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My first trip to the County

Northern exposure
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  December 4, 2008


Photos: the Allagash region 
Before I ventured north on Friday evening, I knew three things about Allagash, Maine: first, that it was the site of an alleged alien abduction during the 1970s; second, that it is fertile moose-hunting ground; and third, that my friend Sara grew up there, a good six and a half hours north of Portland. You could get to New York — northern Jersey, even — in the same time it takes you to get to the tip of Maine. I'm glad I went the other direction.

During my 36-hour stay in the Allagash region, I had better luck than the four Massachusetts College of Art students who journeyed into the Maine wilderness in the summer of 1976, only to allegedly encounter a UFO. I didn't see any moose, either, despite the fact that these lands, just south of Canada, are a sportsman's paradise, famous for hosting heaps of game (a Web site designed to lure recreational tourists boasts: "If you want a moose, Allagash is the place to come!"). But Sara was there, shocked that I'd actually come ("It's rare I meet someone willing to make the trip here," she wrote me in an e-mail that I received upon my return), and her hometown hospitality made the 700-mile voyage well worth the gas and coffee my car and I guzzled on the way.

Pumped full of turkey, feeling independent and adventurous, I made the drive north on Friday evening; it was my inaugural visit to "the County," as Maine's northernmost sector, Aroostook County, is known. Along the way, I listened to Lucinda Williams, Ray LaMontagne, Kathleen Edwards — you know, hardy types who could hack it in the wilderness. Around mile 280 on Interstate 95, it started snowing. By the time I cleared Presque Isle, on the winding roads of Caribou and beyond, I realized that when she'd said "Allagash really is its own universe," Sara hadn't been being hyperbolic. It's so easy to forget that Southern Maine is just a tiny piece of this huge state, and that the farther you get from it, the more different things are.

You can't just "run to the store" when you're in the County. Every task or trip requires a bit of a drive. To go to the grocery store, the gas station, the bar, or a friend's house — all these tasks are a haul. Even though everything is pretty much on the same road (Route 161; it's Allagash Road in Allagash, St. John Road in St. John Plantation, etc.), it's a loooooong road. So we did a lot of driving, with snow, old homes, and the beautiful St. John River zipping by our windows. (Needless to say, mine was the only car on the road that wasn't American-made, nevermind my hippie-dippy "Coexist" multicultural, hooray-for-tolerance bumper sticker. Cringe.)

Another thing we did a lot of was eating. In Allagash, there's a place called Two Rivers Lunch that serves stick-to-your-ribs diner food among mounted deer heads and photos of successful hunts. We couldn't eat there on Saturday because it'd been taken over by baby-shower attendees; the antlers of a taxidermed moose were beribboned with baby-blue "It's a Boy" streamers. Instead, we drove to Fort Kent, parked the car, and crossed the border into New Brunswick, Canada, where we dined at the Maple Leaf, a combination diner/Chinese-food-buffet establishment. Up there, they call poutine (the Canadian delicacy consisting of french fries doused in gravy and cheese curds) "mixed fries," and that's what I ate, along with French onion soup. Sara also got an egg roll. Poutine and egg roll: less breakfast of champions, more lunch of hibernators.

And hibernate we did, hunkering down in one location or another, drinking gallons of hot beverages (coffee! tea! hot chocolate! mulled wine!), playing word games, chatting in front of fireplaces, the whole nine. We bundled up and trekked through the snow. I gawked at dead deer, strung up triumphantly on posts in people's front yards — thinking that perhaps, in this region and in this economy, those deer also served as symbols of reassurance and self-sufficiency; and at the building-height crosses that adorned several lawns — offering up a different type of affirmation. We visited with some of Sara's family and neighbors, including her cousin, Maine author Cathie Pelletier, who has returned to live in the house she was born in, on the banks of the St. John.

"Do you know that many people in southern Maine don't realize there's a town named Allagash?" Pelletier asked in the essay she wrote for A Place Called Maine: 24 Authors on the Maine Experience (DownEast Books, 2008). "They think of it as The Allagash Wilderness Waterway. [If that! Most southerners I talked to said, 'Like the beer?'] We were so isolated that, sometimes, it seemed as if everything important was happening somewhere else. We never even made the top of the map in most atlases. The northern tip of Maine is often set to one side, in its own box, like a sad hat that's gone out of style so no one wears it anymore."

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  Topics: Lifestyle Features , Massachusetts College of Art, Mammals, Nature and the Environment,  More more >
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