Room With a View

Golden Hour

Reader-submitted photograph by bball765.

By Franklin Burroughs

Vacation, vacuous, vacancy, evacuation, vacuum. The root signifies emptiness, abhorrent to nature and innkeepers alike.

So for a vacation, in the strict sense of the word, I suggest Disneyland in Anaheim, or Disney World in Orlando, Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, or Paris. Maybe London Bridge, meticulously reassembled in Havasu City, Arizona, or Sturbridge Village or Colonial Williamsburg. These are the true vacationlands, abhorred by nature, empty of reality, unpredictability, and any human contact not involving a credit card.

I love, honor, and respect almost everything about Maine except its license plate. There is something abject about Vacationland, as though the state had no substance — no history, no distinct character, complexity, sophistication, cussedness, or claims of its own, as if it existed only as a sort of high-class amusement park, where people from elsewhere go when they need a break from reality. “The vacant into the vacant,” to quote T.S. Eliot.

Henry David Thoreau came to Maine three times as a tourist. He traveled light, fared hard, and spent little: food for himself, his companion, and a guide consisted chiefly of pork and hardtack (dry, unleavened bread), plus fresh fish and berries, procured along the way. Gear included some rubber bags to keep their food, matches, and clothing dry; an A-frame tent, 6-by-7 feet square and 4 feet high at the ridgepole; an axe, pocketknife, and a few utensils and kettles for cooking and eating; some twine and fishhooks. Food and gear cost $24 for 12 days; the guide and canoe cost a dollar-and-a-half a day, or $19 in all. A railroad ticket for three men and a canoe from Bangor to Greenville was about $8, making a total expenditure of not quite $50, provided “you already possess or can borrow a reasonable part of the outfit.”

Thoreau seems to have done no shopping while in Maine, although Bangor, that “star at the edge of night,” overflowed with the refinements and luxuries of Europe and was entirely up to date. A few miles beyond, the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes lived as they had for eons, which meant that all the ages of history co-existed in mid-19th-century Maine — more than sufficient reason for travelers to venture there, although none of them would have called it Vacationland, least of all Thoreau. He sought information, a wider perspective, the substrate of human existence: “rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we?”

Thoreau lived all of his life in Concord, Massachusetts, no writer more strictly local than he. Yet he described himself — accurately, I think — as a “soujourner”: not so much a day-tripper as an explorer/discoverer. A single vowel separates vacation from vocation. Wherever Thoroeau was — on the backside of “Ktaadn,” along Nauset Beach, in the White Mountains, or in the hardscrabble, gone-to-seed farm country west of his house in Concord — his way of living conflated the two words and what they meant.

He is no model for everyman and had no desire to be; he was as singular as they come and wanted you and me to be that way too. We probably aren’t capable of it. But his insistence that vacationland is also vocationland seems to me valuable, for both those of us who live and work in this state and those who only visit. Reality begins at home but does not end there; we travel to renew and extend our contact with it, not to escape it.

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Franklin Burroughs

Franklin Burroughs is a retired professor of English at Bowdoin College.