On Matinicus Isle Plantation, Maine’s most remote island community, the lobster boats generally are well-kept, powerful, expensive machines, bristling with all the bells and whistles required by a sometimes dangerous trade plied miles and miles out to sea.
But head ashore and the transportation landscape looks vastly different. Cruising the island’s unpaved roads, you’ll spot rusty cars, beat-up Jeeps, pickups with plants and flowers growing out of their beds and other vehicles that might have last passed a mainland inspection decades ago but which are a critical component of island life nonetheless. Think of the famed vintage cars of Cuba but with much less spit and polish and many more lobster traps. In Maine, the Yankee ingenuity that keeps old cars running is not as magazine-ready as the Cuban version, but the island car spirit is the same in both places.
“It is the interesting, creative problem-solving that I think is what’s cool about island vehicles — the homemade replacement parts for things that don’t work,” Eva Murray, a Matinicus islander who wears the hats of author, baker and emergency medical technician, said recently. “We had one guy who had two of those floating lantern-type flashlights duct taped to his front bumper. He had to manually turn on his headlights, but it worked fine. I think it’s those sort of things, these homemade repair jobs, that make island cars sort of remarkable.”
One of her favorite island car stories is about the fisherman who needed to set his traps in the spring, even though his truck only would work in reverse. Undaunted and unable to get to a mainland mechanic in any kind of timely fashion — often it can take a month or more, especially during the off-season, to get a vehicle off-island, repaired and returned to Matinicus — the fisherman did what so many islanders must: He made do.
“He lugged 800 traps up and down the island, backward, a truck load at a time. It was pretty hilarious to watch,” Murray said. “All day long he drove up and down the island, backward. That’s the kind of story I think is cool. There’s this idea that everybody is driving these old wrecks because we’re lawless pirates. … But there’s no mechanics here. There’s no daily ferries. We’re not being obstinate. There’s just no way around it — you have to make do.”
The motley fleet of vehicles that can be found on Matinicus and on every other populated Maine island without a convenient car ferry fills an important role. Residents rely on their cars and trucks to get around, to haul building supplies and groceries and to do a day’s work as a fisherman, landscaper or other tradesperson. In other words, island cars in all their rusted-out glory help to make island communities run smoothly, even if they themselves don’t.
Island cars part of the community
In Maine, registered island vehicles are exempt from the inspection laws. According to the Maine secretary of state’s office, 2,172 vehicles are registered for island use, meaning they must be operated exclusively on an island that has no state-maintained roads — there are 13 of those islands altogether. On Great Cranberry Island off Mount Desert Island, which has no car ferry, a number of parked island cars greet passengers disembarking from the mail boat or the passenger ferries at the municipal dock. Some sport obsolete license plates or endearingly ancient bumper stickers. Most look a bit worse for wear.
“Oftentimes people have an old vehicle on the mainland that gets to the point where it gets too expensive to keep it legal on the mainland — or it’s getting ready to get that way,” Chris White, a longtime seasonal resident of Great Cranberry Island who drives a 16-year-old truck with 232,000 miles on it, said. “They bring it out to the island. There are several here on the island that are just pieced together.”
Cars get brought on and off that island via a private barge, which charges about $250 per vehicle, so it’s not inexpensive, White said. That means people are more likely to try and keep their vehicles running. The island’s rolling stock includes a 1948 Plymouth, an old Studebaker pickup truck that dates back to the mid-1940s, and a Ford Model A Woody station wagon.
Keeping the fleet gassed up can vary from island to island. On Great Cranberry Island, there is a cooperatively owned gas pump. Other islands with stores or businesses may offer fuel for sale. On Matinicus, though, there’s no service station, fuel dock or fuel truck on the island, Murray said. People with their own boats can bring gas in containers from the mainland, but mostly folks who need to fuel up line up at the wharf when the “oil boat” comes, she said. Sometimes they wait a couple of hours to be able to buy fuel off the boat, which is dispensed only by people who have the training to handle fuel hoses.
“Somehow it works, more or less,” she said.
And keeping the island cars in good repair also is a moving target. White, on Great Cranberry, has had on-island boatyard mechanics work on his vehicles and said it’s good to have a simpler car.
“You want a car that’s easy to repair,” White said. “That’s part of the problem, nowadays. The older vehicles are not computerized and easier for people to repair. The newer vehicles you really need to take off [island to fix].”
Another quirk of Great Cranberry is that most of the owners of the vehicles parked at the lot by the municipal dock on the island leave their keys in their unlocked cars. That’s because the lot doubles as a landing pad for Lifeflight of Maine helicopter and at times may need to be moved in a hurry by whoever is available. That kind of community-minded spirit is not limited to leaving the keys in the ignition, either, White and other islanders said.
“People are very kind about sharing,” Sarah Corson, a longtime seasonal resident of Little Cranberry Island, said. “They’ll share their vehicle or golf cart. People pitch in. It’s really, really nice. There’s a lot of trust.”
The end of the road for some island cars
On Matinicus, Murray drives a Jeep Cherokee she said is on its last legs.
“I’m afraid the door’s going to fall off in a rainstorm or something,” she said.
She’s looking for her next island car. And even though the vehicle won’t have to drive far — there’s not much in the way of roads on Matinicus — it has to be hardy.
“You still want to bring out old vehicles,” she said. “The roads are so bad and the atmosphere is so salty and the ferry ride is so wet. You’re looking for the happy medium between a good car and a car that’s literally about to fall apart. Island roads are bomb craters out here. Some of the islands have tarred roads, but [on Matinicus] we have no tarred roads at all. It’s very Third World.”
When it’s time to finally say goodbye to her old Jeep Cherokee, Murray will have to take it off the island, and that is just fine with her. Beginning about 15 years ago, the islanders have been working to reduce the numbers of dead vehicles that rust into the island’s scenery forever. One heady day, Matinicus islanders hired a Prock Marine barge and a big crane and spent all day pulling and twitching the dead cars off island. Nowadays, if you haul a bring a vehicle over to Matinicus, you have to pay a $250 deposit to the town.
“If you abandon the vehicle, the town has ferry fare and enough for a wrecker,” Murray said. “Even though we still have some creative vehicles and some uninspectable vehicles, we don’t have the same amount of utter crud. It was getting to the point where there really were too many and they really were in the way of pretty much everybody.”
Over on Isle au Haut, resident Kendra Chubbuck, who drives a 2004 Subaru Forester with nearly 150,000 miles on it, said that even when you think a vehicle is dead, it often gets resuscitated by someone else. Before she started driving her current ride, which sports a cracked windshield, has a falling-off muffler and is rusting out, she drove a 1997 Jeep Cherokee with more than 180,000 miles on it. It kept getting flat tires and seemed like more trouble than it was worth, so she gave it away to somebody else, and they gave it away to somebody else. And so on.
“It’s gone through four families out here, and it’s still running,” she said. “Every time I see it, I wish I’d kept it.”
Still, she also sees derelict vehicles that she believes really ought to be hauled off Isle au Haut that remain there.
“They’re just hanging in people’s yards, and are here forever,” Chubbuck said. “You’ve got to pay to get them off, and it’s expensive. It can cost anywhere from $250 to $400 to get them off the island and people just let them die here. Or they give their car away to somebody who wants to use it for parts.”
Her husband, John DeWitt, drives a 1997 Ford truck, a multipurpose workhorse of a vehicle which has occasionally moonlighted as a tractor.
“It helped us build the house, pulling out tree stumps and pulling out rocks,” Chubbuck said.
The four-wheel drive has given out and the back end rusted and has been replaced by a wooden truck bed. Nevertheless, they have no plans to upgrade.
“I’d kind of hate to get a new truck,” DeWitt said.
For Chubbuck, the very old vehicles that have made it out to the island and never made it off help to give Isle au Haut some of its character.
“I love the old, old vehicles out here,” she said. “The old-fashioned trucks from the 1920s and 1930s. Really old. And they use them out here. They actually drive them.”