An age-old affinity with the ocean is still strong behind the tourist traps


May 05, 1991|By Christopher Corbett | Christopher Corbett,Universal Press Syndicate

The writer E. B. White, who spent nearly half a century on a saltwater farm on the Maine coast, once observed that if you didn't learn anything else driving into the Pine Tree State along U.S. 1, you'd certainly learn how to spell the word "moccasin."

Maine's main drag, U.S. Route 1, or just Route 1, as the natives call it, is the major artery for the state's torrent of summer tourists, the road to Vacationland, the state's official nickname.

From near the old sardine cannery town of Eastport, the first place in the nation to see the sunrise, to southernmost Kittery, where Maine gets mixed up with the rest of the country, Route 1 winds drunkenly along 300 miles of crenulated coastline. It runs literally down the main street of many of Maine's oldest coastal towns and villages, passing everything that is Maine, sacred and profane.

Along its two-lane blacktop course is strung a carnival collection of fast-food outlets, fly-by-night franchises, discount clothing stores, "KOZY KABINS," lobster pounds, flea markets and a thousand and one pitchmen hawking everything from old lobster pots to live bait to lawn ornaments or "genuine" antiques and oil paintings of Madonna or Mount Rushmore on black velvet. You'll also have a hundred and one opportunities to buy "ALL THE FRIED CLAMS U CAN EAT."

Even if Route 1 looms like an obstacle course of all that is tacky, it also meanders across mile upon winding mile of fields rolling down to the tidal rivers and mud flats and the weathered, whitewashed clapboard homes of the true Yankees. Arching the wide and tidal Sheepscot River in the old seaport town of Wiscasset, it passes the rotting wrecks of the old sloops Hester and Luther Little, reminders of Maine's centuries-old link to the sea.

And so the trip Down East (an old sailing term: ships sailed east before the wind from Boston to Maine) is worth the side show. This is the road to an older Maine, the Maine of summers past preserved especially on the state's dozens of offshore islands, a world only a short ferry ride or a century removed from the bump and grind of the coast road, summers sprung to life out of the paintings of the Wyeths, Winslow Homer or Fairfield Porter.

The old coast road reminds you that Maine always has suffered an identity crisis when it comes to being the nation's Vacationland (the slogan adorns Maine license plates). Having officially proclaimed itself the land of the vacation, Maine also must reconcile the sentiments of most of its residents who have decidedly less enthusiastic views of vacationers.

The tiny villages that dot the peninsulas leading down to the sea are proof enough of how different rural Maine remains. Escape the crowded coast road and you'll find an older and simpler Maine in these real working fishing towns built around a busy waterfront, with a general store, a Grange Hall and the spire of a 250-year-old Congregational Church pointing heavenward surrounded by an ancient burial ground of slate and granite markers dating from Colonial times. There's plenty of real Maine in these towns, at the Saturday night baked-bean suppers in the Odd Fellows Hall or the Sunday morning blueberry-pancake breakfasts at the Knights of Pythias lodge.

It is along the side roads that summer visitors will encounter the Yankee. (Tourism has become such an industry in Maine that the locals' pickup trucks sport bumper stickers proclaiming "native.") The Maine Yankee is a laconic soul, bemused, taciturn and not easily impressed. There may be fewer natives about, but they may still be found. They are legendarily men and women of few words, whose essence is contained in the time-honored yarns, told to illustrate the temperament of the country folk.

Tourists and newcomers may affect the dress of the Yankee -- even preposterously sporting oilskins (the sartorial equivalent of the lobster trap coffee table), overalls with red suspenders, black-and-red checked woolen shirts or even black rubber high-water boots. You can dress up like this -- as if you were going to a costume party -- and many do. But it is harder to mimic the speech of the native. A dry, slow, flat drawl that betrays little or no emotion, it seems almost designed for putting on visitors from the Big City and is perfect for the delivery of the ancient punch line of that venerable lost-tourist story: "You can't get there from here." In Maine that's pronounced "You caaaan't git theeeyah frum heeeyah." (Say it very slowly.)

Good Yankee talkers may be heard just off Route 1, about two-thirds of the way down the coast on Mount Desert Island, home of Acadia National Park and the former turn-of-the-century blue blood resort of Bar Harbor. This is the quintessential Vacationland where the real Maine and the made-for-export Maine collide.

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