The Piscataqua River Bridge carries six lanes of traffic between Portsmouth, N.H., and Kittery, Maine. But I daydream only about the three headed Maineward. The state has many cultists. By my count, they include everyone who lives in Maine and everyone who visits. These two primordial categories of people: “native Mainers” and those “from away.”
As you tour some quiet Maine bookshop and find yourself helplessly purchasing coastal sea maps and books about Mafia-like activity among lobstermen, or contemplating where you might display a model of a “lost Maine schooner,” you start to wonder why you’ve never known about all this stuff before. You wonder if Maine, like China, is an entire world to itself.
And it is. I don’t eat lobster, and I can’t root for the Boston Red Sox, but something about the ragged coastline of this state ignites my imagination. Maine has a definite “Maineness,” a quality that is evident in everything from accents to architecture. The way someone’s tongue wraps itself around the last syllable of “night crawlahs” before hooking them on the line as fish bait will have a Maineness to it.
My family used to stay in a cabin on Damariscotta Lake. And once each year we would go out to the jutting gray rocks of Pemaquid Point, overseen by a picturesque white lighthouse. An easy way to fill up a morning on vacation. But with what? In such places, people are talking about buying a hat or a replica of the lighthouse at the gift shop. They speak about where they might eat lunch or get a lobster roll. But “Pemaquid” is an Abenaki Indian word meaning “situated far out.” And amid those jagged rocks, and the briny splash of the North Atlantic, the mind turns to higher things — contemplating death, God, sex, and maybe a nameless and welcome sense of gratitude for all the things in life that brought you to this place.
I like the variety of people, the hard men who wake up for lobster, or who used to work up near Jackman, near the Canadian border, in the state’s forest industries. I like the men who intrigue at slightly seedy golf clubs. At another end are the easeful women wearing their “Nantucket red” skirts in Freeport, home of L.L.Bean. I like the tourist workers in Bar Harbor, people “from away” who speculate with you for hours about the state’s bizarre love for the barely digestible liqueur known as “Allen’s Coffee Brandy.” Then, after some laughs, they serve you a local Allen’s delicacy they call “leg spreadah,” and you admire the ocean even more. Somehow, in another cocktail, that louche humor mixes with the weird Yankee virtues of thrift and simplicity, virtues that are on paradoxically conspicuous display in Mount Desert Island’s Northeast Harbor. And man, that island is gorgeous in the Indian-summer light.
The coast of Maine seems fully and productively absorbed not by some national debate or controversy but by its own business, which is the sum of the lives of natives and people from away. That’s why Maine feels like an escape or even a meditative retreat. Maineness points to a deep and worthy philosophical approach to life. You go to Maine to appreciate Maine being itself. A sip of leg spreadah helps.
This article appears as “Maineness ” in the September 9, 2019, print edition of National Review.