Why Am I Here?

WHEN I ARRIVED in Fort Kent, I began posting a few photos and captions of my journey on Facebook.  My friend Patty messaged me back: “Why the road trip?”

It was a fair question, and as I traversed the emptiness of Aroostook County, I had time to try and articulate an answer.

Well, for a start, I’m occasionally susceptible to the idée fixe. You can translate that as ‘stubborn’, ‘addictive’ or, if you’re feeling particularly mean, ‘linear thinking.’  Certain ideas move in, take up residence, and refuse to leave – in some cases, for half a century.

This can create issues. Driving home one afternoon from my mother-in-law’s, I got stuck in a traffic jam at the entrance to the Mass Pike. Idling next to me was a 3.0-litre BMW Z3, top down, sun glinting off its immaculate gun-metal-gray metallic finish, its two-tone black and red leather interior, and the attractive young lady behind the wheel.

“I have to have one of those,” I told myself. The car, I meant.

And it was done. When I went to take delivery at the dealership a few weeks later, the salesman diligently stepped me through all the bells and whistles. Finally, he turned and asked if I had any questions. I told him I was good. Turns out he had one of his own.

“So, what’s your wife think about this?”

“I haven’t told her about it.”

He stared at me, and his lips pursed, like he was about to whistle. “Man,” he said, shaking his head. “You’ve got balls!”

But, I digress.

The road trip was actually my sister Cindy’s idea. We grew up in a small Connecticut town on Long Island Sound, and if you know your geography, you’ll recall that Route 1 – equally well known as the Boston Post Road – bisects every coastal town from Rhode Island to New York. It was a critical inter-colonial corridor long before Connecticut or its neighbors ever became states, and it’s important today, too, although undoubtedly at a more local level.

We lived maybe a quarter-mile from it, and its ever-present hum was both a comforting constant and an endless tease. You needed Route 1 to get into town.  More importantly, you needed Route 1 to get out of town.

Let’s be frank: You needed Route 1 in order to start your life.

One hot day in the summer of 1968 or 1969, as we stood in the driveway, Cindy paused, cocked her head, and listened to the distant traffic for a minute.

“Someday I’d like to drive the whole way,” she finally said. “Maine to Florida.”

That was it. Nothing else. I don’t think she ever mentioned it again.

Funny, the things you remember.

Fast-forward 30 years. Connecticut is a distant memory; our own children are growing up. We live outside Boston, and every summer we load up the Volvo or the minivan and drive to my parents’ house on Hilton Head for two weeks at the beach.

It’s a horrible drive. Not demanding. Not dangerous. Just dull. The Mass Pike to Route 84, to 684, 287, the Garden State Parkway, the Jersey Pike and, eventually, on Interstate 95 from the Delaware Bridge all the way to Savannah – 1,025 miles on what an English friend of mine calls our intergalactic highway system.

With about as much to see: Quality Inn, Best Buy, Starbuck’s, Cracker Barrel, Shoney’s, Applebee’s. Repeat. The boys stop looking out the window somewhere around Worcester, and only lift their heads as we cross Calibogue Sound onto Hilton Head.

There’s little that’s weird or wonderful along that road – anything that makes traveling worth the effort. The highlight is a provocative billboard of Ava Gardner in fetching décolletage, beckoning visitors to the Gardner museum in Smithfield, North Carolina.

How did we get so efficiently homogenized?  Where were the regional delicacies of yesteryear – soused oysters, whitpot pudding, baked woodchuck? (I swear I am not making that up.) The feeble and endearing homespun attractions, such as the world’s largest blueberry, or the Museum of Bad Art?  The wrinkles in time, like that gas station I used to see near Beaufort, South Carolina, straight out of an Edward Hopper painting?

Where was the manic magic and promise that prompted Kerouac to write, “Somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me…”?

Where was the manic magic and promise that prompted Kerouac to write, “Somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me…”?

Well beyond I-95, I was sure. The question was, was it still there?

There was another reason. My European friends, bless their hearts, always refer to the United States as ‘America.’ As in, “We forgot to tell you!  We’re bringing the kids over in August for our summer hols.  Disneyland, San Francisco, Yellowstone, New York.  All over. We adore America!”

I would scream silently for a second. “We don’t call it that,” I always wanted to say.  “We call it the United States.  ‘America’ is an idea.”

But as I planned for this trip and set off, I had to ask: What kind of idea, exactly?  In the midst of my departure we’d witnessed the most fractious Presidential campaign imaginable. The political rhetoric had grown so shrill that, eventually, only dogs could hear it. The campaign was depressing and embarrassing and worrisome – and its ultimate result appeared worse – and I wanted to know how we’d reached that point and how we were going to get back.

But then I had a consoling thought. A road is useful – not only for taking you where you’re going, but for letting you leave things behind.

I also wanted an opportunity to dig into the lives of some personal heroes, some major, some minor. There were many who shared a link to U.S. 1: Franklin Roosevelt, Rachel Carson, Nathaniel Bowditch, P.T. Barnum, Henry Flagler, and many others. Frenchmen, too, such as Alexis de Toqueville, whose explorations of America in 1831-32 followed a great deal of what is current-day Route 1, and eventually led to de Toqueville’s seminal work, Democracy in America.

And as I researched the trip, a few other things started pulling at me. About a year after the U.S. Government drew up its plan for a national numbered highway system and secured its approval with the various state road agencies – this was in 1925 – the Department of Agriculture, under whose jurisdiction the highway system then fell, issued a press release about Route 1.

Describing the road as a 300-year-old ‘highway of history,’ the release details not only the road’s pivotal role in America’s growth and the rationale for its specific route, but also its economic importance to manufacturing and tourism. But it doesn’t stop there.

“Its strategic value as a military road in time of war,” it firmly asserts, “is the conclusive element which stamps this road as the most important, everything considered, in the United States.”

By 1940, Life Magazine had come to label it ‘the ugliest road in America.’

I mean, really – throw all that into the mix, and how could anyone resist?


Go to Chapter 4, ‘South by Southeast,’ here.

Photo: Maple tree in fall colors, Thomaston, Maine.

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