This is one of the most recognizable places I've ever been. Instead of feeling like a reproduction of itself, made by big business to mine a quaint or historic vein, it really is just what it is. Dense trees, grassy fields, large white houses and barns. A congregational church spire peaking over the tops of the trees wherever you look.
We're on Deer Isle, apparently one of the few places in the world not yet over run with tourism. We flew into New Hampshire, and after leaving 95 to drive through Kennebunk, we took highway one all the way to where the 15 darts due south to Deer Isle.
Along the way some sights were purely American, purely New English, and purely Maine (Maine-ish?). The highway would slow through small communities built up around any safe harbor or inlet, river mouth or level ground. Most, quite obviously, have strict zoning rules to maintain their character. It's not uncommon to pass through towns where the only signage for businesses is hand painted black-on-white-washed wood, hung together by chain loops in a descending rope ladder of, say, dentists names.
L.L. Bean's headquarters (open 24 / 7 / 365) is on route 1 in Freeport where dozens of factory outlet stores inhabit colonial style buildings. The McDonald's is in a grand house, only recognizable by its simple name sign (have you ever noticed the name is possessive? I hadn't, before today),
On the West Coast anything is possible, on the East Coast you have history to contend with. You have the way things have been done for years--not as some perilous moral code, but as a system that works. Buildings that have lived for hundreds of years, woods that saw the rides of Paul Revere and Ichibod Crane.
Wiscasset is one of those towns you slow down to enter, and suddenly traffic is backed up. You end up on a shopping street slopping to a flat bridge that crosses a thin fingered inlet, art galleries and antique shops on the sides. A slow moving line around the corner at Red's Eats, where a $14.00 crab roll is said to be the best in Maine. Someone more suspicious than I might think that Red serves lunch slow so that the line forms and draws more people in to taste the goods. Worked for us.
And finally, a few hours later, we're on Deer Isle, standing in front of the Eaton Homestead, owned by a family that traces their history here back to 1755. Walter Eaton was on the 1895 all Deer Isle team that took the America's Cup. Dot Eaton, the most recent resident, was a schoolteacher on the isle for many years.
It's surrounded by stands of woods. We walked through some to search out the pond, the ground padded like tundra--springy to the step. Every group of trees in the world has an association with a horror film, and while home in Washington the woods feel more like a serial killer, here they feel like a demonic ghost. Blair Witch? I can totally see it. Luckily, I'm not a superstitious man, so these things I'm thinking to myself aren't scary as I'm walking along, just entertaining. Twigs snap under foot, and the crickets raise a racket all around.
We ate in a Tavern under an Inn that with the most colloquial name you could imagine--the Whale's Rib. It was the oddest mish-mash of styles--authentic New England, but the food was served on triangle plates from a nightmarish Nouveau Cuisine place in L.A. They were busy hosting a wedding party. After waiting an hour to be sat, drinking a beer in a low ceilinged post-and-beam fireplace room, we were seated at a six top by ourselves. Our salads came, and we sat eating. A waitress--not ours--came out, and apologizing that she was burning her hand, set a plate of seafood pasta down on our table. My first thought was that our order had come early--before we were done with our salads--but then she said that she'd be right back for it. She took the other plate she was holding to a table across the dining room, the steaming hot plate sitting before us as if we were expecting a third any moment. She returned to grab the dish, but I guess so as not to break the illusion of the phantom diner, she sat one of the dirty plates she had removed from the other table right before us. She delivered the too-hot-pasta, and then nabbed the plate on the way back to the kitchen, leaving the two of us just a bit stunned.
The Eaton house is not grand. It is not touristy or in-authentic. It's comfortable, with slopping wood floors, a truly perilous basement staircase (ladder, really) and two sizable upstairs bedrooms. It's very identifiable. We're definitely in Maine.
Posted by: Martin McClellan
On the date of: September 9, 2005 01:11 PM