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.