For nearly four years, I stayed safely tucked away in what some people lovingly refer to as “America’s cul-de-sac” — Maine. I only left the state a handful of times, once to go to New Hampshire and several times to visit Boston. All along, the Maine lifestyle was becoming ingrained in me, but I didn’t know just how much until last week, when the boys and I took a trip to Washington, D.C.
We weren’t in Kansas — I mean, Maine — anymore.
The first thing that changes as you move down and out of the state is the tollbooth workers. Near Portland, the attendants are chatty. They smile as they hand you your change. If you’re lost, they’ll give you directions. No one honks from behind as they wait.
In New Hampshire, the attendants wear latex gloves and seldom smile. But they still make eye contact, which is better than the situation farther south, where the attendants don’t turn their heads; they just put out their hand to collect the toll.
Although the boys and I were supposedly headed to a warmer climate, I could feel a chill creeping in. We were venturing into the rest of the world, a world that until 2008, when we moved to Maine, was all I had ever known. But now it seemed different: lonelier, busier and consumed by pavement.
When I crossed the Piscataqua River Bridge and dense pine trees disappeared from my rearview mirror, something in my heart begged me to turn around.
During the week of our visit, temperatures in D.C. were similar to Maine. Without piles of snow on the side of the road, however, D.C.’s winter somehow seemed colder. Car horns and engine brakes echoed throughout the city streets without any snowbank to stop them. Women’s heels clicked on the sidewalk like they were walking down an empty hallway. No one seemed to know anyone else. Certainly, no one knew us.
The boys and I were dressed in our usual winter gear — scarves, hats, gloves — but the stores and restaurants we visited had nowhere to store them. More than once I reflexively tried to hang my coat from an imaginary hook on the side of the restaurant booth.
At the hotel, I looked for a mitten rack and a rubber mat for our wet shoes. I thought about a time when I saw these things for sale at L.L.Bean, along with roof rakes at the hardware store, and didn’t know what use they’d be. Now, Maine’s customs seem second nature to me.
In the beginning of our trip, the Metro was exciting and novel for the boys. We talked about Batman and Gotham City as we rode the steep escalators up from the Metro station and into the city. Across the Potomac River, in neighboring Crystal City, the boys marveled at the entirely underground shopping mall. But as the week went on and we schlepped through more tunnels and underground passageways, we all became fatigued.
“I miss the sun,” one of the boys said.
“And I miss grass to play in,” said another.
We realized that we could spend an entire day going from Metro to Metro and tunnel to tunnel without ever seeing the outside. I began to feel like a mouse in a maze. Everything looked the same. The long fluorescent lights overhead started to make me sick. I didn’t know if we were in Crystal City or Pentagon City, this Metro station or that Metro station.
We visited Dustin at the Pentagon on Thursday, and it was more tunnels, lights, corridors and windowless rooms. People passing us in the hallway frowned at the ground and didn’t look up.
Soon, I started to realize that nearly everyone we encountered seemed to dislike their job or their commute. People were busy and stressed and seemingly unhappy. I wondered if the lights and the tunnels had sucked the life out of them. Or was it the honking cars and dimly lit subway stations? We shuffled like sheep from station to station, bumped and jostled by the passing crowds or the Metro’s tracks.
One day, I stood in the rain lost and confused with the boys. We had taken the wrong Metro, and now we were turned around and unsure which way to go. Busy passersby moved us to the side with their quick steps. It occurred to me that no one for miles in all directions had any reason to care about us. They had trains to catch and tunnels to walk through. Clocks were ticking. We were in the way.
And right then I knew, when we crossed the Piscataqua again, this time headed north, the affectionate “cul-de-sac” title would have new meaning. I would sigh with relief as the pine trees enveloped us and the first tollbooth worker said, “Have a safe trip.”
In Maine, we would be home again.