During the time we were in Boston visiting friends, we took a trip to Maine. Christopher, my twelve year old son, has memorized most of the routes that Amtrak takes around this great nation, and so he was quick to tell me that there had been an extension of the Downeaster route up the coast. Now it goes from Boston all the way up to Freeport and Brunswick. We were totally in luck because this was only true as of last year. Through the miracle of rail, we could be in the state of Maine in about three hours.
Now in my head, I thought that New England was, well, all built up, so this was amazing to me that this train expansion was so new. How did people get to the LL Bean shopping campus without a stop in Freeport? My friend, Heidi, a professor who teaches college in Virginia, was researching in Brunswick, and had invited us up to see her. Brunswick was the last stop on the newish route, and Brunswick was exactly where we wanted to go. Sometimes, the universe just seems to cooperate.
We left Boston early. Regarding this train, Christopher explained every specification imaginable. Christopher has been so obsessed with trains that when he was a younger child I spent a small fortune on Thomas the Train DVDs, plastic and wooden train sets, and every manifestation of train-ness ever produced by LEGO. When he was nine, we took an overnight train trip from Austin to Chicago. We had our own sleeping car and ate each meal with a different group of people. I am not sure if you can get sea sick on a train, but I remember taking what I think was my one and only prescription sleeping pill just to make things, well, still. Christopher thought I was crazy. He wanted to stay up all night. What was more exciting than flying through the darkness, whipping by Little Rock, leaving entire states behind in the night?
Christopher woke me up early the next morning so that I could step outside in St. Louis and see the big arch. It was really something. We hung out and played card games with a group from Gonzales, Texas, who were also going to Chicago. They had the biggest arsenal of snacks I have ever seen in my life. When offered Cheetos, I tried to explain that I was on some kind of diet. But The Mom in the group looked at me and said, “You might as well do what you want. When you die, you die, and you don’t get to decide when.” You never know when you are going to get philosophy for free. I took Christopher to Chicago for nine days. His favorite parts of the trip were the Amtrak train and the metro rail. What can I say? It is hard to compete with public transportation.
So in Boston while we are waiting for our departure we talk to a young man who is going up to Maine for a week of vacation. He has no money, no phone. He is staying with an uncle. Already I am worried for him. You have to have money. I was all relaxed, and now I feel anxious for him, and I am not sure how to stop thinking about this. I keep asking Christopher if he wants anything to eat before we leave, and he tells me that he is too excited to eat. You can’t really argue with excitement.
For eight dollars you can upgrade to business class on Amtrak. Since it is Christopher’s birthday month, I upgraded because you get better seats, a newspaper, a drink, and wi-fi. In other words, you get eight dollars worth of stuff. Christopher wanted to upgrade on our flights, but that was pretty steep. Now I can tell him that you can upgrade on a plane for about eight hundred dollars, and you get eight dollars worth of stuff. This is my little moment of free philosophy, and yet, curiously, Christopher does not seem that impressed. He is thinking about which side of the train we are supposed to be on for the best view of the coast, and I suppose I cannot fault him for this: he has never seen the Atlantic.
We leave in the morning at five after nine, and it is sunny. In fact, Maine is having a heat wave. My friend Heidi has warned us about this. But we are from Texas, we can stand the heat. She says a lot of things are not air-conditioned. We are too excited to care. We just want to see Maine, and I think it is something that I am going all the way to Maine to see my friend who lives in Virginia. Sometimes, things are really far away.
We pass Woburn, Haverhill, Exeter, Durham, Dover. We are trying to visit all fifty states, but we can’t really count this for New Hampshire. When we start going through Maine, the place I want to stop is Old Orchard Beach. The train is going slowly enough that you can see families heading to the water. Christopher sees the Atlantic. The water is a dark blue, the houses are postcards, white boarded and shuttered. It is the Maine that was already in my head, and we can see why people want to come here.
Heidi is at the Brunswick Station waiting for us, and it looks new and charming. We go to her place, meet her adorable dogs, hang out. We go to lunch, on the water, and have delicious fish. Later, Christopher and I visit Bowdoin College, where Longfellow and Hawthorne attended, and I try to imagine it during the long winters of the school term, but I can’t. It is too hot. We go in a chapel, and it feels like England on the inside: dark wooden pews facing each other just like the colleges at Oxford, heavy tapestry on the wall. We go in the library and it is all modern on the inside, you could be on any campus not in Maine. But when walking outside, you are in New England, except it is very hot. You might think it is ironic that we have come from the summer oven of Texas all the way to Maine for a heat wave, but it is not. It is just the weather.
Later, Heidi drives us to the Harriet Beecher Stowe house. I am excited to see it, because this is where she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But the house seems to be sort of falling apart. There are no curtains on the windows. I see pegboard on a wall, and two ten speed bikes with the curved handlebars sitting in what I guess would be a living room. I am a little shocked. Whom do I call about this? Heidi says it is a shame, and reminds me that history is expensive. She is right. I am sure it takes a lot of money to keep such a house up. Still, it makes me sad. Something important happened in this house, and yet it slumps over, tired and neglected. I wonder if the bike owners know about Harriet Beecher Stowe.
We spend the night and drive to Freeport for shopping and LL Bean. I think LL Bean is dangerous because it makes you actually want to go camping. Christopher buys a lunch bag for school and something called a camel that you wear like a backpack and drink water from a long straw so that you are never dehydrated. I can see why he wants it. LL Bean is full of things that you did not even know existed, and yet they immediately become essential.
We wander through the other shops. I buy shell earrings, we eat lobster rolls. We drive around, walk with Heidi with her dogs across a bridge. It is fun, but what I like most about Maine is how it looks. Neat houses, a beautiful river with rocks that make the water fall, but you cannot swim in it as it is too dangerous. It is deceptively serene. There are beautiful flowers and plants everywhere that I have never seen. I think of Thoreau writing about Maine, Sarah Orne Jewett writing about Maine. You can see how nature makes you introspective. Heidi also takes us to a Civil War site, Fort Popham, and we see a lighthouse, the rugged and beautiful coast, the Atlantic. You can see for miles.
We leave the next day after eating at a lobster shack and seeing the many boats on the water. Heidi amazes me in that she can drive through the woods and not get lost–it all looks the same to me and I don’t know how she keeps the roads straight. Yet, she does. She is thinking about coming back to Maine, and I can see why. It is peaceful and soothing to see all those trees. I teach a lot of nature writers, they seem very evolved. I feel a twinge of guilt in that I love being here, but I wonder how long I could be in such an idyllic place without longing for the city. I don’t miss the Houston traffic, but I do love all the things you can do once you get through the traffic. On the way to the train station, we see the downtown shops, and you want to go inside them because they look so inviting. I imagine antiques, soaps, blueberry jams and syrups for pancakes. And books and maps and quilts. Christopher says we should come back someday, spend more time walking around.
We pull out of Brunswick and go down the map back to Boston. I write on the train, I watch out the window, I look for Old Orchard Beach so I can see it in the evening. People are walking to go to dinner, we see the Atlantic. I think of Harriet Beecher Stowe writing line after line in her rented house in Brunswick, possessed and inspired, making history, changing lives, in a way that lasts, in Maine.