For it was potatoes, mainly, that brought John Steinbeck and his poodle Charley 50 years ago to the state’s largest and northernmost county — a place he’d never been. Neither had I, and though we’re not precisely following the path Steinbeck took for “Travels With Charley,” this piece of it seemed worth duplicating.
“I wanted to go to the rooftree of Maine to start my trip before turning west. It seemed to give the journey a design, and everything in the world must have a design or the human mind rejects it,” Steinbeck wrote. “… Maine was my design, potatoes my purpose.”
Of particular interest to the author of “The Grapes of Wrath” were the migrant French Canadian workers who crossed the border in harvest season to pick up potatoes, after they were unearthed by machinery, and place them in baskets.
Poverty, farmworkers and migration were recurrent theme’s in Steinbeck’s vast body of work, so it’s not surprising that, for what would turn out to be his last book, he revisited them.
Steinbeck parked his camper, Rocinante, on the side of a lake, just down from a migrant camp. Smelling their soup from 100 yards away, he dispatched Charley to serve as his ambassador. He’d let the poodle go, then follow, retrieving him, apologizing for the nuisance. A conversation about the dog would inevitably ensue, leading to conversation about other things.
At this particular juncture, Steinbeck had the added advantage of his dog being French. Charley was born in Bercy, outside Paris. He invited the farmworkers to come see his camper after dinner, which six of them did. They drank beer, then brandy, served in pill bottles, a jelly glass, coffee cups and a shaving mug. Then they had more brandy, and then more brandy.
Rocinante, Steinbeck wrote, “took on a glow it never quite lost.”
I didn’t get a glow on in Madawaska. Seeking food, I stopped in Jerry T’s Chug-a-Mug, but they weren’t serving any. The only place that was, Jeff’s Pizza and Subs, about ten doors down, was closing in 10 minutes. I walked down, placed an order, then finished off my mug at Jerry’s. The bartender wasn’t familiar with John Steinbeck. Neither was the operator of my motel. Neither was the receptionist at Naturally Potatoes, a processing plant I stopped at after following a loaded potato truck down the highway to see where it was going.
Finding no Steinbeck afficianados, no glow, and no French Canadian farmworkers, I settled for some quality time back in the motel room with my burger, and a side of mashed potatoes.
The harvesting of potatoes is all done by machinery now — human hands rarely enter the picture. Machines unearth the potatoes, machines scoop them out of the dirt, sending them up conveyor belts that drop them into trucks that hit the highway and dump them at processing plants.
Until around 1960, potatoes were dug out of the ground with a mechanical digger, then picked up by hand, put into baskets, then dumped into barrels. The barrels were lifted onto a flatbed truck and hauled to storage or to the processing. Farmworkers were paid by how many they picked up.
Today, migrant farmworkers have little place in the potato farming industry. They are used to harvest two of the state’s other top crops — broccoli and blueberries. But harvesting the hearty spud, thick skinned and mostly bruise-proof, is a job that clunky machines have taken over.
We left Madawaska the next day amid a thick morning fog, following Highway 1 to its end, then heading south on Highway 11 — destination Bangor, Maine.
We passed through rolling hills, more small towns, and more potato farms. The fields are mostly cleared now, the potatoes harvested and trucked away to processing plants where they are powdered or chowdered, mashed or hashed, french-fried or chipped.
We may not be eating our vegetables, but we were seeing plenty of them, including this sea of broccoli. Was it crying out for cheese sauce, or was that just my imagination?
We passed by lumber mills, where the smell of sap wafted into the car, mom and pop motels, more farmland, and sheds, collapsed and collapsing.
Having seen both coastal Maine and inland Maine, both recreational Maine and working Maine, both comfy Maine and struggling Maine, we decided — though we’re already well behind schedule — to rest up in Bangor before heading to the next state west: New Hampshire … or is it Vermont?
(Black and white photo, circa 1930, from the Maine Historical Society)
(Other photos by John Woestendiek)