Going Somewhere

by on July 10, 2012

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Essays Issue 3 Nonfiction
Going Somewhere

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.

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Responses to Going Somewhere

2 responses

A highly enjoyable and educational read. Great construction and research. The pace matched the narrative which, in turn, expertly bolstered the subject matter. And the issue of linking psychical spaces feels so vital right now. As the internet continually connects vast swathes of people, the rurally disadvantaged seem to be left behind, in our thoughts and concerns. Acknowledging this and engaging with their plight, even while not exactly completing the journey or finding a perfect solution to their problems, is an honorable task. Thanks for bringing me along.

posted by JL      July 18th, 2012 at 4:08 pm

As a (southern) Maine-iac living in California for many years, I found this piece thoroughly engaging. Because of freeways, California, even with 4 1/2 times the area of Maine, is (geographically) much less of a mystery me than Maine. There are many Maines–southern and northern, coastal and inland and they are very different worlds.

posted by catherine      July 19th, 2012 at 4:21 pm

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