A love letter to maine, where i grew up

Cj leaping from the rope swing on our property into the west branch of the Narraguagus River. 

THE TYPICAL MAINE LICENSE PLATE has the word ‘Vacationland’ written in bold red letters at the bottom. To be from this place is to be from a world that people only dip into for short stints of time, leaving just before the snow. It’s easy to package my home into the confines of an L.L. Bean catalog — a lighthouse serving as a beacon in the Atlantic, a salty dog lobstermen in Grundens, someone chopping wood while wearing flannel. Those are all parts of my home, yes, but they aren’t all of it.

The Maine I grew up in looks nothing like Acadia National Park, although it was on the water. I grew up on the banks of the Penobscot River in Winterport, just another small town off Route 1A, just another river passing through, but this one was too dirty to swim in — even after the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Penobscot was still recovering then from more than a hundred years worth of sewage and logging waste, its water a perpetual sludgy rust that my friend got a staff infection from once.

But like true Maine kids we’d jump in anyway, if only for a few moments of relief, finding washed up treasures of tattered fishing nets, interesting bottles and plastic barrels you could fit anything in. A 12-foot baby pilot whale even found her way into the cove one June, staying for a few days before making her way out to sea.

Marsh Stream was better, and when I could catch a ride into town, I spent my middle school summer days sitting in creak beds and dunking under when horse flies struck.

To be from Maine means to be humble and hardworking, open-hearted and proud of your roots. When I was 13, I was old enough to be part of that, so my mother sent me to rake in the Frankfort blueberry fields. I didn’t necessarily need the money — what little I could scrounge then was spent on penny candy from Ell-Hajj’s and Tuesday night movie tickets at the cheap seats — but it was a requirement in my family to know hard work. That same August my older sister worked as a chamber maid at the Travel Lodge in Bangor. While she made minimum wage picking up other people’s used condoms with toilet paper, I raked berries for $3 a 5-gallon bucket — a wage I understand now is at least 50 cents higher than what most of our state’s rakers make.

I think I made $50 that August, and not because of the low wage and heavy buckets. Working in the fields meant you could come and go whenever you wanted, and while some of my friends worked all day there, banking at least a grand before the summer was over, I chose to sacrifice the opportunity for a new kind of freedom — one away from my parent’s control.

That same August I took my first confused, gulps of smoke from a bong, trying desperately to get high on top of Waldo Mountain in the backseat of a high school junior’s Jeep. I tried hitchhiking for the first time, only to get picked up by my uncle who told my mother. I gathered enough courage to swallow panic and leap from a granite quarry’s ledge — grabbing my ankles like the graffiti instructed. Because if you can’t follow directions at a quarry, you’ll end up face down in that eerie crystal water like my mother always warned.

In small-town Maine, we start early — partying in gravel pits with locals who are twice our age, driving down dark, gravel camp roads with boys we remember from kindergarten, outrunning sheriffs on our YZs because we know they’ll never catch us. It’s all part of growing up here, and I turned out fine. [read more]