Two or Three Six-Packs: Musings on the Airline and other things Maine

A good spot for a body or two, eh?

I planned on reviewing the other four YA Edgar nominees this time around and predicting the winner. However, I haven’t finished reading all of them and the competition this time around is going to be tighter than last year, so that will happen when next I blog.

If you’ve driven Route 9, AKA the Airline, from Brewer to Calais, you know it’s probably the second best road in Maine after I-95/the Maine Turnpike. A few years ago, you would have said the exact opposite, but it’s now two lanes on most hills, wide all the way and redone so cruising at better than legal speed is pretty much how folks drive when they use it. This road, which acquired its nickname back when pilots used it as a guide to get from Bangor to Calais (and vice versa), traverses some 90 miles, much of it still fairly wild country. Whenever I’m traveling this stretch of Maine, I find myself imagining all the mysterious possibilities that might lie on one of the small roads leading away from the ribbon of tar. I no sooner get the imaginarium cooking when I crest one of the innumerable hills and the view snaps me back to reality. If you are a camera person, there are ample opportunities to stop and try for one of those photos which make a hundred unsatisfactory shots seem like every one was worth the single gem. You can drive this road a hundred times and the interplay of clouds, time of day and time of year will offer you more variations than one could imagine. Granted, other roads in Maine provide similar opportunities, but I think the Airline trumps them all.

It was the first road I heard described in six-packs. That was back when I was fresh out of college and a girlfriend and I struck off on a four day exploration of Hancock and Washington Counties. Our second night found us trying, and pretty much failing, to erect a tent in a downpour, accompanied by howling winds at Cobscook Bay State Park. We survived that night, shivering and wrapped in sodden sleeping bags inside a tent that was either half up or half down (depending, I guess, on whether you were an optimist or a pessimist). The rest of the weekend, made up for our discomfort as the weather turned hot, dry and not-a-cloud-in-the-sky-sunny. We explored Lubec, Eastport and Calais, poking into shops and striking up conversations with perfect, but extremely friendly strangers. When I asked one fellow about the best way to get back to Augusta, he thought for a moment and then said “take the airline, boy. It’s above Calais a bit and shouldn’t be more than two or three six-packs to Bangor.”
The blank look on my face must have alerted him to my cluelessness regarding that particular measure of distance because he hastened to explain that if I was somewhere between a toe-dipper and a full dunker, I might figure two six-packs, but if I was a regular sort, I better figure on three. Keep in mind, I’m recalling a brief conversation that happened around 1973, but the gist of it is pretty close. As time went on, I heard distance measured similarly numerous times.

When we moved to Hartland in 2003 and I was still working at the Maine State Library, I hit I-95 in Pittsfield every morning. If you look due east, the horizon is dominated by a mountain in Dixmont with half a dozen towers on it. I started wondering how that mountain might work in a short story. “Tower Mountain” was published in a Level Best anthology that fall. I moved the mountain to a spot north of the Airline and started the story at a scenic turnout that overlooks the waterway you see above. A year or so after the story was published, I happened on a news item in The Bangor Daily News about the discovery of a human skull right below where people park at this spot. No body was found and I haven’t seen or heard a word since. Given the amount of wild country and all the small roads cris-crossing the area, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that half the New Jersey Mafia is feeding ferns somewhere adjacent to the Airline.

If you’re a fisherman with a day or two free, you could do worse that explore the streams and rivers this road crosses. There are, I suspect, twice as many fishing opportunities to be found if you have time to venture along some of the dirt roads and logging trails branching off the main road. On that long ago excursion, we took one of those roads and discovered Upper and Lower Cranberry Lake, two bodies of water which at that time, were fairly free of camps and had lots of sandy beaches. If you are a fan of hiking trails, avail yourself of some of the amazing trails in the Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge just south of where the Airline meets Route 1.

Let’s switch gears for a bit. Shortly after graduating from library school, I had the opportunity to teach for several semesters at Central Maine Community College, first in a classroom and then over the web. The class was Information Technology and the biggest challenge was to get 18-21 year olds to realize that not everything online was either factual or current. The internet was still relatively young then and the number of people stumbling out of the chute and onto the web playing field was vastly greater on a daily basis than it is now. That made getting students to become healthy skeptics when it came to evaluating the currency and validity of online information akin to bailing a 30 foot lobster boat with a one cup measure on a day when your arthritis is raging. In short, pretty darn difficult. I started them off each semester with some scavenger hunting through print references because, like it or not, there are times when print still has a huge edge.

I mention this because one of the books I used is one I still refer to frequently, both as a writer and as a librarian and I suspect there are some reading this who aren’t familiar with the book in question. I’m referring to The Maine Register, published annually by Tower Publishing. They go back well into the 19th century and many larger Maine libraries have pretty solid runs. Why is this important to writers? Well, for one reason, it’s the best resource in one volume for things like demographic information on every town in the state. Need current stuff? Look in the latest one. Need to know whether there was a practicing dentist in Kingfield back in 1929, (and there was…my grandfather Dr. Arthur Hight Clark), look in the book for that year. Most, if not all professionals, services and businesses for each town are listed. In addition, you can find out the current elected officials, the town manager, animal control officer, town clerk, health officer, road commissioner, tax collector, welfare director, civil emergency preparedness director, constable, fire chief, and holders of offices you didn’t know existed. The size, geographic location, population from the last two censuses, the address, phone, fax and email for the municipal office, the location of the post office, who supplies phone and electric service, town valuation and any businesses in operation are also included. The listings pretty much give you everything in snapshot form you’d need to create a fictional town.

The book doesn’t stop there. It gives you a mileage chart between an abundance of Maine towns and cities, Who represents us in Washington, Who serves in federal courts across the state, which federal agencies are in the state and where they’re located, who heads up pretty much any state office by branch or department, who serves as county commissioners, dedimus justices, probate courts, register of deeds, current notaries, sheriffs and deputies, district attorneys and chambers of commerce by county. There’s a comprehensive list of clubs, associations, societies and organizations across the state with contact information, starting with agricultural ones, all the way to sporting and recreational entries. A section listing communications media follows, broken into daily and non-daily papers and periodicals followed by radio stations, TV stations, cable systems, wire services, then hospitals and public institutions, school units, colleges and post-secondary schools, state parks, a zip code directory and a section on employment statistics. In sum, this is as information rich a book as I’ve ever seen. If you write about Maine and want something handy to verify information or flesh out a fictional location or situation, you can’t do better. While they sell for a pretty penny online, you can often find them dirt cheap at thrift stores or library book sales. Sometimes you can find an extra copy at your town office or library.

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6 Responses to Two or Three Six-Packs: Musings on the Airline and other things Maine

  1. Deanna says:

    Interesting article. You list dedimus justices as if everyone know what they are. I googled them and found that they are as old as Maine and only in Maine. Thanks, Dee

  2. MCWriTers says:

    As Dee says, very interesting. Now I’m afraid I’ll need more bookshelf space, if I’m to acquire these. Will my local library have them?


  3. John Clark says:

    I doubt the Concord library has any, but I know an enterprising librarian in Hartland who has a few extras stashed away

  4. Mario R. says:

    Enjoyed the blog entry, thank you. However, for the sake of those of us who are not Mainiacs (as a college friend of mine, born and raised in Portland, once explained to me: there are two kinds of people in Maine: Mainiacs and Summer Complaints), could you explain the terms toe-dipper, full dunker, and six-pack?

    Much obliged.
    –Mario R.

  5. John Clark says:

    Hi Mario,
    First off thanks for reading and responding. I think we who post often wonder how much our words get read. Here in Maine, we have a bible belt, much like you hear about in the midwest. I happen to live smack-dab in the middle of it. Back in the 1970s, when Sharon and I went on that odyssey, Baptists were the preponderant fundamentalists here in Maine. Old timers like the fellow we ran into up in Calais were generally of the cynical sort when it came to religion and thus had an arsenal of mildly derogatory terms to describe levels of religious fervor. In their parlance, a toe dipper would be akin to a casual church goer, whereas a full dipper was a full-blown born again Christian. The references referred to the type of baptism, toe dippers got the splash on the forehead, while full dunkers were just that, someone completely immersed in a pond or lake during their baptism. Six-pack refers to the way beer came in those days, mostly Nastygansett and Budweiser bottles that came six to a cardboard carton. Of course if you were a serious Maine drinker back then you remember fondly(?) the famous five bottles in a plastic bag for a buck, plus deposit.

    • Mario R. says:

      Your words are read more often than you realize … and I thank you for your swift reply. I would never have thought of baptism as the explanation — to me, toe-dipping is what you do at the beach if you don’t want to get your clothes wet, and dunking is what you do with a biscotti (or other baked good) and tea, neither of which fit with the concept of a six-pack of beer. (I’m old enough to remember six-pack cartons and regret their passing — vastly more eco-friendly than those horrible plastic bird-killer rings used today.) All is now clear, thank you! –Mario R.

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