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Last Summer in the Magic City

With the paper industry gone and little economic opportunity to replace it, many in the Katahdin region fear an exodus of young people. So what’s it like to be staring down adulthood in 2015 in the shadow of the Millinocket mills? Meet Cameron.

Mill Towns
By Ron Currie Jr.
Photographed by Tristan Spinski

Hang a left off of I-95 North at exit 244 and you’re in Medway, formerly mighty paper country, 25 miles as the crow flies from Katahdin. One of the first pieces of signage you’ll encounter there reads, quite unambiguously, NATIONAL PARK NO! Soon after, you’ll come across a sign that reads NATIONAL PARK YES! Keep driving, and this YES/NO binary repeats itself ad nauseam. The YES signs are green (go!), the NO signs yellow (caution!). They utilize similar fonts, are of identical size, and are secured and supported by identical wire frames. It’s easy to imagine they were printed by the same company, or even that the factions at odds called a truce long enough to save a few bucks by going in on a bulk order. After all, times are tough — that’s the reason this whole brouhaha over a new national park got started in the first place.

Drive a little farther and you’ll see, on your left, the looming bulk of the Great Northern Paper mill in East Millinocket, the icon and last hope of the NATIONAL PARK NO! partisans. It’s incongruous as hell, rising up out of the landscape like Katahdin itself. It’s also a sleeping giant, shuttered in 2013. But the fact of its continued existence lends vehemence to the national park opponents’ resistance — if the mill still stands, they reason, there’s a chance it can be repurposed. To them, federal land-use regulations would be the true death blow to a forest-products industry that’s already been read its last rites several times. On the other side, national park supporters believe it’s time to move on, to try and harness the region’s other great asset — a massive yet accessible wilderness — as a means of revitalizing the region.

Great Northern Mill
Amid rubble, portions of Millinocket’s Great Northern mill are still standing.

In a town where most adults, particularly those old enough to remember the good years, have unyielding opinions on the national park issue, Cameron Dionne — age 18, recent graduate of Schenck High School — is more ambivalent.

“I’m on both sides,” he says, seated at the wheel of his GMC pickup. “I don’t know how much it would affect the logging side of it, but if it were to affect that, I wouldn’t want the national park. It’s hard enough right now to do logging jobs . . . we’re running out of wood.”

And the other side?

He thinks for a moment, his eyes obscured behind black wraparound shades. “Maybe the national park would bring the community back together, is what I’m hoping.”

Cameron is a reticent young man, plays it close to the vest, so if you want a complete picture from him, you have to take note of what he doesn’t say. He’s too polite to state plainly that the community he grew up in has fractured along this national-park fault line. So instead, he implies the fact of that fracture in his desire to see it healed. This is typical Cameron, I’m starting to realize.

Cameron is very much a community-minded guy, if quietly so. By his estimation, he’s spent over 1,000 hours volunteering at the East Millinocket Police Department, washing patrol cars and going on ride-alongs with officers. During his junior year, when the Schenck High Wolverines baseball team found it no longer had enough players to field a squad, he agreed to join, even though doing so would interfere with his summer job cutting timber. (And if you think that playing baseball instead of working seems like a good deal for a high school kid, understand that for teenagers in the Millinocket area, work equals money, and money equals the things that make life up here fun: dirt bikes, snowmobiles, road trips to Bangor.)

It’s Cameron’s sense of obligation to the greater good, in part, that solidified his decision to become a police officer. Although he’s not much of a worrier, he is concerned about the social ills attendant to hard times — chief among them, illicit drugs — and he sees being a cop as one way to combat their effects. His concerns are not unfounded. Heroin use in Maine has increased dramatically over the last few years, filling a vacuum created by efforts to curtail the abuse of prescription painkillers. In 2014, Maine police and DEA busted nearly 30 meth labs, more than double the number from the previous year — one of them in East Millinocket, not far from where Cameron lives with his family.

“Drugs ruin people, they ruin communities,” he says as we drive past La Casa de Fiesta, a once-notorious strip club that, like many businesses here, has seen better days. “I want to work a K9 unit. I’d train mine to be a drug dog, most definitely.”

Cameron’s affinity for law enforcement, and his long association with the local police, becomes more impressive when you consider that it has cost him some social currency — which at his age is often more valuable than hard dollars. Cameron knows he’s singled himself out for scrutiny and suspicion, knows that some of his classmates might think he’s a snitch, although he insists, convincingly, that this is not the case.

“There’s not that many kids around here who like the police,” he says with a laugh. “My true friends? They don’t really mind it. The other kids, they like to run their mouths. Call me ‘narc.’ It’s a small town; everyone knows I ride with the cops. We deal with high school kids all the time, and they know me.”

He remains steadfast, though, and by the time you read this, he intends to have started in the criminal justice program at Bangor’s Beal College. I ask if he plans to return when he’s finished school, to work alongside the officers he’s befriended in East Millinocket. He says he’d like to, but as is increasingly the case for young people in the Katahdin region, financial realities may well make that impossible. Municipal budgets have been slashed across the board, and the police department has not been spared.

“They used to have 14 full-time officers, canines, detectives,” Cameron says. “Now there’s probably five officers, two or three full-timers.”

Cameron’s account is echoed by his father, Scott Dionne, when we meet that afternoon at the family’s Medway home.

“I had a very good friend on the police force in Millinocket for 18, 19 years,” Scott tells me. “He just transferred down to Bangor within the last year, and he’s traveling. Still has a house in Millinocket. If he could sell his house, he’d probably move. But houses are so hard to sell, unless you want to give it away.”

Scott’s a big, affable guy — his outgoing nature made him a featured cast member on the Discovery network’s reality show American Loggers a few years back — but he grows somber when talking about the state of things here.

“Out of 70 in my class, there’s probably 15 of us left in this area,” he says. “The difference driving down Penobscot Avenue, between the early ’90s and now — there’s days you can drive by there, and you won’t see five cars parked on the side of the road.”

Scott himself, after two decades in the woods, recently moved to a job selling fire suppression systems. But that sort of opportunity for vertical career transition is rare, and Scott knows how lucky he was to find it.

Downtown Millinocket
A summer Saturday on Penobscot Avenue in downtown Millinocket.

That in mind, I ask if he’d like to see Cameron stay here. Scott pauses, sighs mightily.

“I like this area,” he says. “For me to tell him to leave would make me a hypocrite. If he can find a job doing what he wants to do, I’m not going to push him to leave. But you’re limited here.”

Bleak? Maybe a little. But Cameron, for his part, seems less interested in pining for the good old days and more interested in dealing with reality as it presents itself now. He’s got a plan, and it doesn’t involve working the woods, despite the fact that he’d be the fourth generation in his family to do so. After graduation, he tried driving a timber truck, but that didn’t last long.

“A log trailer, with 120-plus thousand pounds behind you,” he says. “It stressed me right out, and I didn’t want to do it anymore.”

So this summer, he started driving a dump truck, hauling rock for the construction of a fish bypass on the Piscataquis River. When that’s finished, he’ll do the same for some local road projects while also juggling his schoolwork in the criminal justice program, commuting to Bangor for classes, at least at first. In two years, his plan is to get a job with the Bangor Police Department.

What happens then? Will he live here and commute an hour to Bangor, like his father’s friend?

“Traveling would probably get pretty tiring,” he concedes.

In a perfect world, he’d stay put. Even Bangor is ultimately too busy for Cameron. Of course, it’s hard to know if this is just because he’s never really spent time elsewhere — if, say, three years from now, he’ll have an apartment in Bangor with a couple of buddies and find his old stomping grounds a bit more oppressively quiet than he remembered. For now, though, greater Millinocket is where he wants to be, even as he recognizes and accepts that life is about to take him elsewhere.

Writing about Millinocket without mentioning the loss of paper would be like writing about New Orleans without mentioning Katrina. The long-term, creeping results of a disaster are the same whether that disaster is natural or economic: shuttered businesses, abandoned homes, general blight. On Penobscot Avenue, there are, as Scott Dionne attests, hardly any cars. Maybe one out of every four storefronts has a tenant. Second-floor windows bear the telltale center-mass breakage that results when bored kids hoist rocks and there’s no money or will to clean up after them. A sign affixed to the front of the vacant Millinocket Family Fun Center trumpets a grand reopening under new ownership — in 2009.

And in the window of the Millinocket Floral Shop, another message, written more recently: HOPE BLOOMS.

The effect, for me at least, is quietly devastating. But behind the wheel of his truck, Cameron seems unfazed. He drives slowly through the quiet streets, one hand draped over the top of the steering wheel, the other rubbing absently at the sparse beard on his chin. We pass houses with hand-painted signs propped in front, advertising sale prices: this one is lease-to-own for $580 a month, that one could be yours clean for $25K. I can’t stop noticing the signs; Cameron takes no note of them at all.

We talk about basketball and baseball. We talk about girls — he’s had one serious girlfriend, who he dated for two years; they split up recently, and despite having regrets, he also seems to consider that door closed. We talk about Millinocket’s Little Italy neighborhood and the long-running rumor that it once boasted a network of underground tunnels, though Cameron has no idea what the purpose of those tunnels might have been.

Finally, inevitably, we find ourselves parked where the Great Northern mill once stood. Unlike in East Millinocket, the Millinocket mill has been in a process of demolition since 2013. Despite a few buildings that have been spared the wrecking ball, the overall effect is of a staggering vacancy, like the Grand Canyon or an impact crater.

“I was here when they blew up the mill stack,” Cameron says. “Did you ever see video of that?”

I tell him no.

“There was a bunch of people gathered around. They just put a bunch of dynamite to it and blew the bottom of it out, and . . . ”

He whistles, makes a collapsing motion with his hand.

“The mill wouldn’t tell anybody what time they were gonna blow up the stack,” he goes on. “They didn’t want the whole town watching. But the news eventually found out.”

Something about his tone is throwing me. Very casual, none of the sadness or regret you might expect. He could just as easily be talking about a hunting excursion with his dad or a trip to Disneyland. Then, finally, I start to get it: Cameron didn’t care much about the mills, because by the time he was old enough to really notice them, let alone care, Great Northern was already exiting the stage. For him, that mill stack wasn’t a symbol — it was just a mill stack. He wanted to witness its demolition not because it signaled the end of an era, but because — let’s be honest — teenage boys like to see things blow up.

Cameron drives us to the basketball court at the high school. It’s in surprisingly good shape; better, certainly, than any other outdoor court I’ve seen recently. We get the ball from the back seat of his truck and go through a loose choreograph familiar to those who’ve played organized ball: shoot until you miss, then run forward for a layup while the other person gathers the rebound and hits you with a pass en route to the hoop. Cameron and I, separated by 22 years and having known each other just a few hours, fall into the pattern easily. It’s a rote, nonverbal communication that seems to work better for him than talking.

Out on the court, I have a hard time seeing Cameron as a cop. He’s not a big guy — maybe 5’9″ in work boots, and thin as a cattail stalk. On the other hand, I’ve known plenty of guys his size who could more than hold their own, and in my experience, scrappers like that usually come from the same background as Cameron: rural, outdoorsy, broadly conservative, the kind of environment in which a kid who’s taken a spill is told to rub some dirt on it.

When we’re both sufficiently warmed up, I propose a game of Horse. Cameron accepts in the same way he does everything else: with laconic agreeableness. We each shoot a few times, and I jump out to a lead, pinning H-O-R on him with no letters of my own. I’m playing to win, but he doesn’t seem much concerned with the outcome — instead of sinking a few easy 10-footers and putting pressure on me to follow, he keeps attempting a circus shot from the corner baseline, a behind-the-backboard three-pointer that might go in one out of twenty times if you’re lucky. He never makes it, and I end up winning easily.

None of which is to say that Cameron is without a competitive streak. On the ride back to my motel, with night coming on, he tells me about the Wolverine baseball team’s improbable run in the playoffs this past season. Schenck hadn’t made the tournament since 2006 and, in Cameron’s estimation, may not even be able to field a team again for the foreseeable future. This, even more than their own desire to win, was what motivated him and his teammates — to give the community something to rally around.

“We just barely made it in,” he says. “We got to the first playoff game, and we blew ’em out. Then we went and played the number four seed, blew them out.” He is as animated as he has been all day.

“Then we played the number one seed in the semifinal. We were ahead six to one in the top of the sixth. And they ended up scoring seven runs. One more inning, we’d have been playing in the state game.” He shakes his head. “Just thinking we were the last team that would actually do something with the baseball program. Just one more inning and we would have been there.”

I suggest that having made it to the semifinals is, in itself, no mean feat. Cameron lights up.

“You should have seen the amount of people that come out to watch the semifinal game,” he says.

Where was that game played?

“In Southern Aroostook.”

So they had home field advantage.

“Yeah, but I tell you, I think there was more of our fans there than them,” he says, grinning.

This, I realize, is as close to beaming as I’m likely to see him.

Ever since arriving in Millinocket, I keep hearing the same phrase: “It’s been slow this summer.” I hear it from the front desk attendant at my motel, from a store clerk, from a bartender when I stop for a nightcap. There’s an optimism implicit in that last clause: “this summer.” As if the slowness is a temporary malaise, an anomaly that will correct itself sooner or later.

It’s dinnertime on a Friday evening, but the Chinese restaurant abutting my motel is completely empty. The stainless steel pans in the buffet table are empty too, gleaming under the track lighting. The woman who serves as the restaurant’s hostess, waitress, and busser walks out into the parking lot, stretches in the sticky air, glances up and down Route 157. She looks less like she’s worried about going broke and more like she’s just sort of lonely, or confused, or maybe, perhaps, both.

The next morning, Cameron and I meet for breakfast, chat over coffee and sunnyside eggs. There’s one more question I want to ask him, one I’ve been keeping in my back pocket until now. It’s simple enough, at least to a guy my age: Do you see yourself dying here?

Cameron grins, sheepish, maybe a bit perplexed. He’s 18 years old, after all — death is as abstract and improbable a concept as flying to Mars. I’d run up against this with him yesterday, when he raised grim statistics about mortality among police officers. I asked if he ever worried about that, worried that the stress of the job might cost him a few years on the back end, or that one lethal moment might cost him dramatically on the front end. The short answer: No, not really

But now I press him a bit: Sixty years have passed. You have lived a full life, finished your career as a cop, raised a family, spoiled the grandkids. You are on your actual deathbed. Where is that bed located?

We’re sitting in the mostly empty dining room of Ruthie’s Restaurant, Millinocket, Maine, USA, on a gray, drizzly morning in summer 2015. On one wall, a flat-screen TV displays a stream of pop-country music videos. Since we arrived, the waitress has repeatedly called me “sweetie,” as though she were my grandmother rather than a woman several years my junior. There’s a gigantic stone fireplace, which appears to be decorative, and on its mantel rests a red-white-and-blue wooden heart that reads GOD BLESS AMERICA.

At this juncture, no one has any idea what Millinocket will look like in 60 years. Plenty of people would like to convince you they know, but they don’t. Some combination of a national park, forestry, and high-end real estate sales on the lakes might bring the boom back to the erstwhile boomtown they once called the “Magic City.” Or the failure of those ventures might mean the place returns to a state more closely resembling the wilderness that prevailed before the world’s largest paper mill started churning out newsprint in 1900.

Either way, here in Ruthie’s, right now, I want to know: Where do you see yourself, Cameron, at the very end?

I look at him, expectant. He returns my gaze.

“Probably here,” he says, finally, with a smile.