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.