Born and raised in Maine, by the age of 17 I was certain about two things. First, I knew that I wanted to go to college. Second, I knew that I wanted to leave Maine and experience life outside of my home state.
My parents had one stipulation, that wherever I went it had to be within a day’s drive of home. I don’t remember whether I actually sat down with a protractor or not, but I sketched a belt across the Northeastern part of the U.S. that marked the area about eight hours from Bangor. Then I applied to colleges within that belt — right at the end of my tether.
The funny thing was, though, that once I finally left Maine — bound for what I hoped would be broader horizons and new worlds — all I did was talk about being from Maine. My home state became my principle identification. Things that I had been eager to abandon while still going to high school in Bangor I suddenly found myself embracing in my new, out-of-state context. I wore my hiking boots and my plaid shirts like name tags of where I was from. I brought my snowshoes to college, hanging them on the wall along with the string of shotgun shell Christmas lights my dad had made for me. I became the L.L. Bean poster child.
I wasn’t the only Mainer to cheerfully leave the state only to cling to my identity as a Mainer. Just a few months into my first semester of college, I was invited to my first “Maine party.” Held in the apartment of an upperclassman originally from Belfast, it was a get-together for all Mainers at my college in New York state. I made my way over to the apartment, knocked and felt an odd, inexplicable relief when I stepped inside: Here were people who knew exactly where I was coming from. The host pointed to a giant map of Maine on a corkboard right by the door. “Come on in,” she said. “Take a pin and mark your hometown. There’s Sea Dog and Moxie in the fridge.”
We had a few more of these “Maine parties” that year, and I always looked forward to them. We would sit around and talk about the state we’d left behind, figuring out our geographic and social connections to one another. One girl and I realized that we’d played on opposing teams at a dramatic field hockey game three years earlier and reminisced about the showdown between our coaches, the referee and a particularly volatile goalie. Another guy had worked on a trail crew with my best friend’s boyfriend. Two other students realized that their cousins were roommates at the University of Maine.
In some ways, these little connections made me feel like I had come not from a rural Northeastern state, but from one really big “small town.”
By the time my junior year rolled around, I had firmly established myself as Meg-from-Maine. When I went abroad to Spain for the year, though, I left that lingering camaraderie behind. In Madrid, when you said you were from the U.S., everyone imagined that you were from either California or New York City — neither of which had much bearing on my reality. I spent a lot of time trying to explain my home state to people, “North of Boston” had the most success, showing them pictures of Green Lake, my snow-covered car, and my mom skiing in the woods by our house. They looked confused.
“I thought you were from the U.S.,” they said. “Not Canada.”
I’ve talked with other friends who, not long after high school, left the state, and many of them also found themselves transformed into flag-waving Mainers. There’s something about “home” that always draws you, but it’s especially pronounced for those of us whose home is a little more out of the way than most. Because when you grow up in Maine, you really are quite different from those Californians and those New Yorkers in some important ways. It’s not just that you’re the last person to put a sweater on or that you’ve eaten a lobster roll, or that you can joke about black flies the size of birds. It’s the fact that when you run into someone else from your home state, you actually can talk to them for 20 minutes and find common turf. The kinship felt between Mainers isn’t just nominal — being a rural state with a small population, odds are our lives really do overlap.
And if it turns out you never played on the same Little League team when you were kids, well, you can always laugh about that dusting that the Californians call “heavy snow.” That never gets old.
Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org