ON THE ROAD AGAINA moment of Zen on the daily commute.
As we sat in the southbound lane of Route 1 the other evening, inching our way toward Wiscasset, we were struck by the realization that in Maine, even the traffic jams aren't so bad. Before you choke on your coffee, rest assured that we know from traffic jams. We've endured sweltering temps without benefit of air conditioning on I-40 in Knoxville, hours of stop-and-go traffic around Gary, Indiana, an inexplicable late-night backup on the 405 on the way to catch a red-eye from LAX, and the frustration of every trip ever taken on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, so road rage is not unfamiliar to us.
Perhaps we were feeling uncharacteristically serene the other night even as we watched the minutes disappear and, along with them, any hope of arriving home on time. Maybe it was the iPod serendipitously shuffling up a particularly calming mix of music. But with the windows down, we could actually breathe in the pungent scent of the pines along the road. And as we pondered the significance of the license plate on the Mercedes SUV in front of us (too many numbers to make up funny acronyms, unfortunately), we swear our blood pressure actually improved.
The late afternoon sun filtered through hazy clouds, casting a soft light on the less-than-lovely roadside attractions. As we rounded the bend and saw the Sheepscot River open up amid a sea of brake lights, we caught a whiff of pleasantly salty air. The church spires of Wiscasset poked up from a canopy of green; kayakers paddled off in the distance. Traveling at just a few miles per hour, we could take it all in.
Arm dangling out the driver's side window, we crept across the bridge, past Red's Eats (no line!), and up the hill by the courthouse. The traffic eased, we hit the gas, and away we went, no worse for the wear than if we'd been parked in a beach chair enjoying the end of the day.
COUNTRY STORE MUSICKeepin' it real at the Friday Night Jam.
Monson may not look like much to travelers who pass through on their way to Greenville and Moosehead Lake, but on Friday nights the small town on Route 6 is one happenin' place. Summer and winter, the Monson General Store hosts the Friday Night Jam, when local musicians gather for some light-hearted but seriously good music making.
"We've had anywhere from six to twenty-six people show up with instruments," explains Tim Anderson, who owns the store with his wife, Julie. Audience members arrange themselves as best they can among the folding chairs set up in the grocery aisles (Anderson confirms that the best seats are in the bread aisle) and leaning against the milk coolers. When the pickin' and grinnin' begins, the whole store vibrates. "It's pretty neat to see that there's still some down-home community left in the world," Anderson observes.
The jams started as a private get-together guitar player Anderson had with some friends at the end of ice-fishing season, the annual Fabulous Final Fish Out Finale, at a camp on Lake Hebron. "One night, about two years ago, we just happened to bring it here to the store," he recalls. "I'd invited some yahoo who played dobro and another guy who played harmonica, and it just took off."
Regulars range from an eighty-three-year-old fiddle player to a twenty-seven year-old guitarist to a violinist who retired from the Boston Symphony. "The talent that lives around here is just amazing," Anderson says. The music they play has a similar range. "Folk, bluegrass, country, gospel, even a little sixties rock 'n' roll," Anderson says. "We don't tend toward much Black Sabbath, though. Nothing electric."
The jam has gone on the road a couple of times, such as for a fund-raiser in Willimantic, but Anderson says most participants prefer the intimacy and casualness of gathering around the front of a general store in the middle of the Maine woods. "We've been asked to move to the auditorium in Dover-Foxcroft," he notes. "I think taking this out of its original context takes away from it, though. We do this to have fun, and I don't want to take the fun out of it. Being here in the general store in Monson, this keeps it real."
KITCHEN TABLE SCIENCEHave space glove, will travel.
Strange as it might sound, a Southwest Harbor man working at his kitchen table will likely have a hand — literally — in developing the next generation of spacesuits. Peter Homer, a former aerospace engineer, recently won a competition organized by the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) to develop a new glove for the spacesuits worn by astronauts and other space travelers.
Homer, 45, first read about the contest on the Internet, and he attended the competition's kick-off meeting in Connecticut last year. NASA's astronauts have long complained that the current gloves are difficult to use for long periods of time. Homer says he thought about the problem for quite a while before starting to make models — "and I built a lot of models before I got it right."
Homer says he started with the fingers, "because I determined that making the fingers flex properly was the key." Using materials he bought over the Internet and at Home Depot and metal pieces he crafted himself, he built several dozen fingers before finding one he liked. Then he moved on to the hand.
NASA plans two more competitions, each at increasing levels of difficulty, and Homer anticipates entering those contests as well. Meanwhile several private space firms have contacted him about using his design for their own spacesuits. There might be a job offer in the future, but Homer says he'll travel only as long as the trip ends back in Southwest Harbor. He has also been working with the Island Astronomy Institute, a local nonprofit organization, to use the glove's fame to get school children interested in space.
Meanwhile, Homer has been taking the summer off, courtesy of NASA's two hundred thousand dollars in prize money. "I've always wanted to enjoy Mount Desert Island in the summer rather than working like mad so other people can enjoy it," he says. "This is my chance."
Meanwhile, he hasn't stopped thinking about spacesuits. With the glove done, he says, "I might work my way up to the arm next."
RAFTING'S ROUGH WATERSThrill seekers needed; sleeping bag optional.
Back in the 1980s the demand for whitewater rafting excursions was so high and the rafting outfitters so competitive that state officials had to step in to set up an allotment system to ensure everyone had equal access to the profitable rapids on the Penobscot, Kennebec, and Dead rivers. These days even prime-time rafting trips can have vacancies, and overall rafting numbers have dropped by 25 percent since 1999.
"It's a major change, unquestionably," observes Matthew Polstein, owner of New England Outdoor Center in Millinocket, who got his start in the legendary rafting community at The Forks. "The West Branch of the Penobscot has gone from 23,916 rafters in 1995 to 13,980 in 2006. That's a dramatic decline."
Polstein maintains that the rafting market has undergone essential changes. "Rafting used to be hard-core thrill seekers, people who came in the night before and slept on the ground in their sleeping bags, got up at dawn and rafted all day, partied all night, and crawled back into their sleeping bags wet, dirty, and tired," he recalls. "Now the market is aging baby boomers with children looking for better amenities."
"There has been a generational shift," adds Steve Allarie, of the Maine Warden Service, who oversees the rafting allotment system. "Some outfitters are telling me their customers do a couple of trips, and then it's 'been there, done that, what's next'. A lot of people are getting involved in kayaking, for instance."
Allarie says the slide in rafting numbers began in 2001. Last year's decline was dramatic, from 72,720 in 2005 to 67,792 in 2006. "There aren't many days anymore when the rivers are at capacity," he notes. Currently thirteen outfitters have allotments, but Allarie predicts some of the smaller companies could fall by the wayside if the trend continues.
Polstein says part of the problem may be the industry's reliance on Internet advertising. "That just reaches the people who are deliberately looking for white-water rafting," he notes. "It doesn't reach the people who are coming to Maine and don't know what to do. We need to broaden our appeal, I think."
Meanwhile, it's no lines, no waiting on the shores of Maine's best whitewater rivers.
COMING HOMEIn an age of offshoring, one Portland company bucks the trend.
It's an announcement you hear pretty frequently these days: an American company is moving its manufacturing thousands of miles, across oceans, in order to save money and get better-quality goods. Except in this case, Portland-based Planet Dog has brought the manufacturing of its flagship Orbee-Tuff balls and chew toys from the Dominican Republic to Sanford. "We can address issues immediately," explains Catherine Frost, Planet Dog's director of marketing. "We've got tighter control on quality and faster time to market, so we're reaping the benefits that way."
Planet Dog originally manufactured its products in Lewiston. But as the company grew, it outsourced production to a company in the Dominican Republic. All along, G&G Products, an injection molding company in Sanford, was making the specialized molds the manufacturer would then use to create each product. And the longer Planet Dog worked with Gary Gagnon's company, the more executives appreciated the relationship — and the proximity. "Lead times were a challenge," Frost says, referring to the products made in the Dominican Republic. "We're in a very hot market right now, so we have to be able to develop our products, test them, and get them off to market really quickly."
These days, rather than getting out their passports and booking international flights, Planet Dog product developers can just hop in the car for the hour-long trip to Gagnon's plant. And while customers aren't interested in the intricacies of the company's manufacturing process, Frost says, they do like to know when products are made in the U.S. "The perception is that there is better quality stateside," she says, "and they understand that it comes with a slightly higher price."
If that higher price means jobs for a few more Maine workers, we'll gladly pay it.
RIDING TRUEA new public art installation makes a connection with kids on Vinalhaven.
Let's face it: making a connection with young people isn't getting any easier, with instant messages, iPods, and Xboxes taking centerstage in most teenagers' lives these days. Which makes the success of an art project out on Vinalhaven even more remarkable. When the island's new K-12 school was built in 2003, state law mandated that it include fifty thousand dollars for public art projects. One of two art installations that beat out forty-eight other applicants was a fleet of model lobsterboats, with each vessel suspended from the ceiling in the school's entryway by a metal rod.
While such a creation is appropriate for the community that lands more lobsters than any other in Maine, it couldn't have captured the attention of island students if Diana Cherbuliez, the Vinalhaven artist behind the $33,000 project, hadn't included one innovative detail. Each
lobsterboat is wired to a wind indicator on the school's roof, and when the wind shifts, the boats pivot to point into the wind, just as they do in Carver's Harbor down the street.
"In a funny way the school is a scale version of the islands, and the lobsterboats are in a sense the harbor scaled down," explains Cherbuliez, who so insisted on accuracy that she hired boatbuilders to make fiberglass models of the actual working boats in the harbor, as well as marine painters to ensure each ship had the proper colors. "Now the kids say 'hey, that's my dad's color, that's the shape of my dad's hull.' And the boats don't turn in perfect unison, because boats don't do that. I didn't want these to be toys."
Cherbuliez says the installation has been well-received by the students, many of whom already haul traps in the morning and after school, as well as their parents and neighbors. "Everyone liked it because it was for them, about them, and yet was not condescending," she says.
Paying attention in a classroom after a summer on the water can be difficult enough, but this type of artwork proves that there are still ways we can make a connection with the next generation of Maine kids.
CANDY CHEMISTRYFountains of fizz generate an Internet buzz.
The fact that Mentos breath mints and Diet Coke have an explosive relationship has been common knowledge among teenaged boys for years, but it took two entertainers from Buckfield to turn a chemical prank into an award-winning career. "We just took it a little bit farther than anyone else has," observes Fritz Grobe in a masterful understatement. Grobe and his partner in fizz, Stephen Voltz, have appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman, National Public Radio, and in performances from Istanbul to Cincinnati featuring up to five hundred geysers of calorie-free soda emulating Las Vegas fountain shows and other offbeat effects.
Grobe says the pair, who are regular performers at "The Evening Show with Mike Miclon," at the Oddfellow Theater in Buckfield (www.oddfellow.com
), spent about six months working on their act before putting together a three-minute video. They posted it to their Web site (www.eepybird.com
) where it turned into an Internet phenomenon. It has generated more than ten million views at the home site, as well as uncounted millions more at sites where admiring or simply envious fans reposted it, such as YouTube.
"Eepybird.com in all has had eighteen million hits. All the attention we've received we got through the Web site," Grobe notes. "This wouldn't have happened without the Internet.
"The fallout has been absolutely stunning," he adds. Besides invitations to network shows, the pair was nominated for one of the television industry's prestigious Emmy awards (they lost) and the Internet's version, a Webby (they won). They're in discussions with Hollywood agents and both Coca-Cola and Mentos, and they've added three part-time employees to their bubbling empire.
They've also gone through four thousand bottles of Diet Coke and twenty-four thousand Mentos mints, all provided free of charge by the two manufacturers who know a huge, free publicity bonanza when they see one. "Mentos sales went up 15 to 20 percent last year," Grobe reports, "and they're now giving away Mentos loading tubes to put on Diet Coke bottles."
The challenge is to keep the momentum going, Grobe says. "We felt like we hit the lottery last year," he offers. "We're looking toward a future where it's not just Diet Coke and Mentos, but other household items as well."
Kitchen cupboards may never be the same.