Chapter 4

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Highway Haiku # 4

Seven point six million:

How many hits you get when

You Google “frugal”

 

A downtown waking up is an amazing thing to take in, especially a downtown with a harbor. It’s also some very cheap entertainment. Grab a cup of coffee, maybe a muffin, and find a good seat, one on which the seagull feces has at least dried. Then watch as the rising sun unveils a fresh new canvas, slowly filling.

First, on the dark edges, you’ll spot the riff raff – revelers from the night before, slowly reviving and shuffling homeward; the hardcore homeless, rousting themselves before someone else rousts them. On a corner here, a corner there, these early risers stretch and groan and hawk up phlegm. They pat their thighs – some to locate car keys, some to see if they have enough change for a cup of coffee, some maybe just to reassure themselves they are still there.

After that, the blue collar workers appear – those whose jobs are to clean up last night’s mess, make the deliveries, man the assembly lines, fire up diner grills and put on the morning’s first pot of coffee.

Finally, the white collar types pull in, more shine in their shoes, more purpose in their strides (though we’d argue no one on this scenario has more purpose than the person putting on the first pot of coffee). They wear suits and, sometimes, ties, and looks on their faces that reflect various degrees of enthusiasm about the day ahead. With their arrival, the mellow rhythm of early morning picks up and gets a little more frantic – not New York City frantic, just Portland, Maine, frantic.

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Among the cities we watched wake up, Portland was probably our favorite.

Sitting on a bench with Ace – the port behind us, downtown in front of us — we took in the sights, smells and sounds of a city coming to life. To abruptly shift metaphors, because it’s worthy of at least two, it’s a symphony of sorts — not an orchestra in the midst of a polished performance, but one just unpacking, clumsily dropping things and tuning up. There’s the whining of garbage truck brakes, the hiss of hydraulic lifts, the percussive clang of Dumpsters plopped back down on pavement. There’s the splatter and trickle of hose water on sidewalk; the oboe-like blasts of throats being cleared; the plaintive cries of seagulls, like high notes from a screeching clarinet; and the high-pitched squeak of rubber boots on wet wooden docks.

We had hit the docks first because I wanted to see some lobsters arrive. None did. We saw no fishing boats going out, and none coming in, maybe because torrential storms were in the forecast, maybe because – given its transition from working harbor to upscale tourist attraction — not as much of that goes on here anymore. Not quite as touristy as Baltimore’s glitzy Inner Harbor, Portland’s Old Port District remains at least in part a working harbor. On one side of Commercial Street, former warehouses are now home to boutiques, restaurants and bars; on the other, condos and cruise ships have joined the ranks of weather-beaten fishing boats.

We walked down wharves and alleyways as the sun came up, hidden though it was by thick layers of grey clouds, some passing so low it seemed you could reach up and grab a handful. At 6 a.m., only a few souls were on the docks. The first one we saw stepped out of the Porthole Restaurant’s screened door, wiping his hands on his apron.

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Seeing Ace, he held up one finger, then went back inside. Seconds later, he returned with a handful of sausage balls, tossing them into Ace’s drooling mouth one at a time.

“What kind of dog is that?” he asked, wiping his hands on his apron.

“A hungry one,” I said.

The second human we encountered wasn’t giving handouts, but seeking them.

Ace has a thing for homeless people – a thing that has always struck me as being close to compassion, though it couldn’t be. He’s just a dog. There’s no way he could know whether someone was down on their luck, or needed cheering up. Is there?

There’s probably a more logical explanation. For one thing, homeless people are usually sitting on a bench or on the sidewalk, and dogs seem to appreciate when humans are at their eye level. They usually have blankets, sporting more scents than you’d probably want to identify. And they often have bags, which, even when nothing is in them, Ace finds intriguing.

For whatever reason, when it comes to homeless people or people in wheelchairs, Ace wants to meet them, and hang out a while. Even when uninvited, he’ll sidle up and station himself alongside them, determined, it seems, to sit a spell.

When he saw a woman on the sidewalk ahead, seated with her back against a building, a blanket over her legs and a few bags at her side, he strained at the leash and pulled me toward her. The woman was not homeless, but she was on the verge of it, or so she said. It being the first of the month, her rent was due. She didn’t have it, or a job. So she made a sign on a piece of cardboard – “Can You Spare Any Change. Thanks and God Bless. Anything Helps.” She grabbed a blanket, took a seat on the ritzy side of the street and hoped for the best. Ace, after sticking his nose in her bags and determining that they contained nothing edible lay down on the sidewalk next to her. He seemed comfortable there, so we sat on the sidewalk and talked a while, contributing $4 to the cause before wandering on.

Following a sweet smell in the air, we walked down to the Standard Bakery, next to a Hilton. I had a cup of coffee while Ace stationed himself in a position not too far from the door, in case somebody came out with a spare scone. A pigeon joined us, hoping for a crumb or two as well.

***

We had rolled into Maine about the same time fall did, and Portland was our first overnight stop. Unwilling to pay higher downtown motel prices, I’d opted for a Motel 6 on the outskirts of town, where I needed a few days for maintenance, including drying out from our rainy night camping in Provincetown.

My car’s brakes were acting funny. My hair was getting shaggy. My glasses were broken and the dirty laundry was piling up. There was a seriously moldy smell in the car, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t Ace or me. In addition to all the wet stuff that had been riding in the back seat for two days, everything in my leaky rooftop carrier was soaked.

Leaving Ace in the motel room, I headed to the Maine Mall, dropping the car off at a Sears auto center, where they diagnosed it out of alignment and in need of four new brake pads. I bought a new rooftop carrier, and opted to have the back brake pads replaced, letting the front ones live out whatever life they had left.

While the car got repaired, I got a quick bite in the mall’s food court, a cheap haircut, a free repair to my glasses at a vision center, and purchased a “micro fiber bomber jacket” at J.C. Penney. Temperatures were dropping and winter clothes were not something I’d thought to bring along. Then I picked up Ace and headed for a Laundromat.

There, I threw away the hopelessly moldy items, and spread my soggy tent out on the grass. I tossed a load into the wash, and threw everything else into dryers – sneakers, sleeping bag, tarps, towels, blankets and more. Back at the motel, I tallied what I’d spent that day  — on lunch, at the Laundromat, for haircut, jacket, and some batteries. With the $473 spent on the car and rooftop carrier, it added up to almost $600, half my monthly budget.

Counting our earlier trip out west and back, we’d been on the road four months by then and spending at a rate of about $1,200 a month. For the first time, we were headed for spending less than $1,000 for our food, gas, lodging and pesky pop-up expenses.

Thanks mainly to our time on the boat in Baltimore, and freeloading off friends there and in Philadelphia, September saw us spend only seven nights in motels, which, next to gas, was generally our largest expenditure. We’d stayed two nights at a campground, one night in the car, 10 nights in the homes of friends and 10 on the boat. The month’s totals: $400 on shelter, $300 on food and only $240 on gas. Our $568 day sent me into the red, well beyond the monthly amount I was allotting myself, based on funds I’d pilfered from my IRA, my unemployment checks and, once they ran out, the early pension I applied for.

Short of getting a real job, short of again raiding my already twice-raided IRA, which was managing to shrink even without my help, there was only one choice – to get even thriftier yet.

Maybe Maine, best known for lobsters and frugality, could offer some lessons in that.

Hard times are nothing new in Maine. With many of its biggest industries being seasonal — fishing, potatoes and blueberries (the state produces more than 95 percent of the latter) – the income of Mainers falls far behind the rest of New England. It has an up and down economy, the trick being, whether you’re a farmer or fisherman, to gather enough during the ups to last you through the downs.

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Gordon, a fellow guest at the Motel 6, seemed to be going through some downs. He was staying on the first floor. He had a hot plate in his room, and canned goods stacked on the desk. He seemed familiar with frugality, but he wasn’t stodgy. He limited his luxury purchases to treats for the dogs he meets at the motel and his daily cigar, which he steps outside to smoke, disposing of his stogies in an ashtray on the side of the building. (Judging from the ashtray, he’d been there at least two weeks, or at least that’s when the ashtray was last emptied.)

He was a large man, probably about my age, who wore white T-shirts that were two sizes too big. Much of the day he would sit in the small lobby, handing out treats and making friends with the dogs who passed by. He said he’d been there a few weeks and planned to leave soon to visit some family in northern Maine.

Though we only stayed three days, Ace quickly fell into a routine in Portland, much of which revolved around looking for Gordon. There was our morning walk to the Clipper Mart next door for coffee, where I’d tie Ace to a post while I filled my cup; our second walk to the Clipper Mart for another cup of coffee, and our afternoon walk around the motel, where every day we saw a group of people sorting through the Dumpster – the same one into which I tossed bags filled with Ace’s poop. One member of the crew would jump in and disappear, and then I’d see cans and glass and plastic bottles flying out, all caught and bagged by his three cohorts. Twice I heard curse words come echoing out of the Dumpster, and assumed they were the result of Ace’s contribution.

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At least three times a day, Ace would get treats – either from Gordon or from motel staff. Nearly every time we passed through the lobby, Ace would jump up and put his feet on the counter in front of the bulletproof window, and a clerk would slide a biscuit or two through the slot.

After three drippy days in Portland, a crisp and clear one finally arrived, allowing me to put my new rooftop carrier in place, fill it up and head north. As if making up for the dreary skies — “wet gray aluminum” is how Steinbeck described them — this particular Saturday was bright and crisp, letting the fall colors pop, especially the reds.

Nearly every town we went through was sporting red — yellow and orange, too, but mostly red. Red-leafed vines climbed up red brick buildings. Baskets at roadside stands overflowed with red apples. There were newly painted red barns, and old ones fighting to keep their red amid the beating Maine takes from the weather. Red leaves stood out against the backdrop of the blue sea as we made our way through coastal towns like Rockland and Camden.

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Stopping for lunch, I ordered my first lobster roll — fluffy white meat with red running through it. Ace drooled and ate my potato chips while we sat outside at a red picnic table.

We were on our way to Bar Harbor – another diversion from Steinbeck’s route. Steinbeck had stopped in Bangor, and then backtracked south to Deer Isle to visit a friend with a “hateful” female cat named George. We were headed one peninsula north of that, to Mount Desert Island, where free lodgings beckoned. The offer came from a sister of my friend in Philadelphia, though we’d never met. She had a husband named Ron, two cats, two horses, and a dog park she wanted to show me.

***

On Oct. 3, 2010, Ace was the first dog in America to see the sun rise.

Atop Cadillac Mountain — the highest elevation in Acadia National Park, the highest point on the east coast — we sat on a broad flat rock and saw the sun pop up over the Atlantic.

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At 1,500 feet, the summit of Cadillac Mountain is, for much of the year, the first place in America the morning sun becomes visible. Once I heard that – and confirmed that it was free — I decided to rise early enough to see it. Granted, there are only certain times of the year where the sun appears there first. And, granted, there were at least 50 other early risers scattered across the rocks that morning. But as far as I could see, Ace was the only dog. So, I’m 99 percent certain Ace was the first dog in America to have the sun in his face that day.

Sitting with my arm around him to help fight off the chill, I was appreciative when, around 6:30, it appeared, first like a tiny sliver of orange peel, then, in a matter of minutes, becoming a full-grown orb that served to warm the rock we had planted ourselves on.

We almost hadn’t made it in time, despite the best efforts of my hosts. They had programmed the coffee maker so I could leave with a full thermos, supplied me with a handful of maps and brochures, and loaned me their GPS, with my destination already punched in. I still managed to get lost. At several turns, I overruled the kindly female voice telling me where to turn, thinking I knew better. She patiently recalculated my route, and calmly instructed me again. I’d doubt her again and she’d recalculate again. Never once did she raise her voice.

When I finally submitted to her superior knowledge, she got me there, and just in time. In the minutes before the sun peeked over the horizon, the sky turned a brilliant orange, and the ocean a deep cobalt blue. Ace, it seemed, was actually watching the spectacle, sitting perfectly still, even when I let go of him. Not until the sun was fully up, and the crowd began to disperse, did he get up to wander among the rocks.

Cadillac Mountain is not named after the car. Like the car, it’s named after a Frenchman, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac. He was granted possession of what’s now called Mount Desert Island in the late 1600’s by King Louis XIV. He later went on to found Detroit, according to a plaque on Cadillac Mountain — though why he would leave this place for that one is beyond me.

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Ron and Karen Greenberg, my hosts, have no intention of ever leaving. Owners of Tamarind, a natural food restaurant in Bar Harbor, they share their home in the woods with two cats and two horses, a thoroughbred named Mona and a white pony named Goblin. Karen trained the 34-year-old pony using something called the Pirelli method, which holds that understanding the psychology, personality and nature of an individual horse is key to building a “deep, seamless and mutually beneficial human-horse relationship.”

I’m no expert on it, but the method — based on trying to understand why a being behaves as it does, as opposed to berating, punishing, banging heads and issuing edicts — strikes me as a good approach, not just with horses, but with dogs and humans, too. And maybe places.

Learning its history, knowing its tides, understanding its geography, all serve to give one a better appreciation for a place, and why it behaves the way it does. So does dipping your toe in its surf, sitting on its rocks, hiking its trails, and cleaning its dirt out from underneath your fingernails. It’s through understanding, respecting and accepting — not judging and reshaping it to better fit our needs — that we can find a more peaceful coexistence, be it with horse, dog, human, town, or planet. Sometimes we see things as opponents to be conquered when they’re really our teammates.

Ace, while he’s been around horses a time or two, wasn’t sure what to make of Goblin, but given his size he seemed to decide healthy respect was the best route. There are few species he shies away from, and some seem to intrigue him far more than others.

I’ve made an informal study of it, over the years – as shown below in our first chart — and have determined two things. One, next to humans, he seems most drawn to cats, though not with the idea of consuming them. Two, when it comes to non-human species, he seems much more enthralled with their infant versions than adult ones:

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(Chart 4.1:  Ace’s Interest Levels in Other Species; sq=squirrels)

A few times, Ace cautiously approached and got close enough to Goblin to sniff his hide, but he seemed satisfied to leave the relationship at that, and eager to get back inside where the humans were.

It would be hard to find any bigger Bar Harbor boosters than Ron and Karen, who have lived there for 30 years. The Greenbergs showed me the town of Bar Harbor, and Acadia National Park, and a dog park that sits on land donated by John D. Rockefeller Jr. and family.

Dogs are permitted in Acadia National Park, but, as with most national parks, they must be on leashes.

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At Little Long Pond, though, dogs can romp unleashed through woods and grasslands, run on the deck of the boathouse, and leap into a postcard-perfect pond. Ace and I worked in two visits while on Mount Desert Island.

In our travels so far, I’d noticed that some of the nicest parts of this country — be they desert, mountains or oceanfront — have become playgrounds for the rich, sometimes to the extent that the not so rich are gently nudged, rudely pushed or just plain priced out. From Sag Harbor to Cape Cod, we’d seen communities established and long occupied by the working class that have refocused on tourism, targeted the upscale and turned into places that – though everybody wants to come — not everybody can afford.

So I was surprised to learn that both the dog park and Acadia National Park were gifts to the public from a rich man’s family. Mount Desert Island was settled by the rich (though probably with help from their servants), and served as a private and exclusive vacation spot before being relinquished to the masses.

When the area opened up to the public, it did so carefully, and under the guidance of wealthy families with good taste. That’s why the roads are designed not to get you where you are going most quickly, but in a way that affords the best view. That’s why it’s all so lushly laid out, and why it’s such a civilized wilderness — one where you can still ride in a horse-drawn carriage, along paths designed by a Rockefeller, to get tea and popovers.

I didn’t pop for that, but I did have some magnificent blueberry pancakes — an “order of blues,” as they say — at Jordan’s Restaurant, before saying goodbye to the Greenbergs and, once again, a place I didn’t want to say goodbye to.

***

Given that there’s not all that much else to do in Aroostook County, Maine, Ace and I followed the potatoes.

For it was potatoes, mainly, that brought John Steinbeck and his poodle Charley to the state’s largest and northernmost county — a place he’d never been. Neither had I, and though we weren’t following the author’s path to the letter, 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 potatoes. Potatoes were once harvested entirely by hand. When the work of digging them was taken over by machines, workers still, up until the 1960s, picked them up, put them into baskets, dumped them into barrels and lifted them onto flatbed trucks to be hauled away.

Today, the harvesting of potatoes is entirely hands-free. 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, where more machines take over, turning them into fries and hash browns and chips and all their other appellations.

Migrant farm workers, and non-migrant ones, have little place in today’s potato farming industry, although they are still used to harvest two of the state’s other top crops — blueberries and broccoli. While pursuing potatoes, we were bombarded with broccoli, seeing acres and acres of it in northern Maine that seemed to be approaching maturity, and crying out for cheese sauce.

We’d taken I-95 north from Bangor, a glorious stretch of road (for an Interstate). It’s billboard free, and designed in such a way that you rarely see the lanes of traffic bound the other way. We followed it to Houlton, and then headed up Highway 1, through Presque Isle, Caribou and Van Buren.

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We followed alongside the Canadian border, passing through rolling hills and small towns, by sheds both collapsed and collapsing, by moose warning signs that had been peppered with gunshot, by potato fields and lumber mills where the smell of sap wafted into the car. Seeing a truck full of potatoes, we followed it. The potatoes, not once touched by human hands at this stage, ending up at a processing plant called Naturally Potatoes. Leaving Ace in the car, I stepped inside the office, hoping to receive a potato tutorial. Everyone was pretty busy, and nobody seemed to know who John Steinbeck was.

When he was up this way, Steinbeck parked 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 and apologizing for the nuisance. A conversation about the dog would inevitably ensue, leading to conversation about other things. It’s a trick I’d pulled, and would pull again repeatedly, during our modern day travels.

At that particular juncture, Steinbeck had the added advantage of his dog being French. Once Charley had paved the way, Steinbeck invited the farm workers to come see his camper. Six of them did and they drank beer, then brandy, served in pill bottles, a jelly glass, coffee cups and a shaving mug. Then they had more brandy, and more brandy.

Rocinante, Steinbeck wrote, “took on a glow it never quite lost.”

We stopped for the night in Madawaska, where I didn’t get a glow on, and almost didn’t get dinner. We’d wandered around well into evening before checking into Martin’s Motel. Seeking food, I stopped in Jerry T’s Chug-a-Mug, but the hour was late – almost 8 p.m. – and they weren’t serving any. I walked ten doors down to the only place in town that was, Jeff’s Pizza and Subs, and placed a to-go order. Back in the motel room with a hamburger and a side of mashed potatoes, I thumbed through the local weekly newspaper, locating the police blotter. Other than wandering around in it and striking up conversations, the best way to get to know a town is through perusing its newspaper — assuming it still has one, and it’s still truly local — especially the police blotter:

Friday, 9:04 a.m.: Female called to question leash laws in town. She claims a woman walks her dog without a leash and the dog does its “business” on the lawns of everyone and owner does not pick it up… 4:51 p.m.: Female called to question: Is there a street dance. Advise didn’t know…

Saturday, 7:21 a.m.: Individual called to find out what time is parade …  8:11 a.m.: Female called regarding a missing dog … 12:56 p.m.: Individual called to report found a dog on a local road…

Sunday, 9:43 a.m.: Female called to report a lost poodle…10:43 a.m.: Vandalism to mailboxes, relay to officer … 9:01 p.m.: Male called to report a skunk with a bottle on its head…

The lead story, though, in that week’s St. John Valley Times — “Teen bags moose in first 20 minutes” — recounted how Corey Daigle shot his first moose in Madawaska. It was 1,050 pounds, with a 55-1/2-inch rack. In the photo accompanying the article, Corey is straddling the dead moose, with one hand on each antler. “I feel good about it,” the newspaper quotes him as saying. “It was a picture perfect day.” The story took up nearly half the front page, and all other news took a back seat. It was the first week of moose hunting for eight of Maine’s Wildlife Management Districts, or, as they’re called in abbreviated form, WMDs.

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Maybe that explained why Ace had seemed jumpy all day. I’d thought he might just be road weary, or, based on his increased flatulence in the car, that his stomach was bothering him. He was scratching a lot, and seemed unsettled. Was he picking up a hunting season vibe — sensing that it’s that time of year, in these parts, when testosterone rises like maple tree sap and men, mostly, venture into the woods to kill animals?

Steinbeck was a man who knew life is all about the hunt – in the metaphorical, perpetual quest sense of the word. He certainly had nothing against guns. But even though he engaged in the sport and gunned down animals from time to time, he didn’t seem to hold hunters in the highest esteem:

“Overweight gentlemen, primed with whiskey and armed with high powered rifles,” he wrote. “They shoot at anything that moves or looks as though it might …Somehow, the hunting process has to do with masculinity, but I don’t quite know how.”

Venturing into Maine’s more northern reaches, Steinbeck had concerns about Charley’s safety — mainly that his poodle would be mistaken for a deer and gunned down. So he wrapped a red tissue around his dog’s tail, fastening it with rubber bands: “Every morning I renewed his flag, and he wore it all the way west while bullets whined and whistled around us.”

I’d taken a queue from the author before heading to Maine’s northernmost tip, replacing Ace’s brown bandana with a bright red one. He looks much more like a deer than Charley, and while he wouldn’t have tolerated it tied around his tail I thought brighter neckwear, and keeping him close to my side, might be a good idea – at least through Maine, and maybe Minnesota, and definitely Montana.

Though we’d hear some gunfire in our travels ahead – and Ace shrinks at the sound – no bullets would whistle past us as we began, frugally as we could, to work our way west.

ROADSIDE ENCOUNTER

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Name: Forgotten

Age: Unknown

Breed: Unemployed American

Encountered: On a sidewalk on Commercial Street in downtown Portland

Back story: I didn’t write down, and don’t remember, her name, but this panhandling woman drew Ace’s attention as we walked down the sidewalk. He tugged me to her, and took a seat at her side, next to a cardboard sign she had fashioned in an attempt to come up with some rent money.

 

 

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