A Summer Without Maine

Daydreams of a secret sanctuary keep one writer tethered to the Pine Tree State.

kayaking on a pond
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By Ted Gup

Every year since I was a boy, I have spent part or all of my summers in Maine. That goes back to 1957 or ’58. But this year, the odds feel stacked against me. At 69, with a medical history that puts me at risk, the familiar road north, each mile of which brought comfort and anticipation, seems fraught with discomfort and uncertainty.  

It doesn’t help that my vehicle bears New York license plates. Never mind that I live hours from New York City, in a village of 1,700 at the foot of an ancient escarpment, more Mayberry RFD than Manhattan. I fear the plates alone might draw unwanted attention, even hostility. In such times as these, I wonder if a half century of devotion counts for much. I am “from away” and always shall be — now, sadly, more than ever.  

My Maine neighbors and friends are far too polite and kind to shun me outright, but would I feel like a pariah in a place I hold dear? I would be required to be tested or to self-quarantine for two weeks. I trust I would be welcome at the town’s book store, the Alamo Theatre, the Dairy Port ice cream stand, Crosby’s Drive-In, but would my presence secretly unsettle them? Would I imagine myself a potential carrier and vector, an invasive species? 

Never mind, that for months now, my partner, the girls, and I have rigorously observed the protocols of a cautious governor, staying at home, distancing ourselves from others, gloved and masked even with colleagues, friends and neighbors. Instead of hugs and kisses, we have endured the ubiquitous scents of bleach and rubbing alcohol, our hands raw from endless assaults of soap and lather. 

What I wouldn’t give for an afternoon in the soothing waters of Jacob Buck Pond, dappled by shafts of sunlight sifting through that tallest of pines, like the prismatic light that passes through stained glass. 

Almost daily, I find myself revisiting the camp in my mind: I am in a kayak, skimming the surface, escaping the far end of the mile-long pond, and navigating the reedy shallows, where the fallen log draws turtles and frogs to sun themselves, and where the loons nest. 

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Just beyond is a passageway known only to a few curious souls, a narrow channel hidden among tall grasses. In the waters below, no deeper than a saucepan, tiny pickerel dart and scatter, striders race across the surface, and parting grass reduces my passing to a mere whisper. I glide over sandbars and submerged boulders, my paddle a rudder in the lazy current that carries me forward. It is a metaphor and a contradiction — I am drifting by design, the way all letting go begins, an act of surrender. “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up someplace else,” humorist Will Rogers wrote.  

My mind both empties itself and fills itself, replenished, awash in random lines and voices that have guided me through a life whose end point is still not visible but no longer so far off. 

At worst, one is in motion; and at best,
Reaching no absolute, in which to rest,
One is always nearer by not keeping still.

The English poet Thom Gunn wrote that. But nearer to what? It matters less and less.

A quarter mile in, where the stream seems certain to end, it unexpectedly widens into a perfect pool. If I have been stealthy, I may startle the resident beaver, who will slap the water and scare me witless. But that is rare. The water beneath me teems with minnows. The air fills with the wings of caddis and mayflies but is as silent as a long-held breath. 

It is here that the water would exit, maybe even join the great Penobscot River, close by. But it cannot. On either bank, like two imposing fortresses, rise twin beaver lodges. They regulate the depth of the entire pond, arrest its outward flow, and together, stand like the final period to a perfect narrative. 

This is the place to which I am drawn, my retreat from everything and everyone. This is where all social distancing begins and ends, a place where even a nonbeliever may take holy communion. I lay the paddle across my lap, rest my bare feet atop the gunwales, and allow my eyes to close. Here I can escape — yes, the world, but also myself. Thoughts cease. Worries unspool. Wordsworth comes to mind; “The world is too much with us.”

If such a place did not exist, I would have to invent it. Not a soul is turned away. The Irish poet William Butler Yeats had such a place in mind when he penned “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”: 

I will arise and go now, for always night and day,
I hear lake waters lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core. 

This summer, I may be forced to content myself with only hearing it “in the deep heart’s core.” That may have to be enough.