South by Southeast

WHEN E.W. JAMES, head of design for the Federal Bureau of Public Roads, laid out the first interstate route for the Eastern seaboard in the 1920s, he predominantly followed a series of fall line roads known as the Atlantic Highway. The fall line – the ancient shoreline of the continent – marked the upper limit of a river’s navigation, or the furthest inland point that a cargo vessel could reach before encountering falls or rapids.

At that point a vessel had to offload its goods to wagons, and there docks, warehouses, taverns, towns and eventually cities naturally grew up. Fort Kent, Maine is one example, as James himself said in a letter to Maine highway commissioner Paul Sargent when explaining why he chose it as a terminus. But so, ultimately, are Trenton, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington D.C., Richmond, Raleigh, Columbia and Augusta, through all of which Route 1 passes. Like an electrical circuit, James’s design connected 14 eastern states and the nation’s capital into a powerful engine of trade and tourism – and, incidentally, the longest unified north-south route in the country. The impact of James’s vision would be felt for half a century and beyond, at least until widescale adoption of I-95.

If Route 1 ranks as one of the most commercial of America’s blue highways, there is no sign of it here. Aroostook County on a Monday morning in October is gloriously peaceful. I pass cars only rarely as the road heads southeast along the St. John River. At Van Buren, Route 1 takes a sharp right-hand turn, heading almost due south into big, open country and sweeping views of farmland.  I have to check the map to make sure I’m headed the right way.  It is an ancillary road, Route 1A, that follows the river’s edge, and eventually the international border, in a more southeastwardly direction.

We think of numbered routes as fixed – immutable – but an administrator’s pen has the power to keep them innately fluid. For example, throughout its entire course, U.S. 1 is aided and abetted by alternative, or ‘bannered’, routes: 1A, Business 1, Bypass 1.  Typically, these are designed to route traffic around town and city centers in order to alleviate congestion, but sometimes they sail off on long, tangential arcs that leave a navigator flummoxed as to their purpose. Aroostook County’s Route 1A along the St. John River and Canadian border evolved over decades, with 1 and 1A ultimately switching places and only becoming fixed in their current state, between Van Buren and Mars Hill, as recently as 1989.  Sometimes, the primary route disappears altogether, as in Portland, where a 2007 decision subsumed U.S. 1 under Route 295.  Route 1 lost 1.2 miles, just like that.

In any event, Aroostook County can probably use all the roads it gets. At 6,672 square miles, it accounts for just over a fifth of the state’s land mass.  It is the largest state county east of the Mississippi – bigger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. It is also sparsely populated: its 69,447 inhabitants – 10.4 people per square mile – account for a mere five percent of the state’s total. Like much of Maine, the population of Aroostook County has been declining steadily since the 1960s. No wonder I can spend 20 minutes parked by the side of the road to take pictures without a single car passing in either direction.

This is potato country, a vast checkerboard of green and brown rolling out to the horizon in gentle waves. But nowadays it is also increasingly broccoli country, and corn country, and hay country. In the 1940s, Maine could claim to be the nation’s largest potato producer; today it ranks ninth. But here is some good news: According to a recent USDA agriculture census, both the number of Maine farms and their size are increasing, along with crop diversification.

Through Presque Isle, and Caribou, and Houlton… The towns appear and recede quickly, and the empty stretches take over again.  There is not much fat on the land here: nothing extra, no frills. I notice that, outside of the larger towns, commercial buildings are rarely branded by the products or services they sell.  With a few exceptions such as the Dunkin Donuts and Circle Ks in the larger towns, the visual cues typically used to guide shopping are absent. The same style of single-story, utilitarian shed might house a general store, a family restaurant, a coffee shop, a gas station… or maybe all four at once.  Not so much Bauhaus as Warehouse.

What focuses my attention, though, are the abandoned and decaying houses that front U.S. 1 – indeed, so many rural routes – and that seem to remain unique fixtures of Maine. As though the owners just got up one morning, placed the keys under the mat, and drove away forever. Window sills sag. Roofs collapse in slow motion.

As I pass by, I make up stories for the departed: lechery, treachery, penury. Incarceration, consumption, rejection. And my favorite: le crime passionnel.  I’m tempted to stop and interview ghosts.

As I pass by, I make up stories for the departed: lechery, treachery, penury. Incarceration, consumption, rejection. And my favorite: le crime passionnel.  I’m tempted to stop and interview ghosts.

Anyone familiar with the state knows at least two of its distinct faces – summer playground of yachtsmen and vacation-goers and… working Mainers. The seasonal employment opportunities of Maine fuel high percentages of multiple-job holders, self-employment, and employment by small businesses. In 2014, Maine’s GDP totaled $54.3b – making it the fifth poorest state in the nation. With a median age of 42.7, it is also the oldest state in the country – a demographic that places continued pressure on labor force gaps, health and public services, and state budgets. Suddenly, the empty houses start to make more sense.

Signs of prosperity – the occasional big summer home, sailboats moored in Passamaquoddy Bay – begin to appear as I approach the coast. I stop briefly in Perry at the 45th Parallel, an eclectic gift shop erected on the – surprise! – 45th Parallel, the line of latitude that denotes the halfway mark between the equator and the North Pole. The line also passes through the vineyards of Bordeaux, the Mongolian deserts, the northern tip of Japan, and Salem, Oregon. All of which, I’m convinced, are open at this precise moment in time. The gift shop is, of course, closed.downtown-eastport

Technically speaking, Eastport does not lie on Route 1. You have to jog left onto Route 190 for a few miles to get there. But I make the detour because I’ve got it in my head that I need to photograph Eastport at dawn.  It’s the first town in America to be illuminated by the rising sun.

That evening, safely ensconced at an AirBnB and feeling pleased with my plan, I mention it to a local high school teacher with whom I’m sharing elbow space at the Happy Crab. The Crab is the only place open in Eastport on this blustery night.

He chuckles when I tell him. “Ah, but this isn’t the easternmost town in America,” he says.

“Whaaa…?”

Eastport is the easternmost city in the United States, he explains. Lubec, several miles further east, holds the distinction of easternmost town.  He tells me that Eastport deliberately incorporated as a city in order to claim that title; it was all about public relations.

As a public relations guy myself, I love it. It’s a nice story – and, after all, it worked on me – but later I’m unable to substantiate it.  Labeling Eastport – current population 1,272 – a city may be a stretch, but it seems its promotion predated the population decline, or the dark art of PR, by many years. The town’s – um, city’s – fortunes have waxed and waned over the centuries. In the late 1800s, thanks to sardines, they were waxing. As many as 13 canneries drove the town’s growth so quickly that, in March 1893, it incorporated as a city.west_quoddy_head

Eastport has faced numerous challenges since then, driven in no small measure by its isolation and population loss. Yet according to what I can see, the mood is upbeat. I notice houses under renovation throughout town. New businesses have grown up, such as aqua-culture and, of course, tourism. Downtown is undergoing an aggressive makeover, with coffee shops and tasteful galleries filling the brick buildings that line Water Street. Who could begrudge them any potential PR?

“Actually,” my new friend discloses, “the real first place to catch the sun is West Quoddy Head, a couple of miles east of Lubec. You should go there tomorrow; it’s beautiful.”

I do, and it is.

Actually, I learn later, the very first spot in the continental United States to be touched by the rising sun is not Eastport, or Lubec, or West Quoddy Head. It’s 1,748-foot-high Mars Hill, just south of Van Buren.

So there.

 

Go to Chapter 5, ‘The Bold Coast’, here.

Photos:
– Eastport lobster boats
– New galleries fill the brick buildings of Water Street in downtown Eastport
– West Quoddy Head lighthouse

 

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