Storytime: Maine

Please enjoy this post where I tell you a story about an event from my life. Nothing more, nothing less. Today’s story: Maine, it’s a magical place.

I don’t know anything about Maine the first time we visit. I don’t care about going there and like almost everywhere else, we’re only going because my mother has work to do there. We leave at 4am, trundling along the Cross Island Parkway, over the Throgs Neck Bridge, up through Westchester County, deep into the heart of Connecticut, past Massachusetts, and then skirting the edges of New Hampshire. We don’t stop for anything.

Portland, Maine. Where the morning fog is rolling in thick off the coast and there’s a distinct chill to the morning, even in July. The town looks as if it’s frozen. Not a single person on the street, cars sparsely lining the road, and only a glimmer of sails hinting at water somewhere through the mist. It’s like a picture of a memory. A sleepy nowhere town. We eat breakfast, stretch our legs along the streets then head back to the car. Despite the nearly six hours spent in transit, this is only halfway to our destination. We’re headed to Caribou, the bleeding edge of the United States.

We climb through the rest of the state over the next few hours. A forest along the highway an hour out of Portland narrows the road from six lanes to four. After another hour, the lanes start to wane down two, trees encroaching on either side. The lanes drop off like flies until it is simply a single lane in each direction, leading you from nowhere to nowhere. Into the forest and out of it. To civilization and away. But impossible to tell which way is which. We drive for hours like this.

In Bangor, the road breaches wildly, opening up to two lanes again. Shunting us like a pinball through an impossibly tiny town that exists on the outskirts of my reality. The temperature dips as we travel north despite the sun arching ever higher in the sky as the day proceeds. This is how I understand Maine best. It’s a surreal dream that I’m having.

Maine is a long winding, empty one lane road that goes right through my mind. It has dips and mountains and valleys snaked possessively around water, towns, and trees. There are dots of human life but they’re so far between it could trick you into feeling like the last person on Earth. The trees tower. Mountains jut into focus. Turning a corner makes lakes and rivers appear and then burst out of sight in a blink. The scenery is filled in, nearly cluttered, by full, lush wild growth. It’s a green blur through a window. A painting on fast forward.

When I wake up, we are parked in front of a motel. It’s an unassuming dump. It’s the type of place we always stay. Its front sign sagging, its facilities lacking, the bed feels like rocks, and the bathroom is always leaking. This is how I know it’s not a dream, or at least not a perfect dream. It’s all too dirty on the edges but strangely in this half-dream, there is lush forest behind the motel. I drape myself over two sticky white plastic lawn chairs and stare down the treeline. Tapping my hand on my CD player in time to the music, trying to figure out how to break through to the serenity at the other end of the parking lot.

The office my mother has to visit in Caribou is not an office at all but a barn rigged up with weather balloons and meteorological equipment. If there is a real office, we never go to it.

This is how I experience Maine the first few times. Stuck between starring aimlessly at a tree-lined forest and cramped in an overheated barn full of computers that smells like warm hay and mold. Unlike the cities we visit, this is completely baffling and new. I convince myself that if I can just understand the forest behind the motel, I will finally understand Maine.

A few years later I ask my dad to drive me up to Maine one weekend. He doesn’t have enough money for a proper trip but I have some money stashed under my bed from various places. I end up paying for half a hotel room, for gas, and when we come across a diner, I weasel some free food out the waitress. I feel like I am thriving as we drive past Maine’s endless beautiful tableaux.

I wanted to see the leaves change in Maine so much that I brought four disposable cameras to record it. I took dozens of pictures, sometimes making my father stop the car in the middle of the road or standing on the car roof to get the perfect shot. On Sunday morning, as we start our way back home, I suddenly feel overwhelmed. As we round a wide corner I realize there’s forest for miles. Miles and miles of nothing here in Maine. Nothing filling me up inside. I’m overcome with fear that we’ll die out here. That I’ll die trapped in a car with my father in a place that is supposed to be mine instead of his. I yell at him to stop the car.

He does.

I run into the forest and I fall on my knees and start screaming. I feel free and whole and empty and joyful and happy. I scream until I don’t feel anything. I must have gotten back in to the car at some point but I don’t remember.

The next time I’m in Maine I’m 15 and my mother brings me because she is taking another business trip. We’ve moved up in the world so we stay at a bed and breakfast in Bar Harbor, a town that seems too charming to exist. The owner lets me sleep on the back porch on a lounging couch. The farm cat sleeps next to me the first night while I stay awake starring at the stars, terrified that if I blink they will disappear.

On the second night when I can’t sleep I go into the woods behind the house, following the river, and I climb an impossibly high tree as far up as I can manage. I sit in the middle branches of the tree for at least an hour, draping my weight over them and hoping they don’t snap under my small body. From here it’s easy to see the town, its warm yellowy glow is too faint to blot out the sky. I imagine a world where I never have to come down from this tree. I imagine this is a world where sleep comes easy because I’m surrounded by the warm wilderness that seems so unencumbered here. Maine seems like paradise, a softly sung couplet I can keep humming.

A week after Isaac dies I ask my friend to drive with me to upstate New York. We get there and I keep driving. We go through forest after forest. We drive quietly or noisily, I’m not sure because I never hear anything anymore. I am not surprised when we reach the border of Maine. I simply start to sob and I pull over on the shoulder of the road at the top of an incline. Hours later, we stand next to a river where she takes a picture of me I don’t remember posing for. When I look at it a few weeks later I wonder if Maine is purgatory. Maybe I died in the forest in Maine, maybe I broke my neck falling out of that tree. Maybe I even drowned in the river where the picture was taken and I just don’t know yet. The real Maine is a place of peace, but now its a place I don’t know how to get back to.

When I’m on winter break from college, I drive up to Maine for the last time. This is the only time I visit the great state of Maine alone and it may be the last time I visit Maine in my life, but I don’t know that. Instead I know the temperature is only as many degrees as I have years. Instead I feel the creep of the cold through the car windows as I wind through snowy roads with muted sound.

Everything is frozen over in the forest, even the bridges are covered in thick ice. I walk slowly over the river, my shoes failing to grip the walkway and I topple into a snowbank to keep out of the frozen wastes below. I lay there and I want the grey sky above to devour me. I want to be covered completely in the white death falling from the sky and to waste away under the ice. Maine had always seemed real during the summer where it put on the face of idyllic but now I see what lurked underneath that soft veneer. With only white fogging up my vision, I know this is the same death trap as everywhere else on Earth. There is nothing special about this place after all.

It was all just a dream I was having. And just like that, I wake up.

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