Every month, Portland-based Maine magazine takes its readers to a different part of the state through a regular feature titled 48 Hours. For the March edition — also the Food Issue — Editor Susan Grisanti and Associate Publisher Steve Kelly traveled to Aroostook County; Susan to Presque Isle and Steve to Fort Kent.
Neither had been to Aroostook before and both traveled with family members. After meeting Susan in Presque Isle and reading about the journeys of both writers, I decided to contact them to learn more about their impressions of places they had only imagined before this year.
“When I asked friends what I should do in Fort Kent, most replied with a puzzled look and ‘Why?’” Steve wrote. In our conversation, he confirmed that his plan to visit Aroostook in January evoked some skepticism. For Steve, however, “it was an amazing opportunity to explore a part of Maine I had never explored.”
Jackman was the farthest north he had been and he was attracted to the town at the end of Route 11. So Steve, his wife, Jocelyn, son Oskar, and adopted greyhound dog Happy took I-95 north to Smyrna where they cut over to Route 11 and arrived in Fort Kent at 9:30 p.m., seeing a coyote, a pair of moose and a doe with fawns on the way.
“I take Hap out for her nightly walk and look across the St. John River toward Canada,” he wrote, after settling in at the Northern Door Inn. “The night is still, with the exception of distant snowmobiles making their way toward town.”
The memory of that view lingered after he returned to Portland, along with impressions collected during the next two days in downtown Fort Kent, on the Lonesome Pine and 10th Mountain ski trails, at the Fort Kent Blockhouse, and in meals at Rock’s Family Diner, China Garden, Swamp Buck Restaurant and Long Lake Sporting Club in Sinclair.
“Everyone we met was really kind,” Steve said in our phone conversation, identifying the “warmth of the people” as the most memorable aspect of the trip.
He also was impressed with the sense of community evident in the attendance at Saturday mass at St. Louis Catholic Church, “with its strikingly beautiful filigree steeple,” and in the abundance of kids gathered at ski areas on both Saturday and Sunday.
“I thought there was a traffic accident in the middle of town,” he said recalling the police officer directing traffic as the church emptied after four o’clock mass. “Fort Kent is a strong Catholic town. Church is clearly an important activity. That level of community — people going out to church and interacting — was really lovely.”
At Lonesome Pine ski area he observed the community of young people dropped off by their parents for a day on the trails. “Lonesome Pine is a place to socialize and have fun,” he said, commenting on the kids’ good fortune to have such a place.
The Kennebunk native who has lived in Maine most of his life said this trip to Fort Kent was his first, but not his last.
Susan Grisanti wrote that “over the years I’ve heard much folklore about ‘The County’: how different it is from the southern part of the state, how the landscape totally changes as you head to the northern reaches — flatter, broader, more open … wide open.” What she did not expect when she arrived for a weekend in January was the vibrant arts culture she found in downtown Presque Isle.
“I had the impression I was going to the end of the earth,” she said in an interview. “I didn’t expect the historic part of Main Street with its urban feel. It was much more art-centric than I expected. I really loved it.”
She compared the atmosphere to Portland’s Old Port, where you can park and walk, hear great music and eat fine food. Her recollection echoed her published comments: “Here we are sitting in a funky cafe, eating out-of-this-world house-made pastries, sipping wonderful coffee and listening to fantastic local music.”
She said she was moved by community support for the owner of a new Main Street restaurant with a vision for combining art, performance and locally grown food. “The restaurant oozes with vibe — a mixture of folk and blues music drifts around the space marked by exposed brick walls and large colorful artwork,” she wrote.
Their tour of downtown Presque Isle took Susan and her 11-year-old son Jack from their quarters at the Hampton Inn to Star City Coffee, The Whole Potato Cafe and Commons, Cafe Sorpreso and the Irish Setter Pub, as well as Mojo Outdoor Sports. They even saw the Presque Isle Wildcats girls varsity basketball team beat Washington Academy Saturday afternoon. “That was a sweet moment,” she recalled.
Susan and Jack also got outside, cross-country skiing at the Nordic Heritage Center, hiking the North Peak Trail at Aroostook State Park, downhill skiing at Bigrock Mountain in Mars Hill and riding with Caston Lovely, trailmaster of the Presque Isle Snowmobile Club, on his daily grooming run that took them as far north as Stockholm.
“His pride for the area is contagious, something that I easily catch — especially as we travel over miles of breathtaking scenery,” she wrote. In our phone conversation, Susan underscored her admiration for the collaborative efforts of “people who create community to bring tourism to the area,” including those who allow access to their property through easements for the trails. “I’m from Los Angeles where people don’t do something for nothing,” she said, adding she could not imagine such access in California.
Friends familiar with Aroostook County had told Susan to expect warmth, but she said her expectations were surpassed. She captured the feeling in her description of their last stop in Aroostook at Al’s Diner in Mars Hill, “surrounded by the lovely folks who have made this weekend as special as the natural beauty of their land. We’re nestled in the middle of a few tables of families having brunch after church. Their warm words toward each other, and to us, ring in my ears long after we drive away in the thin, sharp Aroostook County light.”
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou 04736.