I was barely north of Waterville when my car started making the sort of desperate, wheezing noises that old, poorly-maintained vehicles tend to make when you ask way too much of them.We’d been going for hours, and the clattering old convertible I was piloting up the Maine Turnpike seemed to have finally realized just how far from over this punishing journey was. For few reasons beyond the indulgence of my own curiosity, I had decided to drive to Caribou, a city in northern Maine about the same drive time from Boston as Baltimore. You get there by driving up I-95 until it ends, some 360 miles into the state. Then you turn left and keep going.
Caribou, Maine is the northernmost municipality of over 5,000 people in the eastern US. The city center sits just shy of 47 degrees north, at a higher latitude than Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, or even Quebec City. If you look to the back of your left hand as a model for the state of Maine, Houlton, where the interstate terminates, is roughly at the tip of your thumb. An overwhelming majority of Maine’s residents live in the area between the base of your wrist and your thumb’s crooked knuckle. Your fingers in their entirety approximate the impossibly vast Aroostook County (“The County” to its residents), which in real life is the largest county by land area east of the Mississippi, roughly the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. Caribou is just below the nail of your index finger.
Along with Presque Isle, about 15 miles to the south, Caribou is the cultural and economic center of a region known for its downright singular culture and economy. Instead of the wild boreal forests that characterize much of Maine’s interior, this part of Aroostook County is all fields and farm country, a place of potatoes and the people who grow them, its land cleared of anything that would obstruct the path of a plow. So devoted is the region to its principal crops that schools in the county close for three weeks in the fall so students can help with the all-important potato harvest. For the most part, this is one-crop country, and its fortunes rise and fall with the potato harvest. Until it was outpaced by Idaho in the early 1960s, Aroostook was the number one producer of potatoes in the United States.
Unfortunately, it’s prohibitively far away from most markets, and as the rest of the country has become more connected and modernized, Aroostook has struggled to remain relevant and to keep its industries economically viable. It is the poorest county in the state of Maine (itself the poorest state in the Northeast by a considerable margin), and it’s hard not to agree that its isolation is largely to blame. There are precious few job opportunities in Aroostook County beyond potato farming, and an inefficient transportation system keeps the people there from commuting elsewhere. In a sense, the people of northern Maine are trapped in their situation, the great distance and difficult roads between them and the rest of their state keeping them forever separated from everything else—not only by physical distance, but also by the cultural and political gulfs that distance can create.
Ask a Maine tourism official in the south about Aroostook County, as I did at a palatial welcome station in Kittery (on your hand-map, Kittery is basically buried under your wristwatch), and they will improvise a few lines about natural splendor and the pastoral beauty of the rural landscape before confessing, under further interrogation, that they’ve never been up there except to Houlton this one time on the way to New Brunswick. Press a little more and they’ll admit that they don’t even really know anyone who’s been any further north than that.
“It’s really just another world up there,” this particular official told me after we established that her knowledge of northern Maine only extended as far as the Potato Blossom Festival brochure she handed me. And she’s right. In the towns north of Caribou, French is spoken nearly as commonly as English. A woman I talked to along the way told me about The County’s three seasons: Summer, Winter, and Mud. (It was immediately obvious to me that my trip was taking place during this last season.) As another resident told me, “We just do things differently up here, and the people down there just can’t understand unless they’ve lived in The County.” The physical distance between northern and southern Maine is great enough that, to many of the people of Maine’s downeast, Aroostook is all but a foreign country, just impossibly far away—and very difficult to get to on the existing roadways.
This issue of transportation is a problem of which the people of Aroostook County are more than aware. For decades, they’ve been fighting for the funding to build any sort of a proper highway through their land, perhaps to extend I-95 north from Houlton to Caribou, allowing through-traffic to bypass the agonizingly slow and cramped stretch of US-1 that links Presque Isle and Caribou to the interstate. It’s the only road connecting the county’s larger municipalities to Bangor, site of the nearest shopping mall, four hours away; to Augusta, the state capital, five or six hours away; to the big city of Portland; and to Boston, which, again (depending on traffic conditions), is not quite half as long a drive as Baltimore.
In the last couple of years, the Maine Department of Transportation has finally committed to a series of projects that aim to facilitate movement to, from, and within the county: bypasses are going to be built around the cities of Presque Isle and Caribou, allowing truckers to avoid the cities when returning south from, say, Fort Kent (the tip of the nail on your middle finger). In addition, the property around US-1 is being acquired by the state to allow for expansion in years to come, though much of the road will remain two-laned for the foreseeable future.
This phenomenon has led to tensions on more than one occasion, and the recent reemergence of the highway question has trotted them out into the light once more. When the Augusta-based Kennebec Journal ran an article about Troy Jackson, state senator from Allagash, with the headline “Senator Seeks Road to Nowhere,” the outcry from wounded Aroostook was loud and angry: “The copy editor who was so quick to label Aroostook County as ‘nowhere’ should be required to make the trek north, for I am certain they never have,” a representative from The County wrote in response. “For one, they can learn firsthand about the frustration of having to exit I-95 in Houlton and travel on dilapidated, decrepit roads for the remainder of the journey.”
A couple from Frenchville wrote another letter to the paper: Whoever wrote that headline has not done his homework. Northern Aroostook exports farm produce such as potatoes to the other counties and the other states. It also trucks forest products to the same destinations. The sale and transportation of these commodities can be measured in millions of dollars…When the Interstate System was authorized in the 1950s, Maine was allocated 300 miles of new highway. It is almost 300 miles from Augusta, where the Maine Turnpike ends, to the St. John Valley. That’s where I-95 was supposed to end. The powers that be usurped our share of the federal highway distribution and built a parallel superhighway to the turnpike…Whoever wrote that headline should be fired to promote justice and equality for all the citizens of Maine.
Still another came from a woman who had grown up in Caribou but now worked in Bangor as a journalist: I am so sick of reading and writing about “The Two Maines.” They do exist because the northern half just simply does not have the numbers in state government to prevail at much of anything. I have heard people in the southern half of Maine actually laugh at the idea of extending the Interstate. When is the last time someone, anyone, in the Kennebec Journal newsroom even talked to anyone from Aroostook except for the legislators—who apparently represent no one since they’re from nowhere? The headline writer can be forgiven his folly, but when will all Maine people begin to think of all of Maine? In my mother’s memory, and for all of my ancestors who lived and died as proud and industrious Mainers, I hope it is soon.
These feelings of alienation and neglect, unfortunately, seem to be common to Aroostook County. “There’s a level of anger in the region,” former state transportation commissioner John Melrose said in 2009, speaking to the Boston Globe about the area’s lack of interstate access, “that they were left and forgotten and a feeling they deserve the same as everyone else.”
There’s even a small but devoted movement among residents of northern Maine who want to secede and form the 51st state. Henry Joy, a state representative from Crystal, has even filed legislation—repeatedly—that would require the state planning commission to look into the feasibility of dividing Maine in two, perhaps along the boundaries currently set by the state’s two federal congressional districts. When pressed in 2005 by the bemused Portland Press Herald for a potential name for the new territory, Joy said they’d probably keep “Maine.” The current southern part, he sneered, could go by “Northern Massachusetts.”
“The idea that there are two Maines” is explicitly listed among the Maine DOT’s reasons for going forward with the project. By mobilizing Aroostook, they hope not only to kick-start its economy, but—just as importantly—to connect it more strongly to the rest of the state. Linking the two Maines physically, economically, and culturally is the real goal of the highway project. Forging these kinds of links is exactly what all highways are supposed to do, and the fate of Aroostook relative to the rest of Maine over the last 50 years is a testament to what happens when they don’t.
John Davis rolls his eyes and blows a mouthful of air when asked about the drive up to Caribou and beyond. For years, he’s been driving trucks along the stretch of US-1 that connects I-95 in the south of the county to the towns in the north, a road eminently unfit for big rigs. Watching a semi tiptoe through the tight, spotlight-speckled streets of Presque Isle or Caribou like a hippo on a tightrope is almost comical. And having to deal with some 70 miles of this nonsense after the mind-numbing drive up the length of the turnpike can be mentally taxing, to say the least.
We were at a rest stop on the side of I-95 somewhere north of Bangor; I loitered inside with Davis and a couple of tired-looking people in sweatshirts while my car steamed bitterly in the parking lot. Where we were, the highway was still hemmed in by pine forest for miles around; the landscape had not yet dropped off into the endless rolling fields of Aroostook County. Davis, a big and scruffy man in a sun-bleached baseball cap, on this particular day guiding a semi to a grocery store in Presque Isle, was clearly thrilled at the opportunity to talk at length about his job. He took large, noisy gulps of coffee in between offering imperative pearls of wisdom (“You’re not married, are you? Good, don’t, ever.”) and lengthy anecdotes drawn from his history both as a truck driver and as a human being, but eventually we returned to the subject of shipping to and from Aroostook. Driving to Maine’s far north is a real pain, he said, but since everything that isn’t a potato has to be brought up there for them, lots of rigs need to make that thankless trip every week.
I’d been operating according to some vague plan I’d made to drive all the way to the Canadian border on this trip, but casting an eye towards the parking lot, where my vehicle lay shuddering like a boxer on the ropes, I wondered if that might be pressing my luck. Unsure of what I actually hoped his answer would be, I meekly asked Davis if he’d let me ride this last leg, just up to P.I. and back with him. He sprayed me with a burst of laughter, said No Way, wiped his eyes, drained his coffee, explained something about liability, and finally said that honestly, I’d be bored out of my skull if I came with him, anyway. “It’s the middle of nowhere. There’s nothing to see up there but potato fields, kid.” He adjusted his cap. “What you’re doing even this far up seems crazy to me, anyway.”
The current transportation system of Aroostook County is gently described in the official literature of the Maine Department of Transportation as “inadequate.” Getting up there is just the first part of the problem; getting around within The County is another set of challenges entirely. Lonely blue highways spider out from Caribou and Presque Isle and probe into the fields and forests, small villages gathering at their edges every few dozen miles. These roads do not tend to be terribly well-maintained, but they usually provide the only links between communities up here; there’s very rarely more than one way to get somewhere.
Dave Ouellette, who works for Caribou’s Department of Public Works, is—not surprisingly—excited for the new bypass, primarily because “it’ll stop the eighteen-wheelers from chewing up Main Street.” As it is, even the most enormous logging truck coming down from New Sweden or Fort Kent must connect from ME-161 to US-1 by shuffling claustrophobically through downtown Caribou, brakes screaming and cargo shifting at every intersection. The bypass project will set up a controlled-access highway between these two roads, allowing traffic from the northwest to access US-1 without having to deal with any of that. The town will feel different, Ouellette says, when it stops being an obstacle and turns into more of a destination. By moving the trucks out, the bypass—he hopes—will move people in.
North of I-95, the most serious road in the area is certainly US-1, which connects the interstate to more or less all points north. If you’re driving up to the north of Aroostook from southern Maine, you arrive at the end of I-95, bear left, away from the customs station, and prepare yourself for a harrowing hour or two along two lanes that do not wind or roll but instead lay straight ahead for scores of miles without appreciable changes in scenery. The forested wilderness that had dominated your trip along the interstate has faded by now, and the landscape has blown wide open into endless expanses of potato fields. Mt. Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, looms to the distant south. This image—hills in the distance, fields up front—is more or less what you will be looking at until you get to Presque Isle and have to creep through its downtown before you can come out the other side and continue northward through more potato fields and distant hills. Speed limits click up and down, perhaps just to give drivers a series of events to look forward to. Sometimes a motorist will be caught, as I was, in a line of other cars—and remember this is the biggest road around up here—behind a farmer who’s nonchalantly driving an enragingly slow piece of farm equipment up the road into town. It’s rarely a relaxing drive, either: you stand a very good chance, especially in The County’s aggressive winters, of coming up against the sort of car-shaking winds that wide, flat spaces tend to produce.
Convinced of my own safety by the fact that my car’s noises seemed to be coming from all over the vehicle and therefore couldn’t represent one salient problem, I had decided without any qualms to make the turn at Houlton and proceed north. I had already driven a distance that, while not totally unreasonable, certainly seemed that way to a person whose concept of distance had been forged in a place like Massachusetts. Only now did I finally meet with a highway sign welcoming me to the largest and northernmost county in the state.
Complaining about great distances in New England seems silly in the context of some of the monumental achievements roads made in connecting this continent over the last century. When Horatio Nelson Jackson, a doctor from Vermont, undertook the first successful cross-country road trip in 1903, his route sent him through thousands of miles of trackless desert, mud, and alkali flats. (His co-pilot, a pit bull named Bud, was compelled to wear a special set of goggles to protect his eyes from the particles that were constantly being tossed up by this antagonistic landscape.)
Within a few decades, though, the first major roads—the Lincoln Highway, the Dixie Highway, and others—were draped across the country, throwing Americans’ sense of distance and time into a radical new perspective, more so even than the railroads had in the previous century. With the steadily growing and regularly improving network of links between towns, cites, states, and regions came opportunity. Anyone with a car had the agency to propel himself anywhere he pleased, at whatever speed he desired. The vast landscape of the country became manageable. To a person from Chicago, California no longer seemed so distant a universe; now it was another stop along an intelligible pathway.
These highways were expanded further and further until the primary system of cross-continental roads became the blue-shielded Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways we all know, love, and hate today. Its makers were surprised to find an early use pattern that in retrospect seems utterly predictable: people were mostly using the system to go in and out of cities. Couples in Los Angeles would drive to New Orleans for a vacation; Baltimoreans would take 95 down to Miami. No one was using them to get out to the empty places that had been so influential in forming American identity since the beginning. Further interstate construction would center around urban areas and lead to the suburbanization and sprawl that have largely characterized our development since then. Even cities would be compromised as bypasses and elevated expressways overtook downtowns and waterfronts, making it easier for drivers to move through and onward to some unidentified elsewhere, but giving them less reason to stop. We had become a people in motion.
All that did not do well for outlying rural places like Aroostook County. As the rest of the United States slowly banded together with a continuous river of asphalt, these regions on the margins of the country found themselves left out of the club, for better or for worse.
I eventually acceded to the plaintive whines of my car and turned around, opting to break down somewhere where a tow truck would conceivably be able to find me, rather than continuing farther and farther north. It would take the two of us the better part of the day to cough and clatter back home along the Maine Turnpike. This trip is faster going home. The highway gets swallowed up by forest again, the exit numbers grow closer together, the vehicles get smaller and less hardy. New Brunswick and Quebec license plates thin out and disappear, replaced by far more numerous representatives from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut. The farther south you go in Maine, the more people you find going in the same direction that you are.
My aunt and uncle lived in Presque Isle for a few years in the 80s, while my uncle was working as an athletic trainer for the University of Maine’s campus up there. “I’d spent a lot of time in Maine growing up, and I knew it was the largest New England state,” he said when I brought it up, “but I never realized how vast it was until I moved to The County.” The drive home to visit their families in southern New Hampshire was impossibly tedious, to the point where they’d find themselves looking forward to the occasional broccoli crop just because it looked different from a potato field. When I told them about the plans to update Aroostook’s transportation system, my uncle seemed surprised. “That’s great—that’ll reduce the travel time—but…” Here he sort of paused to work out how to say this. “No matter what they do, that will always be a remote area.”
It’s worth wondering how much closer a new and better highway would bring The County. Whether an improved road would be used by more people than the current one, or if it would just be there to make life easier for the people traveling in the area already. The most frequently cited argument against the efforts to strengthen the links between Aroostook and the rest of Maine seems to be that The County’s too far away and its people too few to justify the expense of a proper highway. It remains isolated precisely because it’s so far away, already so removed and separate in the minds of the people who might have the power to do something about it. Northern Maine will be the middle of nowhere to people like John Davis and the author of that Kennebec Journal headline until something happens to make it seem closer and more accessible. Unfortunately and paradoxically, it seems whatever that thing is—a new, better road, perhaps—it won’t happen until the people outside of The County begin to think of it as somewhere.
There’s another position here, too, which says that even in a theoretical situation where the state of Maine were to lay down a 19-lane superhighway between Houlton and Presque Isle, not very many more people would drive on it. This argument says that you can’t change make a remote area any less remote simply by clearing a path to it. It’s not that Aroostook is nowhere; it’s just a somewhere that happens to be extremely far from where most people live. This all takes place in a state, don’t forget, that has gotten a tremendous amount of folksy mileage from the phrase “you can’t get there from here.”
For reasons that may be beyond the influence of any road’s carrying capacity, isolation is part of the inchoate character of this region—recall that an Aroostook resident, no matter how few stop lights there are along the way, still must drive some 160 miles in order to go to a shopping mall—and as my uncle suggested, there might not be much that a wider highway can do to change that. I didn’t turn around because I was tired of following a tractor; I turned around because it was getting late and there had grown to be hundreds of miles between me and anybody I knew.
When I first turned back up near Presque Isle, the road was pretty desolate—only an old man on a tractor had watched with stoic interest as I lurchingly executed a three-point turn across the empty highway—but by the time I neared the New Hampshire tolls several hours later, the turnpike had given way to a choking sea of bumper-to-bumper traffic. In the northbound lanes to my left, a considerably gentler stream of cars was gliding up to where many of them would exit for Portland, for the coast, for Augusta or Bangor; a lonely few might even have been going to Fort Kent or Caribou. Back on my side, though, we staggered slowly ahead through the traffic jam, vehicles of all sizes, stripes, and origins, none of us looking back, all of us flooding south.