: Charlie & Abodes

    

White Sands National Monument, NM - Click on car to see much more of Charlie

 

I quit my job, left my last career and separated from my wife in Brazil in time to return to New York for an anniversary of September 11th. (But enough about me.) The idea  and we know how dangerous they can be was to drive all the way around the periphery of the continental U.S. to check the border and kick the fences while getting to know the home country again. I wondered how much had changed and if the Borderlanders could tell me something about the country's core.

Over nearly three months and nine thousand miles, I drove a silver-plated VW Beetle named Charlie as close to the border as possible without getting arrested. I brought a camera, a notebook, some binoculars, a large road atlas, and an unflagging affection for diners, motels, roadside cafes and the encounters they bring. Perhaps I had changed more than the country, whose sprawling beauty is immutable and fixed. The Borderlanders themselves were warmly hospitable yet reticent, openly generous and alert or, as always, quintessentially and quixotically American.

During the Fall of my odyssey I can gladly report that the country remained secure and comparatively safe - while its largeness of heart continues to know no boundary.

Enjoy the trip through the below images, which wheel counter-clockwise around the Lower 48.

(To read an excerpt from the journey's tale, page below.) (Veja o texto em português em baixo.)

 


Ground Zero, NYC
Ground Zero, NYC
Calais, ME
Madawaska, ME
Niagara Falls, NY
Lackawanna, NY
Carroll, OH
International Fall, MN
Int'l Peace Garden, ND

Eu estava morando no Brasil quando os terroristas atacaram Washington D.C. e Nova Iorque.  Não poder estar junto da minha familia e amigos para apoía-los me deixou muito frustrado.  No entanto, depois de um ano, deixei meu trabalho de 12 anos em um multinacional, desistindo asssim da minha carreira corporativa e voltei para os E.U.A. para ver como tinham ficado as coisas por lá.  O melhor modo que encontrei de dar uma olhada geral foi viajando pela fronteira.  Viajei de carro um total de 25.000 quilômetros durante 3 meses.  Estas fotos são parte da recordação deste pais extraordinário e seu povo.


Bowbells, ND
Ft. Belknap Reservation, MT
Natural Bridges Cove, OR
Big Sur, CA
Houston, TX
St. Augustine, FL
St. Mary's, GA
Argos Corner, DE
Portsmouth, NH

Excerpt from Borderland Local: A Slow-Spin Around America's Edge

Our borders are filaments of our collective consciousness, more like a mental construct than any firm reality on the wind-blown ground. Or so I learned during a sixteen thousand mile journey of procrastination, tracing the wobbly boundary lines of the lower forty-eight states over a meandering three month drive.

That wasn’t the way I pictured it at first. I had lived overseas for most of the prior decade, so it was time to return to a homeland at risk of receding in the distance like a desert mirage until I was no longer sure of its contours – or mine. The turn of the millennium attacks, in heralding the new century’s struggle, brought for me their own inner turmoil and mixed feelings of where I belong, shaking up my world view and sense of equilibrium. Mine had been a voluntary exile, a series of detours in the road which, one thing leading to the other, had landed me in Brazil, that equally large country refracted through the equator’s humid prism. But the impulse to return, like a bird on a wing over the sea, to the natal grounds was great, made greater by the desire to reunite with family and friends each coping with the new world in a new way.

I had never traveled by land from coast to coast, which seemed at first the natural thing to do, the transcontinental bisection that’s an enduring American metaphor for life’s progress: on the long road again. But such a well trod path didn’t seem equal to the times, so I rashly took a deep breath and swelled my design to the outer edges, to the untrampled and unheralded extremes of the land.

Granted, the boundary contours are not exactly inviting, with no convenient trail to aid the country’s dry circumnavigation. Roads don’t run parallel along remote frontiers, where there is little to no economic justification, but instead strike perpendicularly and over them in a quick, almost dismissive way. Even along the coasts the roads tend to pull back in-land, due to the difficulty and expense of building over so many swamps, river mouths and inlets.

Clearly these are tricky times when America’s sense of invulnerability can be shaken by nineteen Islamic crusaders’ ability to penetrate our thin, taut armor with such mocking ease. For even though most of them had entered with a valid visa and plane ticket, the realization that just a handful of fanatics, in taking their own lives, could destroy the life of so many others caused a paradigm shift in how we think of our porous borders. Before it was an overblown fear of immigrant workers taking jobs; now it was a more palpable one of terrorists stealing lives and leveling cities.

In the end it would be no easy undertaking, the ringing of a nation around its creaky and maligned last line of defence. I would have to tread carefully. My mission – if a series of inchoate and fuzzy impulses can be called that – was to drive as closely as possible to the borders without getting arrested.

 


 

But first there was some pressing business to attend to. Contrary to the universally held belief throughout Latin America, there still exists such a thing as American bureaucracy. I had been long enough out of the country to have started to believe it myself, but was quickly disabused of the notion stateside.

My prolonged absence from the U.S. brought up all sorts of questions, among them my status as a legal resident and where. Bad luck would have it that my old New York State driver’s license had just expired over the summer and, although I carried a valid Brazilian one, I doubted its fancy multi-colored embossments or Portuguese script would go over well with the various State Troopers I would surely have the pleasure of meeting during the trip. To merit a new driver’s license I needed to establish residency, and quickly – even though both have become a more involved process of late.

Then there were the time-consuming matters of extracting myself from a twelve year career with a large multinational and enduring an international ‘relocation,’ which included tracking the twenty-foot container with most of my worldly belongings as it chugged up the long vertical stretch of the Atlantic Ocean only to get lost, and eventually recovered, on a barge barely afloat on the Connecticut River. About the only pleasant, if perplexing, thing that occurred during the move was when the normally gruff immigration agent at New York’s JFK Airport greeted me with a warm "Welcome back home." How did he know?

My risible strategy was to ‘establish’ myself at the defunct pig farm of my retired father in the state of New Hampshire. I considered, and quickly discarded as too financially risky, changing the name of the pig farm’s utility bills to my own. My container of salted belongings would soon take up residence in the dilapidated barn, but this wouldn’t prove much more than a parsimonious tempting of fate. So what was left was the dearer option of purchasing a car and registering it there. This I did, forthwith, with the purchase of a silver-plated VW Beetle, the car of my unmet dreams as down in fretful Brazil all car imports are slapped with a doubling duty.

Family had welcomed me back with open arms, if slightly quizzical looks, over that end of summer rave confusingly called Labor Day weekend. With so much free time on their hands over the holiday, they had nothing better to do than to help me plan for my trip, dispensing plenty of reasonable advice all of which I ignored. Incredulity was no small part of it, as when my older brother exclaimed, "You bought a car before establishing residency?," the scale of his voice rising in disbelief.

That I had, and when I told my attorney father in Boston that I planned to drive my new car to the Pig Farm and search on-line for some auto insurance, he nearly disowned me. Clearly my appetite for risk in roll-with-the-punches Brazil had swollen beyond all reasonable First World proportions.

After starring in so much internecine debate, my New Beetle deserved a name. Inspired by the élan of a quotation later found atop Mt. Cadillac on Maine’s Mount Desert Island – in which the French explorer Samuel de Champlain, upon describing the island’s bare terrain, presumptuously declared ‘I name it Ilse des Monts Deserts’ – I named my buggy Charlie, in one of those fits of literary enthusiasm (in this case Steinbeckian) that can cause later regrets.

Fortunately the gamble paid off when the Town Clerk, a gray-haired local fixture with the suggestive name of Lucy Lemons, decided to take me into her confidence. After presenting my temporary car title, I asked if I could get both car registration and license plates from her, as I had been told I might. Yes, indeed I might. Upon receipt of a reasonable town and state registration tax paid on the spot, Ms. Lemons typed out my registration card and handed over my shiny new license plates, with a faded picture of the Old Man in the Mountains in the background. The spelling of my name occasioned her recalling various town residents of the same family name over the years.

"All good people, I hope?"

"Oh, yes," her reply startled me. "Fine, upstanding people, all of them."

And that was that. She handed over the loot and I realized that I had successfully made the cultural leap to New England niceties, of where you were born and to whom you are related.

Before leaving the office I asked Ms. Lemons about the state motto on the license plate, ‘Live Free or Die,’ which I rather liked for its moral severity – and which would later make European tourists gawk, dumbfounded at such lack of sophistication.

"I don’t pay much attention to such things," she replied, briefly looking up from her paperwork, "as they tend to come and go."

She was right, of course, for the actual Old Man in the Mountain rock face, profiled on all New Hampshire license plates and on every last State highway sign, would crumble during the next year, the mountain of granite eroding as all earthly things must. But that still didn’t make me feel any better about lying to a kindly, bespectacled spinster about my intent to reside in her hard-working home town.

With the Pig Farm’s address on the car registration, I was able at last to turn in my expired New York State licence and receive a shiny new New Hampshire one at the briskly pleasant Department of Motor Vehicles, which only accepts such applications on Fridays – no doubt a factor in their good humor. With only one catch. The shiny, hologram-spooked driver’s license they handed me was only a temporary six month one, a driver’s permit fit for an adolescent. I had tried to fool the bureaucracy but, post 9/11, the bureaucracy does not like to be fooled anymore.

It was a crazy plan and, like the craziest of plans, easy to hatch. I would start in Manhattan on the anniversary of September 11th and then, after leveraging myself up and around New England, wheel counterclockwise around this absurdly great and absurdly large country, patrolling the Canadian border, descending the precipitous West Coast, and so on. My body’s resistence exhausted from so much lounging in the tropics, I thought it wise to explore the northern ceiling when temperatures would be less than life-threatening – hence my Canada-first policy.

When family, only slightly less gullible than Ms. Lemons, inquired why on earth I wanted to tour the country in a such a roundabout way, I replied, only half-jokingly, "To defend the borders!" As if they needed any more confirmation that so many years south of so many borders had baked my brains and stewed my already suspect judgement.

In truth, my reasons and interests were more complex than that, even though the impulse to protect the country was not negligible, for like many an expatriate caught overseas at war’s start I had felt guilty by absence, a useless and distant relative who couldn’t lift a finger for friends and family during their time of need. As for the boundary lines themselves, I could already guess there wouldn’t be much to see there: a river, a rickety fence, a cartographer’s conceit over an open pasture. While such potential vagueness made me curious, their very nullity drew my attention to what occupies the space around them. If the borders are, oft times, no more than wan abstractions of international treaties, then the borderlands themselves and the people who inhabit them would be much more concrete, real and even reassuring: an anchor of sorts in a chaotic world.

A returning expatriate unsure of what he would find, I wished to get to know my country again, to see how it had changed, and in the end hoped that the unsung frontier people, the Borderlanders along the land’s margins, could tell me a thing or two about the nation I once knew. Think of it as doing the rounds, but on a crazed continental scale: inspecting the windmills, checking the salt licks and kicking the fences – where they are still standing.

 


 

Canada started as a thin mirage across Passamaquoddy Bay and slowly grew into its bushy fullness. Since the turn-off to Bar Harbor and Mount Desert Island, U.S. 1 had narrowed to a simple two-laner with dirt wings and the touristic life had all but petered out. It wasn’t that the original East Coast highway had deteriorated in her old age around these parts, but rather had never attained any material significance in the first place. Instead of cutesy-colonial signs to Maine’s mid-coast commercial sand traps, plain state signs indicate the business name, such as ‘Bob’s Bobcats,’ and the distance down the gravel side lane. I would see these uniform and discreet advertisements throughout the large and remote state of Maine, and they would lessen the solitude of the green roads without end.

So imagine my surprise when after an uneventful morning I came upon an extravagantly large billboard – practically shouting in ALL CAPS – which read ‘Saint Croix Island International Historic Site.’ Like any other stimulus-starved out-of-stater, I eagerly veered right and immediately lost my way down a local track. Recovering the way, I poked down to a dirt turnaround alongside the river bed for a quick drink. There I came upon an old white car with Ohio plates and the driver seated inside – and that was it.

Exerting myself a bit, I discovered an open lean-to structure among the trees with a fine view of St. Croix Island itself – none other than a five acre raft of earth unattached by bridge or anything else to either side – along with a memorial plaque and some brochures, printed in English and French, protected from the rain. No ferry service to the island, no park ranger, no ‘interpretive’ display, not even a sanitation station – if this was a sign of international cooperation, with the costs split as suggested by the bi-national brochure, Lord help us.

The island, I was glad to learn, had a short if violent history. Pierre Dugua, Sieur de Mons and lieutenant-general of New France, had set sail in 1604 with a valuable monopoly in the fur trade, as beaver hats were the rage in fashion-obsessed Europe. His map maker and expedition chronicler, the versatile Samuel de Champlain, hoped to discover a northwest passage to the Orient. (Instead, he would be rewarded with the fleeting title ‘Father of New France.’) When they set up camp on St. Croix for the first winter, they assumed at the same latitude as France that it would be just as temperate – which it was not, due to the Arctic winds. Half of the company died of scurvy that winter, while the survivors abandoned camp in the spring. What remained of the buildings was levelled by Captain Argall of Virginia in sixteen-thirteen under orders to drive the French from the coast, which he did, also destroying the nearby settlement of Port Royal on the New Brunswick side of the bay.

This destruction would later complicate things for the young nation when, after the War of Independence, it was agreed to make the St. Croix River the regional boundary, but no one could precisely establish where it disgorged, by which bay, into the Atlantic. It fell to a Canadian named Robert Pagan, using Champlain’s maps and documents, to pin-point St. Croix Island – and hence the river – through the identification of ruins, pottery and fine French brick, ending the border dispute in 1797.

Climbing up along the St. Croix, and later alongside the St. John River at Maine’s pinnacle, would provide the longest, clearest river runs of the trip, with Canada just a stone’s throw away. But rivers, in general, make poor fences. Whereas the St. Croix had resolved a dispute and incontrovertibly defined a border, rivers are not the most permanent or dependable dividers, for they have a tendency to change course – as would become abundantly clear down Mexican way. It was a startling realization, this strange unfixability, for I had grown up with the school boy belief that the country’s boundaries are necessarily clear and immutable and had been so for generations, if not geologic eras.

Which raised a nagging doubt as I returned to my parked car in the dusty turnaround: could America’s borders, even to this day, be so fungible as to be undefinable?

I noticed the driver of the white Impala was still there. Evidently he hadn’t moved, which put me on guard: could he be some sort of undercover agent or, worse, a delegate of mayhem intent on detonating vulnerable points of bi-country cooperation?

Only then did he roll down his window, letting in some rain drops while calling out to me without a trace of irony, "Is this a National Park or some sort of private residence?"

His voice was sluggish, whether from booze or dim-wittedness I couldn’t tell. Problems of definition. I explained that while poorly signed, there was a plaque pertaining to the historic site, up in the trees overlooking the river, and that it was worth a look-see.

My first glimpse of an actual, living border crossing since a 5th Grade French class junket to Montreal was at Calais (pronounced CAL-us), just across from St. Stephen. On the way into town I had passed a sign ‘The easternmost golf course in the U.S.,’ which alerted me to Calais’s geographic significance. I stopped for a bite to eat at Mom’s Restaurant – where the bustling woman behind the counter didn’t particularly want to be called ‘Mom’ – in order to screw up my courage for the border reconnaissance. Instead of the ‘I don’t know Breakfast’ for $3.45, I ordered the more predictable lobster roll.

When the bridge and border area came into view I parked Charlie and proceeded on foot alone. You may think that I am joking, but I am not. Passing through immigration and customs is one thing, coming to observe and photograph is another. I knew I was only there to help, but I didn’t know if they knew – or if they would believe me. I felt like an advance man, casing the crossing for some future operation.

The closest I could get without setting off alarms, internally or externally, was a gas station on the near side. To tell the truth, there wasn’t much there, there: a narrow, all-iron bridge – the kind that rumbles your tires and sends a mild thrill up to your pituitary gland; the huddled mass of border control buildings; and a limp American flag run all the way up its pole.

The no-brand gas station displayed a full set of armor alongside a standing sign which read ‘Welcome Canadians, Eggs only 69.’ I wondered if the dwarfish body of armor was a sly reference to our neighbor’s fresher ties to Medieval Europe – and a thoughtful gesture to make them feel more at home – or a mock layer of homeland defense. Much clearer was the National Guardsman in battle fatigues, beret and with a sub-machine gun, who wasn’t only loitering around the guard booths but was on the lookout for suspicious types just like me.

So I approached a tad more closely, took a few shots and then fled before he could fire back.

My irrational fear of being apprehended, interrogated, and taking the rap in a case of mistaken identity was, in part, explained by my uncertainty about how Americans behave these days. I walk in eternal doubt about what constitutes culturally acceptable behavior. A number of years overseas can do that to you – while you flounder in a bi-cultural haze the ship of state sails on.

I would stop to reconnoiter nearly every last border crossing en route and, no doubt, repetition has a way of dulling one’s paranoia to a mere jangling of emotions. Better yet is a surprise encounter which avoids the build up of stomach jitters.

It happened during a pit stop at Rock’s Family Diner, in Madawaska where U.S. 1 fades away into a northern nothingness. It was a lunch of surprises, for while the English-French battles of possession – over the wild coast and the rich North Atlantic fishing territories – were old ones, they carried down to the present in unexpected ways. I could hardly believe my ears, for instance, when I heard a ladies’ luncheon group swim back and forth between English and French, as though nothing could be more natural in the world.

"Hello ladies!," began one, just arrived.

"Bon jour, Natalie!"

"Ça va?"

"Bien, bien."

Even though the radio stations this far north had become predominantly French-Canadian, I was still perplexed by the foreign language fluency. The matrons didn’t look like tourists. On the other side of the St. John River was still New Brunswick, with an upraised wing of the Frenchified province of Quebec a further ten miles north. But we were in the United States enfin, and no one had ever led me to believe that there were parts of the country, even New Orleans, where Americans are just as comfortable speaking French as American.

I looked around for clues, but only found photographs of dog-sled competitions going down Main Street and posters for biathlon championships on the pine-panelled walls. When I asked Pamela, the bustling blond waitress who was sweeping the floor nearby, she replied that nearly everyone here speaks ‘Valley French,’ a patois that only the locals can understand and quite different from the school French she had once learned.

We got to chatting about the border, which is when she opened the diner’s back door to show me the border station that dominates the Rock’s Family backyard. I had left my camera and binoculars with Charlie, so there was scant reason to feel nervous.

"Makes it easier for your customers to come and go, doesn’t it?"

"Yup, people cross back and forth pretty easy."

"Has it always been that way?"

"They tightened things up after the attacks, but it’s the same people that go back and forth, so it’s about back to normal."

When Pamela asked where I was from, I hesitated – do I reply Boston, New York, Brazil or New Hampshire, the neighborly option? I chose New York.

Then she asked what I was doing, an even more difficult question. Should I share my mission or settle for an easier reply?

"I’m driving all the way around the U.S. I’ve been living overseas for a number of years, so I wanted to get to know the country again..."

"Oh yeah? Where overseas?"

"In Brazil."

"In Brazil? And you’re driving all around the country?"

"Yup."

"For how much time?"

"For several months, I hope. I just started this week."

"Then you should visit Quebec City, it’s only a couple of hours from here and it’s real beautiful."

 


 

If I were William Least Heat Moon, at this juncture I would have had to visit Quebec City, but after many years of frequent border crossings to and throughout Latin America, enough was enough. Now, if I could help it, I was going to stay within American territory, to show solidarity with my compatriots on the more dangerous, targeted side of the divide. Besides which, I wasn’t sure if many Canadians would take kindly to Pamela’s re-locating of Quebec City inside the Colossus of the South.

I also had a more immediate challenge, which was figuring out an approach to the massive logging forests that occupy Maine’s large northwest quadrant. Although I had grown up in Massachusetts, gone to summer camp in Maine and even camped in the wilds of Baxter State Park with my father and older brother, this unsettled and unsettling northern wilderness remained a void in my mind, as mentally blank as the Arctic. One can learn many things from maps, and when I saw that this region, larger than the Bay State, consists of only a few dirt roads, all of them marked ‘restricted access,’ I was bewildered. They are logging roads, the lands privately owned, yet it still amazes that one of the remotest and least developed areas of the contiguous States is part of the original thirteen colonies. (Four hundred years later, and we’re still developing it!) Could it be that the land is so inhospitable it was easier to progressively settle the continent all the way to the Pacific Ocean than to head a few hundred miles north? The Canadian side of the Great Northern Woods is comparatively built up, dotted with towns and paved with roads. Those lazy, good-for-little New Englanders!

When entering Maine – only the nation’s eleventh largest state but quite large by eastern standards – I had picked up a news item on National Public Radio about the death of eleven Latino immigrant workers up in the very same woods. While the subject of immigration, legal or otherwise, would follow my border cruise like a constant tail wind, this item in particular caught my attention. Who would have thought that workers all the way from Central America would cross the southern border in order to find gainful employ at the furthest reaches of the northern border, well over two thousand miles away? On their way to work in a van, the victims had drowned after a rear tire blew out, causing the van to veer off the primitive, one-lane bridge. From Honduras and Guatemala, all but one of the crew had died – while details were awaiting the arrival of a Spanish language translator.

Later that day I stopped to visit my cousin Lisa in Portland, on Maine’s southern coast. Portland-on-the-Sea is an industrious yet peaceful looking port which masks a rocky start. When the British Navy bombarded and then torched the entire town of Falmouth during the Revolutionary War, the razing was so complete that the city built on the ashes received a new name.

I mentioned the news report to Guy, Lisa’s fiancé from northern Vermont, who told me that, while a construction worker himself, he had been contracted to work in Maine’s northern woods a couple of times. Apparently the best route from upper Vermont is to drive through Quebec and enter the woods from one of the two, nearly deserted, dirt road border stations. There one presents working papers to gain access to the restricted area. The dirt roads are treacherous, he recalled, deeply rutted by the logging trucks and poorly drained, such that pick-ups and jeeps and trucks need to go at a good clip to keep up the forward momentum of progress and development.

Guy was the first real Borderlander I had ever met, as he lives within slingshot reach of Quebec, and I liked him right away. People from further north have a reputation for reticence, which is an understatement in Guy’s case. When my cousin was around, he hardly spoke a word, though you could tell from his quick, deerish eyes that he didn’t miss much. Over dinner at a local seafood restaurant, I tried to draw him out when Lisa went to the bathroom or paused to chat with some neighbors, a strategy met with only partial success.

Eventually he told me stories about how as young border rats, he and his pals would agree on a rendezvous, no matter which country, wherever the most interesting gathering was to be found. It was easy to cross back and forth, he explained, for the border guards were all local boys who more often than not would wave you through.

"Does it still work that way?"

"No, no longer. Since the towers, they’ve decided to, you know, change the guards around, which put an end to such easy comings and goings. But they get to know the locals pretty quick."

Guy works primarily in home construction and falls off a roof at least once a year. If it’s a commercial building – where he’s worked as high as five stories – they build ‘stagings’ every twenty feet or so to catch the inevitable tumble. He works on so many roofs and high places, he added, that he tends to look down at his feet when out walking anywhere. It is a kind of survival instinct that has stayed with him even off the job – which has come in handy even if he is always bumping into people. Though I would travel far and wide this trip, I could already see the wisdom of paying close attention to the ground by my feet.

Guy is tangentially related to me, and so had little choice but to take up my conversational gambits. But for the rest of the wild Canadian border there would be no more relatives, distant or not, which obliged me to come up with other stratagems. My routine – and never underestimate the importance of a routine to find order in the chaotic, to domesticate the wilderness of time – was simple enough. Up early with the birds, I tried to get most of the driving done in the mornings so as to leave the foraging of food and accommodation to the afternoons of chance. Motels were preferred over hotels and chains, as the owners and managers were more likely to be local and chatty. Better than that, they were often key to my superficial navigation of a town. From motel managers I would ask for the diner or café where natives congregated and the bar where they blasphemed. I was an odd duck, for sure, a loner poking around where few tourists visit, so I tried my best to go where the locals go, skimming lightly over the unknown and unfamiliar.

It was easy enough to find a place most nights where I could imbibe a beer or two, but making any sort of contact, other than a cursory nod of acknowledgement, with barflies and barkeeps proved difficult. For some reason many small town bars in Maine are hidden from public view at the back of ancient Chinese restaurants. There, invariably, can be found a low-lit, low-slung pool table guarded by overhead televisions blinking through a stagnant stratosphere of cigarette smoke. One football game or another was always blaring at decibels capable of stirring deceased heroes. As I have not been a dedicated sports fan since my first decade (when most Boston teams were champions), my ability to communicate with Anthropithicus Sporticus is limited. Needless to say, my designs for meeting Borderlanders this way were largely thwarted.

In the end I had to make a large detour around the Great Northern Woods, and fall due south for half of the state before finding an asphalt road that could lead once again in a westerly direction. This diversion would take me the furthest away, over a hundred miles, from a border during my trip, but as far as detours go it was a beautiful one, hundreds of miles of smooth forests carpeting the glacier-buffed landscape. I stopped in at Baxter State Park, one of the few remaining large state parks that hasn’t succumbed to federal control in search of out-of-state funding, and climbed up Mt. Owl, just off the Appalachian Trail. Whereas on Mount Desert’s Mt. Cadillac I had seen the rain rise in the after-blow of Hurricane Hanna, on top of Mt. Owl, two or three times taller, it was so clear I could almost see the border.

Although I didn’t realize it until afterwards, Maine was the first real challenge of my journey. Realization might not be the correct word, as it implies an active participation, whereas a better one might be revelation – for when I crossed the state line into New Hampshire and left Maine behind, I teared up.

It had taken more than a week and, I could see from Charlie’s odometer, over eleven hundred miles – the length of all of Central America – to nearly circle the state. Maine, like Florida, is one of the most geographically isolated states of the lower forty-eight, which may explain why it feels so ageless and, like those Northern Woods, so little changed by time. If you think of it while squinting your mind’s eye, Maine and Florida are the two beefy open arms that welcomed Europe’s hopeful masses to the New World for so long.

But that doesn’t explain my sudden sentimentality which, under normal circumstances, should have been relief. The truth is that despite all of my childhood experiences and misconceptions growing up next to such an inhospitable wilderness, that had once been a colonial appendage to my home state, I hadn’t known what to expect. Yes, Maine was my first test: so close to home, yet so remote as to be inscrutable – would I be able to look beyond the miasma of my childhood memories to see an aspect of the American character I had forgotten or never knew?

The reticent yet profound nature of this corner state, that like a fog-bound coast revealed itself only partially and grudgingly, and whose reckless beauty I had never really begun to fathom, was one of the great surprises of my trip. For in the end Maine gave me a wondrous, inexplicable jolt – as though I was seeing it for the first time. Despite all the unimpeachable and practical advice I had been given – from cars to my lack of a mobile phone to time on the road – which had tended to augment rather than allay doubts over whether my trip was feasible, worthwhile or remotely productive, this first big state had shown me something marvellous about the country, that America’s edges and corners and fuzzy borders can teach something about its core. While my trip was a fluke, a fantasy and sometimes, it seemed, a silly quest, it was just now beginning to appear worth the while.

As a foreigner returning to his own land, I learned in Maine that while I may not yet belong, I wanted to.

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