Posted by: rajagainstthemachine | December 14, 2010

By the Paper Mill

At first blush, Millinocket seemed a dead end town if I had ever visited one. Midday on an October Monday and the streets were sleepy. Not many people about, although the odd 4WD would roll by the main junction in town.

Founded in 1829, Millinocket forged itself off the back of the Great Northern paper mill. The mill was powered by a hydroelectric dam, built at the West branch of the Penobscot River and Millinocket Stream by Italian laborers working off the cost of their passage to the United States. At one point, the town boasted a population of five thousand. But the paper mill filed for bankruptcy in 2003.

Beset by unemployment, and moderately dependent on government aid, the town is now trying to reinvent itself through tourism, banking on its proximity to the majestic Mount Katahdin, rising high above the plain in Baxter.

But inspite of its tourist ambitions, on this particular day, I seemed to be the only one around. Late October is dead time – the fall foliage has dropped, decomposing into barren ground, waiting for snowfall.

I had booked a room at the Inn, an eight room hotel near the town centre. I walked into the lobby and chimed the bell. No answer. Then I saw a note, neatly labelled with my name and key to my room. “Back later” it said. As I walked up to my room, I realized I was the only guest. I had the place to myself. Green carpet and ivory wall paper, peeling away from the walls.

When one thinks of Maine, the first images that come to the mind an unseasoned visitor are of whitewashed weatherboard houses sporting American flags, seaside restaurants, clam chowder, lobster, and people in turtleneck cashmere pullovers. But this was true, working class America. Everyone – or at least those few people that loitered – seemed to drive a pick-up, had a beard, and dressed in hunting gear or camouflage.

Where was I? After three days of Yoga, I had come here in a bid to make it back into Baxter State Park, and hopefully spot my first moose. A generally placid animal, but magnificent nonetheless, standing at over 7 feet tall and weighing six to eight hundred pounds.  Unfortunately, my guide decided that he was no longer prepared to take me into the park – since he had no other visitors on the roster.

So I was stuck, facing the prospect of a day reading the rest of my book – the Mahabharata at that – in the confines of the Inn. I felt I was just a bundle of contradictions. An Indian, Australian, vegetarian, yoga practising, lawyer on sabbatical from an investment bank trying to find a new path – stuck in a mill town in Northern Maine.

A day in the Inn was the kind of prospect that felt like it could have sent me stir crazy. So I decided to take a walk. Twenty metres from the hotel, I reached the main strip. I recall there was a gas station, laundromat, a newsagent, and then two cafes. And not much else.

No change, no pace, everything within its place.

So I walked back to the Inn, picked up my book, and decided to try and find a spot to read. Walking now in the opposite direction, I followed the highway. But there was just intercity traffic – semi-trailers and trucks – to keep me company. And nowhere quiet to put down. So I walked back to the Inn.

Faced with an entire day of these repeating return journeys, I reached one of those rare moments – when I find myself capable of actually making a decision. I put on my hiking boots and gear, and decided that one way or another, I was going to find my way into the park.

Two miles up the highway, I finally found the State Park Office. I picked out some walks near the park entrance.  Now for Baxter. Luckily, there was a taxi service – well, one taxi – in town. I called and the driver and he agreed to take me to the Park. He would come get me in 20 minutes. Enough time to walk to the convenience store behind the local drive through McDonalds and pick up some trail mix and bottles of water.

The taxi arrived and I hopped in as we set out for Baxter. By now it was after 2 pm and there were just a few hours of light left. As we headed out of the outskirts of town, I realized I had underestimated the distance sharply. I had negotiated with my driver that he would pick me up – at 5 pm. That would give me a couple of hours to tackle one of the shorter walks near the Ranger’s Office.

The further out of town we got, the more I started to regret my decision. My anxiety was compounded by the calls that my driver was getting from other passengers he had forgotten to collect at the agreed time. Sure – he was busy – the only cab in town. But the prospect of being stranded in Baxter State park on the cusp of winter wasn’t a promising one. I resisted the temptation to ask him to turn back, then and there.

Looking out over the dashboard,  I noticed a small coin box on the dashboard – marked with the insignia of a charity.

“What’s that for?” I asked.

“It’s umm … for a local organization I am involved with”.

“You mean a charity?”.

“No, just … an … organization”.

“Like the Lions’ Club or Rotary?”.

“No – they’re just, an … organization“.

As this conversation evolved, every ounce of my prejudices and anxieties swelled in. Here I was, thirty miles out of town, not long from sundown, with a member of an “organization” with an apparent memory problem. I pictured myself, shivering at nightfall, trying to walk back to town with nothing but a half a snickers bar. You read about these things in the papers. My heart sank to the pit of my stomach, weighed down by my insecurities.

A short while later, as I stewed on these fears, we pulled into Baxter. I paid and reconfirmed my arrangements to be picked up at sundown.

As the taxi started to reverse away, the Ranger, noticing that I was on my own, refused me entry. I explained our arrangement – pick-up at 5, and that I was not going to be far from the Ranger’s Post. But that was getting me nowhere. The Ranger was adamant, she was going to ship me back to town in the Taxi.

Maybe it was just not meant to be.

As we debated the situation, I noticed a man stepping out from a black truck next to us. “Hey – you can come with us”. He was tall, heavyset, with long greying hair and a moustache. Dressed head to toe in black, with a Dream Theatre tee-shirt on. In that instinctive moment, I went along with it. The Ranger obliged.

I got in the back seat with a little trepidation. There was a woman in the back seat, sitting next to me. “Hi I’m Elizabeth”, she said.  I relaxed a little to her calming presence. Then the driver introduced himself – Andy – and his brother – Rob, from Australia! I relaxed a little more. The next thing they told me was that they – the brothers – were Bahai. I relaxed a little more again. I started to realize that my day had started to turn (or better put, my mind had turned – away from the anxiety I had created for myself).

The randomness of the event hit home – in an isolated pocket of Northern Maine, and offered a ride by an Australian! Rob ran a Middle Eastern restaurant in Queensland. He was a jazz guitarist by day.

Andy had recently moved. In Kansas, he was a government worker, a street sweeper operator. But his true passion was music – Heavy Metal – he played the drums. On retirement he and Elizabeth had re-located to Maine, looking for change. She was a 911 dispatch operator. We talked about her job; the stresses it had put her under; the lives she had touched. Both of them had suffered loss, but had found each other and now decided to make a new life in Maine.

Against the mountain’s backdrop, Andy, Rob and I started our hike around the lake. The Brothers were  competitive, the younger in particular always trying to rush ahead at breakneck speed. They played off each others’ words, each with wit and comebacks to the other’s quips. In many ways, they were different, but there was no doubt about their bond. You could tell they were relishing each other’s company. It was fun to witness.

We got to talking. They had both grown up in a strict household out West. They explained how they came to their Bahai faith. “In the sixties, everyone was questioning things – so were we”. They had come across Swami Yogananda and both read “Autobiography of a Yogi”. From there, their questioning and quest, for spirituality, led them to the Bahai faith.

“Bet you never met a Heavy Metal drummer who’s read Autobiography of a Yogi?”.

So there I was, an Indian-Australian, vegetarian, yoga practising, lawyer on sabbatical from an investment bank trying to find a new path, in a car with a Bahai drummer from Kansas, an ex 911 dispatch officer, a jazz guitarist  with a part share in a Middle Eastern restaurant. A crucible of contradictions.

By now the sun was in full splendour, casting rays out over the lake. It was spectacular. Then something caught my eye from the track. I pulled out my binoculars. It was a Moose cow – thirty feet away, drinking her afternoon fill. She was large – over six and a half feet tall – and looked up regally.

We stared at each other for a moment. Then she turned back to the water.

Baxter is a wild place – deliberately left uninterrupted. Here we were guests, truly, here at nature’s leisure. We admired her for a while, against the backdrop of the lake, glistening from the afternoon sunshine. Quiet time.

Later that evening, we left the Park for town. My newfound friends bought me dinner at the Appalachian, a cafe named for the end of the trail that hikers take, starting more than two thousand miles away in Springer, Georgia. We broke bread together.

Leaving the dinner, I felt energized. In one day, you can rise from lows and trappings of your mind. In one hour, life can defeat your insecurities. Peoples’ kindness can disarm you. And then, you stand to trial against your own misjudgments.

Growing up and living in big cities, Sydney, London, New York, people like us – city dwellers – are conditioned to make assumptions, to react instinctively to people and situations. I think this is partly because we operate on a different clock – we’re trained to treat time as of the essence. Not to stop, think, take a breath – to allow yourself to know those you come across, and not just to judge them.

But this country is made not of its cities, but its small towns. People and events shift, cross pollinating place with cultures transposed amongst them. Through it, however, common values endure, carried throughout by people welcoming you into their lives and histories. In many ways, America, although notorious for its individualism, is not about that, at all. It’s about sharing. Sharing stories. And more often than not, they can take you by surprise.

The next morning, I called the taxi back for a ride to the bus stand. The driver and I talked a little more. The “organization” he was a member of was the Knights of Columbus, a catholic charity that lends a helping hand to those in need about town. “I’m one of the few Democrats in town”, he said. He was hopeful for economic change, that things would turn for the better.

I stepped on the bus and took my seat for the long ride to Portland. I stared out through my reflection at the passing scenery, feeling humbled.

Advertisements

Responses

  1. I just found your blog. As a fellow cancer survivor, my thoughts and prayers are with you.
    Also…Great Blog! You are a credit to the cancer blogging community. I have added you to my blogroll, “Cancer Blogs Lists” with over 1200 other personal cancer blogs at http://www.beingcancer.net, a cancer networking site featuring a cancer book club, guest blogs, cancer resources, reviews and more.
    If you have not visited before or recently, please stop by. If you agree that the site is a worthwhile resource for those affected by cancer, please consider adding Being Cancer Network to your own blogroll.
    Now that you are listed, you can expect to gain a wider audience for your thoughts and experiences. Being Cancer Network is a place to share and communicate.

    Take care, Dennis (beingcancer@att.net)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: