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)


  1. I can't believe you didn't take any audiobooks or anything. Those things are invaluable on long drives, especially ones with distinct voices, like David Sedaris or something. Make you feel a lot less alone. Anyway, I'll look forward to the pictures!

  2. Um, wow. Now I get why Stephen King sets his horror stories in New England.

  3. Down here in Yarmouth it is much lighter. Of course up in Machias they feel that Yarmouth is ALMOST Maine. Have a great drive. PS,You fly into BOS, then yuo get the bus from the airport to Portland and it is fast. The PWM Portland Jetport is hoping to expand we're supposed to get Southwest soon. Woo Hoo! And, about the best you will do in Machias is Chinese I bet.
    Friend of your Mom STeph