Last week, I put 1100 miles on a screaming yellow rental car. Ordinarily I would avoid a vehicle of that obnoxious hue, but it offered leather seats, a sunroof, and XM radio. Given my itinerary those were certainly enticing options, and the territory I covered was more than just road miles.
I began on Monday by driving north from Waterville to Aroostook County, known here in Maine simply as The County. It’s the largest county east of the Mississippi, and it’s a place far removed from southern Maine in more ways than one. Waterville identifies itself as being in central Maine, but the fact is that if you drew a line midway between the most northern and most southern points in the state, Colby would be a good deal below it. I used to work in The County at the Maine School of Science and Mathematics (MSSM), a public, residential school for high school students seeking a more specialized and intensive education, so I have a particular fondness for Aroostook. It was as beautiful a spring day as I could hope for, and the drive north was spectacular. There’s a scenic turnout just north of Millinocket that offers a view of Mt. Katahdin, Maine’s highest peak and the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, and it was so gorgeous that I had to stop to admire it for a while. Four hours after leaving Waterville, I pulled into my destination: Limestone, the home of MSSM, located in rolling country of newly plowed potato fields with the Great North Woods in the distance, and the New Brunswick border just two miles to the east . I had a great visit with the college counselor and six MSSM juniors who hailed from points across the state, and then continued on to Caribou where I spent the night.
On Tuesday morning, I staffed the Colby table at the college fair at the University of Maine at Presque Isle. It was one of the better fairs I’ve attended, with well-prepared kids from a dozen high schools in The County, including some located in towns another hour or more north. At 11:00, the college reps packed up their wares and headed due south to Machias, a coastal town a good deal smaller than Waterville in a region known as Downeast Maine. (Extra points to those non-Mainers who know the origin of the expression Downeast.) It was another fantastic day and the drive straight down Route 1 took another four meandering hours, much of it within sight of Maine’s eastern border with Canada. I confess that there is a turn-off that could have shaved fifteen or twenty minutes off the drive, but then I would have missed several particularly beautiful little places; I even took a detour and drove out to Eastport on Quoddy Bay. The tides in this area are some of the most dramatic in the world, and even at the half-tide when I drove through, the flats stretched well into the distance. I arrived in Machias in plenty of time to take a walk through the woods and on the sandy beach at Roque Bluffs.
The college fair on Wednesday morning was at the University of Maine at Machias, located in Washington County, Maine’s eastern most, and also most economically depressed. Many livelihoods here are based on seasonal work: digging clams, working the vast stretches of blueberry fields, “tipping” and making holiday wreaths that are shipped all over the country. This economic picture is ironic given the spectacular beauty of the region, located nearly two hours east of Bar Harbor, and education is the ticket to a more prosperous future.
But it was from Machias that the real drive began, for I needed to be in Portsmouth, Rhode Island by evening. Those visitors to Colby who feel as if they’ve come to the end of the earth don’t have a clue just how much of Maine lies beyond Waterville. I got in my car after the fair in Machias at about 11:00 and didn’t arrive at my destination until almost 8:00 pm, although I did spend about an hour and a half spread out at a few stops along the way, and I chose to drive through Boston’s Big Dig as opposed to playing bumper cars on Route 128. Needless to say, I was glad to get out of the screaming yellow car.
Thursday morning brought a program at Portsmouth Abbey School followed by a similar event in the afternoon at St. George’s School in Newport. That evening, the college admissions officers who had participated in the program were treated to a fantastic dinner at an elegant country club, but not before a few of us wandered along Newport’s Cliff Walk, gawking at the mansions in the late afternoon sunlight. Let me tell you: it is a long way from Presque Isle to Machias to Newport, and I am not just talking mileage. To be candid, I’m not sure which area has the better deal.
Finally on Friday, the screaming yellow car and I made our way back to Waterville. I was fortunate to have had terrific spring weather on the entire trip. The sun roof was much appreciated, and the leather seats eased the long hours behind the wheel. But the best feature was satellite radio; as you can imagine, there were a few stretches of that week-long drive where the radio reception would have been pretty thin.
Oh yes: the point of this long voyage was to meet students, and that, of course, was the best part. No matter how humble or how privileged their backgrounds, students at their heart are fundamentally the same. They are all looking for a good education, a solid future, and the path to get them there. They were certainly worth the drive.