22 February 2015

Maine - Tell me about that.

While trading email with a friend now living in Las Vegas, he wrote: "Maine. Tell me about that." Okay. Take a ride with me up the Atlantic Highway to mid-coast ME.

We're living in Belfast, a coastal town with much of what one might imagine for a New England coastal town: schooners, lobster boats, tourists. In Waldo County, one of Maine's 23 counties, Belfast Bay is within Penobscot Bay, itself within the Gulf of Maine, and protected from the pounding surf by Deer Island, Vinylhaven and many smaller islands. The towns of Rockland, Camden, Lincolnville, and Belfast make up most of what's considered the mid-coast region. Portland, the state's biggest city at just over 66,300, is south and west while the sublime grandeur of Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park are just east.

The peninsula of northern New England is bordered by New Hampshire to the west and Quebec and New Brunswick, Canada, to the northwest and northeast, respectively. The Atlantic Ocean rolls to the south. The Appalachian Trail begins in west-central Maine, at Mt. Katahdin. About 1.33 million people call Maine home. Most of those people are older than the national average, many don't like us folks who move here "from away." Many are welcoming and friendly.

I arrived in late August for a position at Unity College. The previous July we (wife, child and I) visited for the first time together. The summer vibrancy of Belfast attracted us with its independent bookstores, classic old movie theater, working lobster docks and a rejuvenated ship-building yard. The true Main Street appeal was and is very charming. A small town of not quite 7,000, Belfast has relatively good schools and at least one watering hole that tolerated what emerged as a strong Green Bay Packers bar.

There is a surprisingly strong Wisconsin contingent out here. Among other points of contact, there are nearly a dozen professors of various rank at Unity College who either graduated or taught at UW-Madison. A dozen may not sound like a lot but, as a micro-college (less than 1,000 students) this dozen represents nearly a third of the entire Unity faculty body. Coming from the 40,000-student milieu of UW, the adjustment has been both refreshing and somewhat challenging - but all for the better. It's a good place to be right now.

Getting to work, I drive west from Belfast on 20+ miles of a snake trail that is State Highway 137. At Knox Ridge, I turn north on Hwy 220 towards the town of Unity. Roadkill porcupine were very common in the fall - than I ever thought there could be roadkill porcupine. Like raccoon in the Midwest. Crows are everywhere out here, too. And seagulls. Lately, near Knox Ridge, I've been seeing a few Bald Eagles and at least one osprey. A flock of wild turkeys is not uncommon, scratching around the fallow organic veggie fields common in Waldo County.

This area was a hotbed of the Back to the Land movement of the 1960s - 70s. A renaissance, it seems, is taking place. Younger farmers and ag-industry workers are plentiful. Some have moved up from New York and Boston and, while these trust-fund kids may make nice mainstream media stories, they are not the norm.

Winter. Old Man Winter is a jerk. Most people seem to rely on plow service for snow removal - even for a small driveway. If it snows 8 inches overnight in the Upper Midwest, one can expect to hear a solid handful of snow-blowers out and running by early the next morning. Here, I am the only one. Also, sidewalks. People do not seem all that concerned with clearing sidewalks. Comparisons aside, this winter would be a challenge anywhere. With about 55 inches of snow in three weeks of late January and early February -- and a good 12 to 16 inches since then -- we ran out of places to put snow several weeks ago. Boston, about three hours south, has been hit even harder.

Photo by James T. Spartz (@jtspartz) on

We are settling in. The young miss is in school and making friends. My second semester of professorship is going pretty well. The good wife is looking for work after having finished up a lingering project from UW. We're in a rental house that is a little tight yet adequate enough for the time being. We are definitely looking forward to summer. Spring will be nice, too. They just call it "mud season" up here though, so some new muck boots might be in order.

So, Maine. Yeah. It's okay. My excitement will likely be a little stronger come summer but, for now, yeah, it's okay. Now, tell me about Las Vegas...