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.