John Clark on an unusually chilly July morning.
Even though our audience was small on Tuesday night in Dover-Foxcroft, we had plenty of fun and the session went for almost an hour and a half. At one point I mentioned driving by a sign for Dark Mountain Road on my way to do some work with the folks at the Witherle Library in Castine while I was employed at the Maine State Library. I thought about what might be found on that road for the rest of the trip and later included some of what I’d imagined in a story that was bought by Level Best Books. I’m sure most of us who blog here or who are followers and live in rural areas can tell stories about strangely named or mysterious roads. What about the ones we have gone by time after time and never explored because we were too busy. If we have stories to tell about those that have been explored, what might await us on those not yet traveled?
Retirement is affording me a bit more time (although far less than I expected) to satisfy those curious urges. I have yet to explore some of the back roads that have captured my fancy since we moved to Hartland, but I’ve hit enough over the years to create a reservoir of story-possible territories of the mind. In Appleton the next town north of where I grew up, for instance, there are several places I’ve explored that may turn up in future short stories or books. If you drive north past Sennebec Hill Farm where Kate and I grew up, you come to a sharp turn with a tar road bearing to your right. It was here that I drove a Honda 90 into a large elm the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college. Turn onto that road and you can make a long loop back to East Sennebec Road atop the hill looking over Appleton Village. There are several roads branching off it. One dead ends just above what we used to call the old Gurney Place. Way back when we first moved to Union in 1949, it went further and met the Barret Hill Road that eventually intersects route 17 by my old high school . If I remember right, it was part of an old stage coach line. The road it connects to on the ridge overlooking Sennebec Lake, had only cellar holes and a couple forlorn barns when I was a kid. Today, you can drive past some really fancy places. Personally, I tend to remember the stories about the stage and imagine one flying along that ridge, ghostly passengers outlined by a Halloween moon.
If you ignored the turn toward the Gurney Place and kept going, you’d eventually come to another sharp corner that used to be a four-way intersection. Beth and I parked here years ago and walked up the road going to the right. An hour later, we found ourselves on a hilltop where stunted oaks made it look like we had stumbled upon a Greek amphitheater. We could see the ocean and Mt. Battie to the east, Clary Hill to the south and Sennebec Lake down below. When we started down, we followed a small brook that serenaded us as it cascaded over rocks. We came around a bend and found ourselves in the dooryard of some absolute back to the lander’s dwelling. Their place was on the road that led back to where we’d parked and this one was pretty passable. In fact, I’ve gone up it numerous times since then and fished the brook down to a small pond. There are numerous old cellar holes dotting the west side of that road. If you follow it all the way through (best with four-wheel drive), you come out on Route 105 heading to Hope. Not far past the back to the lander’s place, there’s another road which crosses a small stream that feeds the swamp above the little pond that’s loaded with wild rice in October. There’s a structurally sound shed in a small field halfway out this road…Perfect to hide stolen goods or a body.
That road eventually comes out on what’s known as the Peabody Road which connects East Sennebec Rd. with Route 105. There are more abandoned houses and cellar holes between it and the Georges River. I walked down through the woods one day about ten years ago and hit the most impenetrable chunk of real estate I’ve ever seen. Dead and dwarf cedar trees were so entwined that not even Godzilla could have made his way through, so I kept moving north until it thinned out enough to allow me to reach the river. I didn’t catch anything, but came home with a perfectly good canoe paddle as a souvenir.
On the other side of Sennebec Lake is Appleton Ridge. There’s a big old house up there known as the Oakes Mansion. Here’s what accompanies an old photo on the Penobscot Marine Museum website, courtesy of Donovan Bowley, Appleton Historical Society “The Oakes Mansion on Appleton Ridge, high above the village of McClain’s Mills (today’s Appleton Village), was constructed in 1896 in the shingle style by Francis Oakes, a wealthy New York dye manufacturer, for his wife, as an addition to her parents’ home on the Ridge. She was Appleton native, actress, and singer Adelene Sullivan. The house’s extensive outbuildings are gone, but the main house still stands and is undergoing renovation. To the original Sullivan farmhouse at the left, Francis and Adelene added a three-story addition of some twenty rooms. The domed cupola visible above the original section at the left was an observation balcony above the water tower behind the house, which provided storage and pressure for the extensive indoor plumbing, which was unusual for that date and place. The structure is now the home of Selectman Donald Burke.”
It dominates the skyline at sunset, but there are other intriguing places on the ridge. Across the road from the mansion is a narrow, partially overgrown road. My friend John Marks and I decided to explore it years ago. After we reached the end of the blueberry field, the road followed the back side of the ridge down past another abandoned house to the lower end of Pettingil Bog, across an old dam and up to the drivable part of Guinea Ridge Road. The area abounded with wildlife including monster bucks, beaver, turtles and migrating waterfowl. The undrivable portion of Guinea Ridge Road meanders along the west side of of the swamp and there are spots where a careless step would allow the soft ooze to suck you into oblivion.
I’m describing a very few roads near where I grew up to illustrate just how many possibilities exist for the curious writer interested in finding places where both short stories and good full length crime fiction can be set. I hope by reading this you get the urge to go explore one or more of those roads you’ve always wanted to explore, but passed because it wasn’t a good time to enjoy a diversion.
In addition to mysterious roads that make great settings for criminal activity or ghostly stories, Maine offers the writer some unique smells to enhance a good story. First and foremost are the smells provided by members of the evergreen family. I defy you not to take a deep breath when a semi hauling freshly cut pine passes you. Likewise a load of softwood chips headed for a paper or pellet mill. Cedar, while certainly not unique to Maine, is another distinct and pleasant scent. If you’ve ever spent much time in blueberry fields during the harvest, you’ve encountered a unique blend of smells that can’t be found elsewhere. It’s hard to describe to anyone who has never been there, but imagine a bit of blueberry, a slightly acrid scent from weeds baked under an August sun, the amiably sneezy smell of goldenrod, a bit of bayberry and a hint of boxberries from the wintergreen family, all blended and wafted to your nose by a gentle breeze. Another one that isn’t unique to Maine, but is etched into the minds of pretty much everyone living in farm country, is the smell of freshly cut hay. This week it seems like almost every field in Somerset County is being cut and baled because we’re in a run of perfect haying weather. Another one we enjoy almost every time we go canoeing or kayaking on Great Moose Lake is the tangy smell of a campfire. I swear I can tell when they’re burning white birch. Maine lakes also give off a slightly musty smell about the time the lake turns over in midsummer as the water change brings decaying vegetation to the surface.
On course not all unique smells are pleasant. Ever hear someone whose face has an annoyed expression say “It smells like Rumford in here?” This is, or used to be a common refrain the day after a good bean supper at the local grange or church. They were referring to the similarity between bean-induced flatulence and the eye burning smell from a paper mill. It’s far less prevalent now that so many mills have closed, but when I was a kid and we were going to my grandmother’s house in New Portland, the smell from both the Winslow and Hinkley mills was pretty darn strong. The other one that’s a nose grabber is what comes off a clam flat at low tide. There’s no mistaking this one. I mention these smells because I think that when writing Maine fiction whether it’s in the young adult, urban fantasy, or mystery genres, getting readers involved is often done nicely by adding in things that they can use to create their own vision of your story world. I hope this makes scents to you.