Gray Highway: Cruising Maine's Cultural Chasm
How better to kill an hour or two at this ghastly time of year, when the landscape has taken on the colors of a road-killed squirrel, than to hop in the car and head out for the hinterlands?
Today we'll embark on a virtual journey up a rural byway that I first came to know vicariously through a column in the Camden Herald called "Route 52." This long-running feature was penned by an old-hippie journalist named Doug Hufnagel — way too laid-back to be termed "gonzo" — who entertained the local masses with his leftist screeds and the occasional flash of R. Crumb-ish humor. A devoted reader once wrote to the paper to complain that Doug was getting a little, quote unquote, hysterical. That's fair, I thought. And so it's only fitting that we begin our journey in the town that finally decided "Route 52" was unfit to print: 100% safe and photo-friendly Camden.
Route 52 begins at a former Methodist church, converted in the 80s into luxury town homes and now calling itself The Steeples. We need not tarry here to engage in metaphorical thought. We'll cruise at strictly legal speed to the outskirts of town, passing a world-class cemetery and a working farm and a scary cliff-face and a scenic lake. It's all quite lovely. We stifle a yawn.
At last we reach mile point 3.7, the Lincolnville town line, and things start to get interesting. Slow down now. On your left, practically hanging over the lake, is the funky cottage of a white-bearded biker named John Gilbert. And on your right, clinging to the mountainside — you really have to stop to dig this — is the world's smallest masterpiece of Modernist architecture: a "kit of parts" house designed by Lester Walker, luminary New York architect and author of the delightful Tiny Book of Tiny Houses.
And by the way, welcome to Lincolnville, my home town. We were horrified, a few years back, to be named one of the "Best American Dream Towns" by Outside magazine. Thankfully nothing came of it.
Now please observe a moment of reverent silence as you pass mile point 4.4, once known as the Grooveyard, home of the late rock critic Charlie Oldham. Charlie O was, not to put too fine a point on it, a former junkie who scored an epochal 1969 interview with Little Richard for a Texas music journal in which the legendary singer declared himself to be "the hardest-working sissy in rock-and-roll." In the 90s Charlie moved to Maine with a ruined liver, ran off with the wife of a local Baptist preacher, and began hosting a Saturday-afternoon radio show (his fragile health did not allow him to work at night) on WERU, an ideologically impeccable community-radio station whose listeners regularly called to complain about his on-air excesses. He had a good 10-year run up here, but didn't survive an attempted liver transplant. The house is nothing to speak of.
Mile point 5.8 is known around here as Death Valley. It consists of one cosmically terrible dip in the road, caused by frost-heave and evidently unrepairable. Locals swear it was written up in The New York Times, perhaps as a shocking example of America's crumbling infrastructure. I can't find a trace of this.
At mile point 6.2 we arrive at Drake's Corner Market, the village watering-hole par excellence. Worth a stop for coffee and local color if you can squeeze between the pickup trucks in the parking lot.
From mile point 6.7 onward, we penetrate Lincolnville Center, the village proper. Here we might pause to admire the bandstand in Breezemere Park. I don't know how or why Lincolnville has a working town band — drums and tubas, the whole nine yards — but we do, and this is where they play.
The village is home to our wunderkind State Rep, young Andrew O'Brien, and his Taiwanese bride Hanji, as well as a pair of next-door-neighbor writers, cult novelist Elizabeth Hand and bestselling memoirist Kate Braestrup. One of these is thought to be the mother of two of my children. We pass a picturesquely defunct general store and a grand old house tastefully converted to slum apartments — at which point we hang a sharp right and head up toward Belfast.
Alone and seemingly forlorn at mile point 7.9 is the Tranquility Grange. Appearances are somewhat deceiving; the Grange is a lively little concern, well-maintained and still a regular venue for bean suppers, musical evenings, and various hometown doings. There is something about this place that I find at once charming and strangely unsettling. I suppose it's irrational. It's like an artifact of some unexpectedly extant rural culture from which I will always feel alienated. And our journey has barely begun getting weird.
Mile point 8.3 brings us to Dead Man's Curve — a scenic place to shuck off the mortal coil, all things considered, though the DOT has done a fair job of smoothing and banking and otherwise lessening the risk.
Mile point 9.1 was for many years a flash-point of the Culture War. Here progressive educator Emanuel Pariser, founder of the Community School in Camden and father of Eli, the grand poobah of MoveOn.org, lived in a shingled cottage cheek-by-jowl with a gentleman in a mobile home with a barn-like garage and diametric political views. The respective signage at these neighboring residences was always entertaining, but hardly a patch on the blazing patriotic splendor that frequently greets us at mile point 9.1, the intersection of lamentably named Slab City Road, where a concerned citizen is opposed to almost everything and eager to let us know about it. Nothing much happening there this morning.
At mile point 9.7 we gaze in wonder at Dukey's Folly, a windmill rigged to generate electricity that caused "a bit of a kerfluffle," says town historian Diane O'Brien, (Andrew's mom, FWIW), when it was erected in the 80s by a local fellow of considerable prominence and eccentricity. Without asking anyone, it seems, he dug up the state road to run his wire underneath. Everyone thought he was crazy, and not a little arrogant. Probably they were right — but there it stands, still cranking out the kilowatts, a spiny and rather graceful monument to one man's singular prescience.
There's a palpable wildness about this place — scarcely twenty minutes out of Camden! — in both its human and natural aspects. And so it's entirely fitting that at mile point 10.5 we reach the Ducktrap River Preserve, a remarkable patchwork of formerly private landholdings pieced together over the past couple decades by the Coastal Mountains Land Trust to protect one of the continent's last remaining wild Atlantic salmon runs. Route 52 slashes right through the middle of this sanctuary, with roughly 500 acres of conservation land on each side. There are trails. There is unique natural splendor. We make a note to come back here someday.
At mile point 11.9 we have run right through Lincolnville and reached the Northport town line. It's a good place to pause, for the next phase of our journey will be a strange trip indeed: the Road of Missing Persons, the Weed-Whacked Labyrinth, a one-stop shop for all your pot-growing and skin-showing magazine needs, and much, much more.