Sunday, July 16, 2006

Into the West

The view from Great Aunt Charlotte's camp, New Vineyard, Maine

This weekend saw Rockland subsumed by the North Atlantic Blues Festival; two days of average-sounding blues and streets swamped by 16,000 farmer-tanned couples of a certain age with a taste for Harley t-shirts and classic rock radio. Last night was the "blues pub crawl", so Country Mouse and myself teamed up with Mr and Mrs Roper and entered the throng. Stolling Main Street, we took in 3 bands and the crowd before incredulously paying a $5 cover to get into the less than salubrious 'Gator Bar at a local motel. While there I had the great misfortune of doing the "excuse me shoulder tap" so useful for navigating crowded bars, only to find that the large chap I was trying to squeeze past wasn't wearing a mohair t-shirt (as it felt to the touch) but rather was in a tank top and posessed of incredibly hairy shoulders. After that experience we beat feet for the soon-to-close Rockland pool hall, a peculiar mixture of frustrated booze-free under-21s, dessicated elderly drunks, married women doing their best "The Postman Only Rings Twice" reenactments, and yet more sub-par blues. As we meandered home around midnight, I was stuck by the thought that a Maine blues festival is notable for its absence of African-Americans, both in the crowd and in the street bands. Nothing says the Mississippi Delta and the uniqueness of the black experience than a gaggle of Franco-Americans belting out "Boom Boom" for a crowd of middle aged goateed caucasians. I wonder what the African-American equivalent would be? The Harlem bluegrass festival perhaps?

After all the excitement of last night, Country Mouse and I were in need of a more buccolic experience. As luck would have it we had made plans to meet up with CM's mother and her consort in Farmington today and then travel on to New Vineyard to visit the Virginia-dwelling Great-Aunt Charlotte and Great-Uncle Charlie at their camp.

When I first moved to the States 11 years ago I lived in Western Maine (the town of Buckfield, no less). I have always had a soft spot for the region's rolling hills and wooded river valleys and have found its pockets of poverty outweighed by the gentle friendliness of its residents so often lacking among the incomers of the coast. The western mountains might lack the signature drama of the Atlantic counties, its Appalachian scenery part of a subtly changing landscape that reaches from the eastern shore of Lake Ontario to the hills of north Georgia rather than holding the drama of the uniquely Maine bluffs and wetlands of the Lobster Coast, but there is a quiet beauty to it nonetheless. The infamous bumper sticker might claim that "The Real Maine Starts East of Ellsworth" but I'd move an amendment that the codicil "and west of 1-95" be added too.

It was with a happy heart then that I hauled up early and scarfed down my home fries. With Country Mouse handling the driving duties, I was free to take in the changing scenery and listen to "The Swap Shop" on Real Country 103.3 (quite possibly the greatest radio show in Maine: I don't listen to country radio but I do love listening to folks calling in and trying to sell "12 rabbits" or a "two ton rear end". Not only does the Swap Shop answer the question "what is the source of all the used Pontiacs on Maine's roads?" but its also the finest dialect school on the air). As soon as Route 17 leaves the confines of the world's smallest conurbation (Rockland-Rockport-Camden) I'm in the kind of country I love: all farms and tractors, with placid looking cows watching the road from the fence rail and hay bales framing Sunday-idle farm machinery.

As we crossed the Kennebec River I indulged myself with one of my favorite rants about the hideous mess that is our state capital Augusta (also known, aptly, as Disgusta). Every time we run the gauntlet of Ram Town I can't shake the feeling that I'm driving through Mogadishu, Sarajevo during the siege, or Kabul. With the exception of a couple of districts of Portland, Maine does urban architecture with all the grace of a newborn moose calf trying to walk for the first time, and despite competition from Lewiston, Bangor, and Waterville, Augusta is the nadir. Nice library, shame about the Y daycare 2 doors down from the Kennebec County Pennitentiary. Everytime I'm in Augusta, it brings to mind a comment my dad made when we were visiting East Berlin in the old DDR back in 1984: "Just think, this is the shop window of communism but at its best it looks like a shabby housing estate". State capitals should make an effort.

The other thing I noticed as we crossed the Kennebec was an almost instant rise in temperature. Our ultimate destination New Vineyard was only 80-or-so miles from Rockland (shows how long I've been in Maine: I don't think twice about a 160 mile round trip for lunch) but the difference in climate is striking. It was 95 degrees, sunny, and as humid as an orchid house when we left camp at 3pm; just over 40 miles and an hour later as we decended towards the coast east of Augusta it was 73 degrees and raining like the buggery. I remember from when I first moved here July and August in western Maine hitting me like Mike Tyson flattening opponents in his prime. It's good to see that it still does, proving that it wasn't me, it was the weather like I insisted to the skeptical heat-impervious loggers and farmers of Buckfield a decade ago. The difference in the weather between the coast and the interior is so dramatic, that I began to express amazement at the sight of a lobster shack in the tourist trap of Belgrade, west of the Kennebec, until I realized that the fresh fish and bugs only had to travel an hour from dock to table. Eating clams in Iowa it ain't.

Lunch was great. In contrast to her father's more gregarious gang, Country Mouse's mother's family are quite reserved and Mayflowery and so despite having been with CM for almost 7 years and Great-Aunt Charlotte and Great-Uncle Charlie having summered in Charlotte's home state for decades, this was the first time I met them (as well as CM's second cousin and her husband). Out of deference to their Yankee recitude I won't go into details aside from complementing CM's mother on the lobster salad. Given Great-Uncle Charlie's failing health there is a general feeling that this will be their last visit to Maine, but I for one am looking forward to visiting them in Virginia Beach, if only because there are more un-met, shy, and reticent relatives down there too.

WASP's nest: CM's mum, County Mouse, and Great-Aunt Charlotte

Such little adventures are the stuff of my summer. Long may it continue...


Mondale said...

'County' Mouse?

weasel said...

Very good Mondale; I'm somebody so dilligent at monitoring his own blog for typos, poor grammar, and spelling errors is extending the service to mine ;)

Rikki said...

(nodding ... smiling ...)

You're a better man than I for braving the Blues Fest in all of its tank-topped bliss. We split town first thing Saturday and likewise headed West ... albeit, a fair bit to the south of your west -- Raymond. We traded the Blues Fest throng for the Lakes Region throng of cottagites and jet-skiers. Choose your poison, I guess. Photos to follow at some point, whenever I muster the will to blog again ...