simply thrown away in the trash or burned like firewood. Fortunately, the world explorer in our story didn't see the use in completely unwrapping his find, wanting instead to display it artfully in his home. In the intervening decades after our hero died in 1940 of a poisonous snake bite, and after a series of Abbott and Costello style incidents involving the storage and transfer of the mummy, it finally found a home at Perry's in 2005 and serves as a sole bold acknowledgement of Perry's illustrious P.T. Barnum past.
While overall I found Perry's to be a bit forlorn, I ended up being glad I stopped. My next destination was the State of Maine Prison gift shop (I sure do love prison art) but it turned out to be a disappointing flop. Most of what I saw on display were crude wooden handicrafts of the lowest common denominator (super-sized decorative fishing float, anyone?) all sealed with a thick glossy veneer of enforced moral smugness. Okay, okay, I just made that last part up out of resentment, but suffice it to say the place wasn't nearly what I'd hoped for. Big deal, though. That's a risk you always run when you try something new and I try to never let it deter me.
On to the last stop of the day, the legendary lobster shack called Red's Eats in Wiscassett. I generally find the word legendary to be overused in describing restaurants, but Red's Eats truly merits such a label by succeeding so wildly on every single measure of the how-to-run-a-business-right scale. The food is top notch, the staff inspiring and the locale charming. There's a never ending line snaking around the block packed with people only too happy to pay $17 for a sandwich. And as if all these accolades weren't enough, Red's embodies one of my favorite subtle qualities of an eatery: you automatically become part of an unintentional community that forms around the experience of eating there. I love it when that happens!
A good deal of Red's success and notoriety seem to stem directly from co-owner Debbie Cronk who puts in long hours behind Red's front counter, continually opening and closing the rolling screen window that marks the exact eye of an enormous seafood maelstrom whirling about her. Debbie greets each customer warmly as they take their place at the window in endless succession. She attends carefully, pen poised, pad in hand, patiently listening as the customer tries to blurt out what they want. She often suggests insightful amendments or overlooked economies to planned selections. It sincerely feels as though she wants to provide every customer with a personalized plan for their best possible meal. Isn't that wonderfully corny? Everyone, including me of course, just eats it up - literally and figuratively.
While I was waiting for my order to emerge from behind the screen window of seafood happiness, the gentlemen behind me swept the cap off his head after placing his order and asked Debbie to reink an autograph she'd made for him on one of his previous visits. As she signed and thanked him for being such a good customer, he swore undying fealty and love in surprisingly inspiring words, giving me a fleeting glimpse into the immense fandom that surrounds Debbie - and she seems to earn every bit of it. It was about that time I noticed that the tip jar on the counter was literally stuffed full of bills, over-running, bursting with gratitude that could hardly be contained.
So aside from Debbie, here's what all the fuss is about - a sandwich (?) called a lobster roll. The roll part is like a hot dog bun but with the sides trimmed off and then toasted. The boiled then chilled lobster (more than a pound, freshly caught, freshly cooked and freshly picked) is massed on top of the bread and served with your choice of melted butter or mayonnaise. Not a single other ingredient - I kid you not: just roll, lobster and butter. When I sat down to inhale my sandwich, I finally got the appeal. This was your classic Wicasset boiled lobster dinner only without the bib, without the clunky metal claw crackers, without the seafood patina and the finger bowl - just great huge lolly pop chunks of fresh lobster with a side of melted butter on a roll to catch the drippings. So much cleaner and without any of the tiresome toil. Fantastic to eat and worth every penny.
Okay so Maine was going a little bit better now.
Wednesday morning's first stop was a curious place my host in Wintersport had reminded me of - the desert of Maine. I remember really loving the concept of a vast arid desert in Ohio introduced by David Foster Wallace in his novel Broom of the System. In Wallace's book, business men create a desolate wasteland in Ohio so they can convince people to go there and tour it. That always tickled me for some reason, so when I heard about the Desert of Maine I knew I should go for a visit.
The so-called desert is really a lake bottom comprised of glacial silt that was exposed after a century of poor farming practices by the family that owned it in the 1800s. After the farm finally failed at the turn of the century, an entrepreneur named Henry Goldrup bought it for $300 and turned it into a roadside attraction which officially opened for business in 1925. Henry offered guided tours and tried introducing camels and miniature donkeys to entice customers, but all the animals he chose ended up being so foul tempered that it was necessary to relocate them to "a farm." Ahem. Guests these days are transported over the rolling dunes in an open-air tram car tugged along by a feisty old Jeep (please keep your arms and legs inside the tram at all times, ladies and gentlemen). Our knowledgeable and well rehearsed guide provided elaborate explanations, snappy visual aids and a multitude of corny jokes to entertain us. As we drove by the hilariously wonderful temperature gauge at the desert's entrance it pointed emphatically to near 100 degrees. Tee hee! I'm so sure! I've spent quite a few days on 100 degree plus deserts, and I'm here to tell you the Desert of Maine wasn't but about a scorching 88 degrees or so. But it kind of made me like the tour even more, reminding me as it did of the importance of good theater in running a tourist attraction. My guide was kind enough to take a picture of me languishing on the parched slope leading to the Desert's center. Much more of that and I might have had to break out in a bead of sweat.
After dusting the last grains of silt from my Mary Janes I headed off to one last stop I wanted to make in Maine before crossing over into New Hampshire. I was very much looking forward to visiting the tantalizingly titled International Museum of Cryptozoology in Portland.
"What kind of animals do you study in cryptozoology?" you might ask ironically, if somewhat unknowingly. Cryptozoology is defined by people who seem to know as the study of "hidden" animals. This includes species like the coelacanth that we thought were extinct only to then subsequently discover the opposite; species like the Panda bear that were thought to be imaginary animals dreamt up by superstitious natives until specimens were captured in the wild; and then finally rounding out the list are animals of unknown biological makeup - like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster - whose existence has been reported, even photographed, but who remain a mystery by virtue of their ability to elude capture. This is obviously where the cotent gets a little...um...wilder.
This serious but fun loving museum is packed to the gills with models, dioramas, drawings and plaster castings that playfully document a cast of characters as diverse as the Jersey Devil, the Woolly Mammoth and the Giant Squid No stone has been left unturned in gathering popular cultural representations of each cryptid, as they're referred to individually, ranging from lunch boxes to board games to stuffed animals. There were two Texas favorites given ample display space - the Chupacabra or "goat sucker" that terrorizes south Texas ranches and the beloved Jackalope of all places Western.
I really enjoyed the thoroughness of the collections and being able to talk with the museum staff as I strolled about. They were knowledgeable folks and fun to chat with.
So, sorry I was so cranky, Maine. We kind of got off to a bad start with all the L.L. Beans and Range Rovers, but you really delivered in the end after displaying an admirable amount of quirk. I underestimated you in the beginning blinded by the glare of the Bar Harbor marina, but I quickly came to love your mummies and your lobster rolls and your hot, dry desert. Keep up the good work.