Thursday, September 29, 2011

A place to call my own

Ok, let's get one thing out of the way real quick: I have pictures but I brought the wrong cord so I can't upload them yet. I will have the pictures up by late tomorrow. In the meantime I will entertain you with another post.

I had a meeting at UMM at 12 so I decided to get up early and spend the first part of the day walking the town. I got up around seven and went to the restaurant next to the hotel where I had really good blueberry pancakes while listening to a very ignorant conversation in the booth next to mine about "gangs of blacks". It was weird cause the the whole thing got started when the woman in the booth was explaining the the man she was eating with that some person who had done something either criminal or maybe just annoying to her was not black at all, but some white guy. Somehow the conversation degenerated into a diatribe about folks of African descent gathering together for nefarious purposes. This didn't exactly endear me to the towns people but two things to keep in mind; 1) These folks may not have been from Machias at all and were just guests in the hotel like me and 2) Many Machians, especially natives, probably haven't had many experiences with blacks outside of episodes of Law and Order so the idea of gangs of them roaming the streets in cities causing trouble may be something of a natural progression. I tried to take it as an isolated incident and shrugged it off, instead concentrating on the walk I was about to take.

The Downeast Sunrise Trail, a multi-use trail (read: ATVs and snowmobiles as well as hikers and bikers) that runs all along the coast of Maine had a trailhead right across the street from my hotel, so I skipped across the highway and headed towards the city. The trail ran right along the backyards of the people living on the outskirts of Machias, and even, sometimes, exited right into them. There are no fences in Machias so after walking for a time I picked a yard I felt would lead me right into the heart of town and moved on to my next point of business; finding a place to live.

The houses there vary in size and age. You could be living in an early 19th century farmhouse and your neighbor can be in 2008 modular crap house, but most of the buildings fit into the old category. A lot of them are big too, and most of them are in pretty good shape. The surprising thing was how many were for sale. Every other house seemed to be on the market. The city itself didn't seem to be in any dire straights, I was seeing help wanted signs on businesses and there were a lot of new businesses in town. Also, as I said, the houses were in good shape. Driving back today, in the daylight, I could see that there were a lot of abandoned houses that were rotting away on the side of the road. Good houses too, or at least, they used to be. These houses, though some were empty, were still well taken care of, probably a difficult job due to the weather in Maine.

Despite all the houses for sale I wasn't finding anything for rent so I decided to go find some shops where there might be some postings. I knew there was a natural foods store in the center of town with an apartment for rent above it. I had sent them an email but in their ad they had only mentioned small pets and I thought maybe my dog, Hastur, was too big for them and that's why I hadn't heard back. But, I thought, it might be a place where roommates and apartments are posted, so I headed towards it. When I got there I found the shop didn't open for another 25 minutes give or take, so I decided to head towards the school. I knew from earlier research there was a bookstore nearby, another place where rooms could be advertised, and the school too might be a good place, so I headed in what I believed was the direction of the school. Instead, it turned out, I was going the exact opposite way, and ended up at some kind of blueberry processing plant.

By the way, I have a bone to pick with Maine. Everything there has some kind of blueberry theme, even the water tastes vaguely like blueberries, but I never once saw a wild blueberry. I saw about a thousand apple trees, and some really bright red berries about the size and shape of a marble which I was tempted to try in the absence of blueberries, but decided I wasn't nearly stupid enough to go through with that plan (a quick googling of "red berries maine" leads me to believe they were chokeberries).

Anyway, realizing that I was walking my way out of civilization I went back and decided to hit the health food store. I'm glad I did because it turns out the woman who runs the health food store also owned the building and was the one renting the space. Turns out she was more then happy to have Hastur there, and was a dog lover herself. The building itself is a three story building, with one of the stories being a sort of basement (it opens out the back). The building foundation is old, dating back to the 18th century, but the building itself was rebuilt in the 20s after a fire. It is right above the river in the center of town, one of the apartments has a view right across the river, the one I liked looked into the main square of the town. So, that's where I'll be living, above a health food store, antique store, and television station, with a 19th century laundromat on the other side of the building and an 18th century tavern/museum two doors down.

So, after talking to the woman at the grocery and taking a tour of the apartments I figured it was time to get to the school, except that I checked at it wasn't even eleven. I could either go back to the hotel, which wasn't a horrible idea cause the town is very hilly and I was carrying a heavy back, plus I wanted to fill out the application for my apartment. But I also wanted to actually find my way to the school, which I can also see from my building.

So I went off, this time in the right direction, and quickly found the bookstore. It was in a bright purple house tucked away behind a little gift shop that also sold live lobster. This place (the bookstore) was my strongest introduction to small town Maine. The house advertised "Books, Antiques, Cafe" but I was unsure what to expect because the place was quite small. I walked up to the door which carried a sign saying "Come on in:)" and found myself entering what would have just been somebody's kitchen if it wasn't for two hastily erected counters turning it into a makeshift cafe. A small sign on the front counter read "Be back soon, please browse".

"Ok," I thought, "She's around back somewhere, or upstairs or something." (I had a hunch the proprietor was a woman). So, as the sign suggested, I browsed. The place was insane. Like I said, it was a house, but someone had tried to turn it into a kind of cozy cafe. There were old seats and tables strewn about corners trying to find room between the stacks of books that sat everywhere. It was hard to decide exactly what the plan of this place was. I looked around for a bit, wanting to take pictures but not wanting to do so without permission, when the owner drove up. She hadn't been just outside or in another part of the house, she had completely left the premises.

After startling her in the kitchen we spoke for a bit. She was as eccentric as I would have expected and told me all kinds of things as she led me through her house. She took me upstairs where there was further clutter, each room full to the brim with books and furniture, and whose floorboards may have predated Maine's becoming a state, and then back downstairs for more conversations about winter and books and what it means to live in Maine. I got my pictures.

I had more time still so I headed over to the large grocery store, Hannafords, a New England chain, and popped in to see what they had to offer. My first stop was the produce section where I was relieved of my greatest fear; they had chiles, they had habeneros. I then toured the rest of the store, it was pretty common fair actually, though there was an unsettling Red Sox theme to many of the items. They even had Cotswold cheese. So between Hannaford's, the health food store under my feet, and the hardware store which apparently carries the best spices in town (!?) I should be able to eat pretty much like I've been accustomed too. Only difference is that I'll have to make it myself.

This will be a split post. Tomorrow I will finish with visiting the school and the drive back in the daytime, as well as uploading my pictures of Machias.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Road to nowhere

I just flew in from Sacramento and boy are my arms tired. And my legs. And my ass. And my eyes. Damn that was a long drive.

I flew into Manchester, New Hampshire because  it was the most direct flight I thought I could get. Portland does have an airport but to fly there would require a huge layover in Boston, and since Manchester is about an hour and a half from Portland I figured it wouldn't be much of a big deal. After discovering that my GPS had been set on "tour of Maine Backroads" it sorta became one.

Over five hours of driving through a piece of land I am very unfamiliar with. After getting tickets to Manchester I realized I could have flown in to St John, New Brunswick and then driven a coupla hours to Machias. Lesson learned. But I suggest to you, my readers, should you ever come to visit me (and you're all invited of course), take the Manchester route, and I'll let my story tell you why.

It's hard to pick what the highlight of the trip was. Maybe it was the really awesome Portland radio station I discovered that didn't even make it to Bangor. Or possibly it was hearing my GPS say "stay on this foad for 44 miles" right as I was passing a sign that said "25 Miles Per Hour". Or maybe it was the signs Maine puts up letting you know when you enter a town that started saying "TWP 22" which I'm fairly sure meant "Township 22". They couldn't even be bothered to name them.

Well, let's start at the beginning with a quick lesson. As the drive began I was desperate for a companion. At first so there'd be someone to take pictures of the very attractive and unique roadside. But as it (quickly) got dark, what I really needed one for was to make some noise. If any of you are planning on taking what amounts to a road trip through a strange and new land, take some bloody cds. I was lucky to find a station that played really good music, much of it I'd never even heard of before, all of the rest of the stations were playing either country or gospel except for two that were both playing the exact same young adult radio drama.

But lack of a partner wasn't my only misstep. I had anticipated a great deal of two lane road driving. I'm well aware that Machias is in the middle of nowhere in the middle of nowhere, so I knew there'd be a lot of times when there'd be no freeway in sight. I figured I was prepared given that I've driven my share of backwoods roads in California and recently in Montana. Actually, I spent quite a bit more time on freeways then I expected, and was pleasantly surprised to find Maine freeways well maintained and marked. How well marked you ask? Well, as I was driving I encountered a large, easy to read sign which read, "University of Me. Machias / Use Exit 182-A". Which was really great cause I had just passed exit 106. Yeah, that's right, Maine gave me an 80 mile head start on my exit. The best part was not a single subsequent sign ever mentioned the university! Even once I got into town there was nary a peep about the school that I was so graciously warned about more then two hours from it.

But the tiny roads did come and it turns out I was about as prepared for it as a school child in the sixties was for nuclear war. I admit the duck and cover method is an attractive one, and one I considered when faced with the unrelenting horror that is the New England woods, but it wouldn't have done me any good.

There are two things you have to understand about Maine that I was unaware of. First, it is supernaturally dark at night. Apparently Maine isn't too keen on putting up street lamps, which is fine, but it's dark beyond that. Driving down an empty street with my brights on I still couldn't see anything but the asphalt in front of me and the tiniest sliver of what was on the side of the road. It was unlike anything I've ever experienced before. To compound it there is nobody anywhere. I passed houses quite often but there was something about them that made them seem abandoned, and not like they were rotting husks, but like they were abandoned right before I encountered them, like everyone was raptured but me. You go miles and miles without seeing any cars, and the signs and telephone poles don't do enough to distract you from the overpowering presence of the trees.

There is a reason all the best horror stories come out of New England. There is something primal and paranoia inducing about the woods here. It's not just the loneliness, there is something imposing about the environment, something that induces a flight or fight response that I've never experienced before. This isn't the kind of packaged fear you get from a roller coaster or horror film, there's something legitimate about it that you don't get from fiction. When faced with real problem problem, even a fatal one, there is some confidence gained in the fact that it will end, whatever the result. You can resign yourself to say "Whoops, shouldn't have confronted the gun wielding maniac, but at least I'm dead and it's over now", but these woods don't let you think that. They convince you that you're never getting out, you'll never reach your destination, you'll just drive forever and each time your GPS tells you to make a turn it will instruct you again to drive a huge distance at a slow speed.

It was primal in a way that struck at the very core of me. There were many times that I was tempted to turn around, get back to civilization, eat at a McDonald's just to get the taste of raw nature out of my mouth. It's not for the weak willed, that's for sure, and that's exactly why I want everyone to do it. Having defeated the woods I feel a sense of calm now that is very satisfying. Like Perseus having slain the titan the only thing I have to do now is relax, I've already beaten my foe, now I can take a moment to bask.

In the meantime, Machias is really nice. It's a genuine oasis in these woods, a patch of humanity in a place that really doesn't seem to want it. I can see a lot of potential for me here. Tomorrow I'll see the school and have some pictures to share with you guys.

(Next time: Seeing the school and getting into the book lab. Pictures)

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Coming out as a student

I have this psychological thing that makes me wary of talking to people about plans and projects I have until they are definite. I guess I just don't like to hear what people think about what I'm doing unless I'm actually doing it. It's like, why would someone be excited about me going to school in Maine when I'm not yet going to school in Maine. Due to that particular part of my nature it took me months to tell anyone I was applying for school.

I'll be honest, I wasn't too confident I would actually be going. For one, my school record is pretty depressing, and also because I have spent the last ten years trying to go to school in California. As some of you are aware, California schools seem like they are instructed to never accept anyone under any circumstances. In the past when I've actually had good grades and been optimistic about school there was nothing quite like applying to Sac State to really destroy my hopes and dreams. At one time I applied to UC Davis and got a surprising amount of optimism from the admittance counselor to the extent of actually being told I was accepted by her and invited to new student orientation. Two days after I attended orientation I got a letter from UCD telling me I had been rejected. One of my worst moments and last time, I thought, I would ever apply to school.

Why and how I applied to Maine is no matter accept to say that it was kinda an accident and though I knew it wasn't the most picky school system I was still fairly sure I would be rejected. I didn't want to say to people "Hey! I'm going to school in Maine!... nevermind" so I kept it too myself. I realized I had to tell someone, if nothing more then to have someone say "I told you so" should I get in, or "We still believe in you" should I not. The two big ones, my parents and my roommates, I left in the dark the longest.

The thing is my parents have heard enough about me applying to school and being rejected and I really wasn't thrilled at trying to explain to them exactly what I was doing anyway. I wanted to make sure there was no going back before I told my mother, and as for my father I probably would have preferred to wait until I graduated to tell him because I knew he'd want an explanation and a solid plan and I had neither. All I knew is there was a program I liked and I needed to be someplace other then Sacramento.

My reason from keeping it from my roommates was more practical. I didn't want to say to tell them I might be moving when I might not be moving after all. There's really no reason for it. If i get in I hoped I knew soon enough to give a proper 30 days, if I didn't get in ignorance would have been bliss.

In the end my mother found out earlier then I wanted. How I don't remember, but I do remember I wanted her to understand that I had some semblance of a plan, I wasn't just collecting bed sores in front of the TV. She told my Dad and it sorta steamrolled through the rest of my immediate family. My roommates, for the most part, I managed to keep in the dark until the very end. In fact, when I was accepted to the University of Southern Maine, my back-up school, my good friend and roommate Greg was in Oregon so he didn't even hear about in until two days later.

So now step one is complete, I'm in, somehow, and I'm leaving in October. Step two is getting all my shit in boxes, and let me tell you, that is a whole lotta shit. I remember moving from my last place in East Sac to the house I'm currently at as a difficult one, but I didn't have much lead time. This one seems to be going smoother. I think part of it is that I'm far more willing to actually get rid of a lot of my goods. This isn't a simple move across town, I'm moving all the way across the country! I have to prioritize, and that means leaving behind all the little pieces of nothing I never pay attention to. Despite my tendency to collect (it's not a hoard) I haven't had much difficulty parting with my things... except for my books.

I limited myself to 20 fiction books, 20 non-fiction books, and 20 pocket books, and that's on top of a whole box of reference books I'm sure to need. I couldn't even keep the count down to 60. I boxed all the books I was taking first so that I could then just quickly put the rest in boxes to be stored, but as I was going through I kept finding more and more books I wanted with me. Most I was able to put aside anyway, but a few, less then a box so far, I couldn't let go of. What am I gonna do? I know I'm going to want these books but I also know space and time are at a premium. Well, I'm taking two bookcases with me and I know that even with the added books I won't fill them both so I guess I'll just take them.

With my time in Sacramento coming to an end, I'm not just worried about boxing my stuff, I'm also interested if fulfilling some goals I've never accomplished. The main one is eating at Frank Fat's. For those of you unfamiliar with Frank Fat's, it's a Chinese restaurant downtown that, from the outside, looks exactly like some 1930s gangster club. Think the beginning of Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom. I hear inside is nothing like that, but it's been a dream of mine since I first moved here. The rest of my "To do" list is pretty much all restaurant based. What can I say, I love food and small-town-Maine isn't exactly the best place for Moroccan, Ethiopian, or even Mexican, so I hope to get my fill of ethnic foods before I go. I'm really gonna miss all that.

(Next time: My first visit. Thoughts on the campus. Finding a place to live.)

Friday, September 23, 2011

A new, and brief, beginning.

My readers will, for the most part, know me well enough to forgo an introduction, but for those who stumble upon this blog, or anyone who may know my plans, but not my thoughts, here is the short version of my story.

As of the writing of this post I am living in Sacramento, California, a city of about 480,000 where 100° days in summer are common enough for 90° days to be considered cool. Somehow I find myself on the verge of moving Machias, a small town (2200) in Eastern Maine (how east? you might ask, it's practically in Canada), to go to school for Book Arts.

It would be fair to ask, "Dan, what the fuck are you thinking?" to which I would say; thinking played very little part in it. It may sound odd, but at 31, I don't have the luxury of thinking. I was sure that any school opportunities I'd ever have, if any, were long past, so when I found the Book Arts program, something that was practically built with me in mind, I didn't have much confidence that I could do anything but apply. Today I got the call; I'm in! I'm moving to Maine! What the fuck am I thinking!?

How can a city boy from California survive in snowy Maine? That's a damn good question, and the answers will surely come as this blog evolves. In the meantime you can enjoy my moving foibles, from putting things in incorrect boxes to frustrating the hell out of the people trying to help me move to trying to drive an edgy dog all the way across the country, and once I'm there the comedy will only increase I'm sure. Who knows, maybe I'll try to take up canning.

(Coming next time:Telling my friends and family. Where did all these books come from? My Sacramento bucket list.)