Where's the Neon?
Maine as seen through a first time visitor's eyes
by John Frisbie
didn’t know what to expect on our upcoming Maine vacation. I didn’t really care
one way or another about Maine. I just
needed a rest. After nine months without
a vacation, I was totally exhausted. All
I wanted was a place to relax, do nothing, and regenerate my life forces. My parents had rented a place for two weeks
on the water. They’d gone up the week
before and invited us to spend the second week with them. The offer was too good to refuse.
call an overwhelming experience. It was
just a highway going through a forest.
Our destination was pretty far up the coast, right outside the town of
Blue Hill. Fortunately, the town was far
enough out of the way that we were forced to leave the highway and travel on
back roads, which winded their way through Maine’s coastal villages.
our destination, we arrived in the town of Wiscasset. It’s one thing to see a classic storybook New
England village in a book, and quite another to suddenly find yourself in a
real one. In our travel-weary state, we
were totally unprepared for the experience.
Rounding a corner, we entered the center of town and saw a pristine
village green spreading gently down to the water, one of Maine’s countless
inlets. Sailboats were tied up in the
harbor and people were busy, mowing grass, shopping, and doing other chores.
supermarkets were. Everything was so
neat and trim. It was beautiful to look
at, but we wondered how people knew what stores to shop at without the benefit
of big neon signs to guide them. I mean,
you can’t have a town without neon signs can you? And where were the parking lots, billboards
and hamburger stands? What would someone
do if they suddenly got a craving for a Big Mac? We proceeded cautiously in a state of
cultural shock, realizing this place violated every principle we had come to
accept about modern civilization.
invited a closer look, but it was late and we wanted to get to our house on the
water. We wanted to relax, have a gin
and tonic, put our feet up and try to figure out what was going on.
Blue Hill. The exit led to an even
smaller road which passed glimpses of water off to our right. Our four-year-old son, Rob, woke up from his
nap and our dog, Muffin, started running around the car, as we all started anticipating
our arrival. In the distance a tall hill
looked down on us with a greenish blue color in the fading sunlight. We figured this must be Blue Hill. As the road crept under the hill’s shadow, it
gradually descended a steep slope. Several
handsome, white houses began to appear on either side of the road. More glimpses of water shimmered off to our
right, and in the distance, down at the bottom of the hill, a white steeple
poked its way up through the trees.
Finally, at the bottom of the hill, a little village appeared, clinging
to the banks of a cove. The great hill overhead
seemed to guard the village from the outside world, keeping it safe from
civilization. This was the town of Blue
Hill, our home for the next week.
house at the end of a narrow road that meandered through woods to a promontory
overlooking the water. We stretched our
legs and breathed deeply, drinking in the tangy salt air. Rob was full of energy and went running down
to the water with Muffin barking after him.
Finally we sat on the front porch looking out over the water to Deer
Isle in the distance.
darker and darker, while the water took on a glimmering dark blue color. As we talked about the trip and watched Rob
throwing stones into the water, our view was penetrated on the left by a
three-masted windjammer under full sail.
Silently, slowly, it glided out of the trees into full view. Behind it came another windjammer and behind
that another, until eventually there were seven large windjammers under full
sail, one with red sails. We had seen
sailboats before, even big sailboats, but a massive windjammer under sail is
something special to see. There’s an old
fashioned grace that gives you a feeling of joy just to experience it. We sat there and watched. Big sails silently slipped across the
water. Their steady progress seemed to
manifest some primal force; a power that guided them through the water; a
presence that was always there, yet not always acknowledged. We watched while the night crept in around
the evening’s meal should be a good old fashioned, Yankee clambake. Of course, such a feast requires plenty of
preparation, and our first project, naturally, was to get the clams. That was easy − we grabbed the buckets and
clam rakes in the garage and assaulted the rocky beach right out in front of
the house. The clams lived about eight
inches down in the thick, gray muck. The
tide was out so we could see the little holes in the ocean floor showing where
the clams were buried. You had to find
the right kind of hole and then dig.
Soon we had enough clams for the five of us, although we all agreed that
two more ingredients were needed − lobster and fish.
in the lagoon that reached into the center of town. Driving around the area, we were impressed by
how clean and unspoiled everything looked, no billboards, no neon signs, and
the air and water were crystal clear.
It’s hard to describe what it was about the place that made it so comfortable,
so much the way you’d imagine things used to look before civilization got out
of control. Of course, the natural
setting was spectacular . . . hills, lagoons and rocky cliffs overlooking the
water. The buildings and villages nestled into this
setting were also spectacular. I think
this is largely because in Maine (at least the part of Maine we saw) they use an
unorthodox method of real estate development long since abandoned in the more
urbanized regions of America like New York, Los Angeles or Miami Beach.
“modern” areas is very efficient. First they cut down all the trees on the land
to be developed so they won’t get in the way of construction equipment. Next, if there’s a building already on the
property, they tear it down, no matter how attractive, architecturally
significant, or historically important it might be. Finally, a steel and glass structure (no wood
please) is erected with a flat roof. Now
this part is important – the flat roof.
I think in 1958 someone passed a national construction law requiring all
new commercial buildings to have flat roofs with the air conditioning and
heating systems piled on top for everyone to see. Outlawed forever was the sloping roof
reaching up to the sky, gracefully finishing off a building’s appearance with
style and aesthetic integrity.
trees gracing their property. Secondly,
they leave the buildings. If someone
wants to operate a gas station, a meat market, or a hardware store on a
particular site where a building already stands, they use the existing building
rather than knock it down. They may fix
it up, but they use what’s there, sloping roofs, chimneys, shutters and
all. They totally ignore the economic stimulus
that would be provided by paying a demolition company to destroy the existing
building and then hiring a construction company to come in and build a new one,
a steel and glass box with a flat roof, of course. And to top it all off, they don’t use neon
signs. You’d think a tasteful five-foot
red neon sign saying “Eat at Joe’s” with a yellow arrow flashing on and
off, pointing down to Joe’s sandwich
shop would be a good way to stimulate business.
I mean, if they’re not going to have flat roofs, at least they could
have neon signs.
philosophy is a physical environment that beats with a more peaceful rhythm. It’s a graceful, integrated space that lifts
your spirits. The texture and design of
the old wooden buildings combined with the natural environment makes you happy
just to be there.
successful. Each of us caught fish, even
Rob, with a little help from his grandfather.
In fact, we caught more fish than we needed and gave some away to a
young couple fishing next to us. On the
way back, we stopped by a seafood store and bought four fresh-caught
lobsters. Finally, tired and hungry, we
reached our house and prepared the clambake.
stone-lined fire pit stood waiting. We filled
it with logs and kindling wood. Next we
placed an iron grating on rocks surrounding the pit and slid a big pot of water
onto the grating. When the fire was lit
and the steam was rising just right, we loaded the clams and lobsters into the
pot. Dad had already prepared our
fresh-caught herring and cod. We fried
the fillets on a little grill next to the lobster pot. Finally, with drawn butter, beer, and plenty
of napkins, we sat around the fire and dug in.
pass our front yard, singing songs, and toasting marshmallows. The darkness settled in as we sat there on
the grass, full and content. It was a
good day. And it was a good week. As the time flowed by, I could feel the
cumbersome layers of tension peeling off me.
dimension. We didn’t want to leave
Maine. We wondered if the place had
affected us so deeply because it was our first trip. We wondered whether the impact would be the
same on subsequent visits. One thing is
certain. We’re going back next summer to