By WILLIAM SHANNON
We sped off east onto I-90, leaving New York behind, with the eventual goal to interview a 92-year-old treasure hunter outside of Halifax, Nova Scotia. I’d gotten a clear “maybe” on the interview-front, and we figured the terrain we’d cover would be worth seeing either way.
The entire drive was going to be somewhere in the ballpark of sixteen hours and my friend Travis and I aimed for Augusta, Maine for the terminus of Day One.
In Augusta, we pulled into the address my old college roommate, Matt, had sent—the site of the Maine Primitive Skills School.
I caught up with Matt, who I hadn’t seen in two years or more; he met Travis; Matt introduced us both to Mike, the director of the school and Nate, a guide at the school.
It was well after dark and Mike was retiring for the evening. Matt showed us the main building, which houses the classroom, a large wood stove and the kitchen. We cracked open some beers and Matt led Travis and I through the woods to show us the shelter in which he’s been staying.
It’s a variation of a traditional bush camp that fur trappers centuries ago would build miles apart through the rugged northern territory of the New World. This bush camp has a long log supported horizontally four feet or so off the ground mainly by two large Y branches on either end. Many sturdy, small-diameter branches lean at a roughly 35-degree angle around the whole perimeter. Outside those branches, which are skinned of their bark, is a layer of rubber roofing liner, to keep it watertight, followed by a multiple-feet-thick layer of straw.
Matt led us through a narrow entrance into the structure. He showed us the rocket stove that keeps it warm and explained the technology of the highly-efficient type of wood stove.
With the temperature dipping below freezing that night and with no camping gear, Travis and I had planned to find a roadside motel somewhere after visiting with Matt. But, within about a minute, we decided there was enough room and that we’d be damn honored to stay in the cozy hut.
It’s one of several shelters at the school.
Soon, we were getting a tour of the hut Nate was staying in, also a collection of large sticks supported in part by two woven hoops tied in toward the ceiling. This one also has a rocket stove and Nate measured the temperature at various parts of the stove and its piping to show how much heat is kept inside and how little pours out into the sky.
We went back to the classroom building, cracked open more beers, and talked about the necessities for living and how they can change person to person. Matt showed us a few more of the nuances of the school’s kitchen.
They make bread from acorn flour here, collect apples from long-forgotten trees in the woods and produce large quantities of food from all sorts of other flora most people would generally never think of eating, including dandelions and de-fanged stinging nettle.
Another round of beers later and the four of us headed out to the local bowling alley where it was karaoke night.
Karaoke night in rural bars is generally a good place to observe human nature, between the singers who ascend to the microphone drunkenly on a whim, to those who seem to have been preparing their song or songs for this event all week.
Eventually, we went back to the primitive skills schoolhouse, where Matt unsealed a five-gallon bucket of fermented cider.
We dipped coffee mugs into the bucket of cider, conversed, and dipped again many times.
A little after three in the morning, Matt, Travis and I paraded back through the woods and squeezed through the entrance to Matt’s hut and Matt lit a stick fire in the rocket stove.
Waking up in the well-insulated bush camp felt like sort of an extended dream. It felt like we’d awoken in the 1100s or the 1200s or the 1500s. Stepping out into the crisp morning in the middle of the woods, and seeing a metal chimney poking through loose straw and puffing out a stream of smoke from the just relit fire, all had an air of enchantment.
Soon, Travis and I were back on the road, vowing to take all scenic roads for the day, at least up through Maine.
We aimed for Calais, a town of about 3,000, for our border crossing. We hoped to be in Halifax not long after dark and, on the following day, we would see about getting a tour of Oak Island, where an ancient network of mysterious tunnels, two hundred feet underground and protected by flood traps, conceals something major. And, I hoped to possibly land an interview with Dan Blankenship, the man who lives there and who has been trying to crack the code of the island for fifty years.
The border at Calais is the St. Croix River, a small waterway with a swift set of rapids upstream of the bridge we crossed. A woman in a booth asked a number of questions and radioed in to the adjacent building. Whether they flagged us randomly or due to the vagueness of our trip—we said we were just going to check out Halifax for a couple days—and whether this small town crossing runs an extended check on a high-percentage of its passers-through, I can’t say.
But, she asked us to pull up and enter the customs building.
A man with scrutinous eyes asked more questions about our planned trip, our past entrances into Canada, our work history, etc. He asked us to sit down and ran background checks on us. He called Travis up at one point for clarification about something.
Two workers went out and searched our rental car.
Twenty minutes or so later, he called me into a back room.
A DWI I got close to six years ago came up and he explained the official stance of the Canadian government. Any travelers with a record in the past ten years of convictions that translate in Canada to a felony are not allowed entry into the country.
As he explained it, to expedite the process and reduce paperwork and complications, he would draw up a form allowing me to officially withdraw my request to enter the country.
That’s how I found out I’m banned from Canada till 2020.
As we pulled back over the St. Croix River, the American guard asked what happened, said the U.S. policy is that anyone sent immediately back has to go through examination on this side, too.
“But it won’t take an eighth of the time as over there, I promise” he said.
We pulled into the one parking spot on the American side’s border patrol station and entered the drafty little building. The old place had a radiator and the agents were more jovial than across the St. Croix. We again handed over our passports and sat down.
A minute later, the same guard who guided us into the building popped back in to announce a lady who’d just walked over the border.
The little woman walked over, panting, and sat down next to me.
“How long you been walking?” I asked her.
“Whaat?” she said, turning and looking up at me.
“You been walking for a long time?”
“Nah. Just went to a yard sale over there. Not long. It’s the asthma kicking up.”
The lady was a regular and the guards fast-tracked her accordingly.
She told the man at the counter that she planned to be back over Wednesday and might bring in some coffee for him, but, she stressed, the whole thing is a maybe.
“I guess we’ll just play it by ear then,” he said to her.
“Whaat?” She said.
“I won’t get my hopes up for the coffee.”
He handed back her passport and said, “All right, I’ll see ya next time.”
We were soon cleared to go back into our home land and started recalibrating the trip.
We drove a bit south on Route 1, stopping to explore at St. Croix Island, where Samuel De Champlain started a settlement in 1604 that eventually failed. There, we noticed how extreme of a low tide it seemed. We were toward the open end of the Bay of Fundy, which extends north and narrows into Nova Scotia. The bay is known for having the largest difference between low tides and high tides in the world. In the northern narrows, the average difference between tides is more than forty feet.
We coasted south along the scenic road, deciding to stay the night at a motel in Lubec, Maine, a town of about 1,300 with a claim to fame for being the most eastern town in the continental United States.
The town is very close to a former vacation spot for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt called Campobello Island, which from Lubec is across a small bridge and in Canada.
Our waitress in Lubec had the thickest Maine accent we’d hear on the trip. Hearing people talk in rural Maine might make you question whether you’re still in the United States. The accent has a splash of what we know as a Boston accent, but with heavy intonations of Scottish and rural English accents too.
The next morning, a Sunday, we set out to wander the Down East section of Maine.
Most of the trees were showing full autumn colors. A scattered fog and a misty drizzle gave the day a mystic air.
We turned off Route 1 to explore the Schoodic Peninsula, which comprises the northern-most section of Acadia National Park. We stepped down onto the boulder-ridden shoreline and watched the rough currents of the Atlantic as they fought chaotically—the loser of each sparring contest bashing against the boulders with a spray of salt-mist that carried a bit of its energy into our faces.
Back to the mainland we drove a bit south to Mount Desert Island, the more well-known and larger part of Acadia National Park. There, we drove in the mist, up the curvy roads of Cadillac Mountain, the highest peak on the U.S. Atlantic coast.
Close to the top, we pulled off and explored on a bald rock face. The wind whipped the mist around and what must be a stellar view was almost entirely encased in low-cloud.
For lunch, we searched out lobster rolls. For a Sunday in the height of leaf season—though a seemingly late peak for the leaves—the area was quite empty. Repeated signs for lobster excited us for a second, but—closed for the season.
In the village of Bar Harbor, we found a spot still open. We were the only ones in the little luncheon as we began to eat our sought-after lobster rolls. A local entered and ordered a takeout and talked with the woman behind the counter. He asked if the shop’d be open the following day.
“Yeah,” she said. “Got a cruise ship coming in tomorrow. Three thousand people.”
We met back up with Route 1, eventually turning east again in search of Deer Isle.
We drove out over a picturesque suspension bridge out to Little Deer Isle, and then across a causeway that leads to Deer Isle.
We cruised along to the island town of Stonington. There were stacks of lobster pots framing many, maybe most, of the driveways. When we got to the small waterfront village in Stonington, we realized the town seemed to be asleep. Not a person was in sight. Dozens of small metal boats with outboard motors rocked gently along a small wooden dock in waters along the coast. We joked that Coastal Maine had been evacuated and we somehow missed the memo.
John Steinbeck visited and stayed on Deer Isle on his great 1960 road trip immortalized in Travels with Charley. He described the layered and jagged manner in which the houses of the village of Stonington stand as you head toward the water. He described Deer Isle as a magical place. “This Isle is like Avalon; it must disappear when you are not there,” he wrote.
On the way back out, we stopped along the causeway between Deer Isle and Little Deer Isle. It was low tide and it seemed from our vantage point that we could walk out to the small island between the two Deer isles. We grabbed a couple bottles of beer from the backseat, popped them open and walked out.
Beneath our feet was a mixture of old oyster shells and wet, mucky sand. We could soon see that there was a channel of water between the exposed sand and the little island, but we kept heading toward a firm-looking spit of land near the channel. Getting out there, the mixture of sand and shells and muck became less and less firm and we were soon ankle deep in the wet ground. We’d reek of low-tide for the rest of the journey, but the dry spit of land was a great spot to drink a beer.
The coast of Maine is far from being a straight line. There’s smatterings of islands and long peninsulas and bays that stretch far inland. The roads that wend out to each coastal destination are some of the best capillaries in the country. On the drive back west toward Route 1 from Deer Isle, we experienced the strangeness of seeing a colorful sunset over Atlantic waters.
In the dark, we finally connected back with the fast-moving arteries of Maine and headed south.
In our recalibrations after being turned back at the border, we researched what presidential stops we might make that were happening in New Hampshire—the second state to vote in primaries, right after Iowa in January.
We settled on an early morning Donald Trump rally at a country club in Atkinson, New Hampshire.
When we arrived a little after 6:30 a.m. for the 7 a.m. event, the hall inside the country club building was packed with hundreds of supporters and members of the press. People were occupying seats going back hundreds of feet back from the small stage. Walking in, a seated lady stopped us and informed us that there were a few still-empty seats that no one had been noticing up in the front row at stage left. We took her advice and squeezed in.
We sat next to a Trump fanatic by the name of Dean Blake. He wore a puffy yellow wig, garish sunglasses and a plastic top hat that read “Trump: Make America Great Again.”
A restaurant worker, he said he’d been to three Trump rallies thus far and has made the pages of various newspapers, from the Washington Post to the Lowell Sun.
Blake said he had tried to bring a sign into the event that read “Follow that crazy, zany guy, Dean Blake on Facebook,” but the organizers wouldn’t allow it in.
Behind us, two women talked about Hillary Clinton’s testimony in front of a House investigations committee a few days earlier regarding the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya. “She’ll get away with it,” one of the women said. “She always does.”
Trump walked out just after seven, alongside us, out to the podium, as the crowd stood and cheered. Stepping up onto the platform to Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” he tossed his long-hanging overcoat to the floor at stage-right and waved to the crowd.
Trump’s speaking style is rapid-fire, stream of consciousness and tangential. He often started off talking about something, followed multiple paths to quick asides that he knew would draw laughs, and went on to the next topic without returning to his start point. He talked about polls and reminded the crowd that he still leads in most national polls for the Republican nomination. He called members of the press—save thirty percent or so—scum for covering the hell out of any poll that shows his lead slipping. He mocked Jeb Bush and Ben Carson for having what he calls low energy. He was critical of President Obama’s foreign policy, said he would get along with Vladimir Putin and said, as he often does, that if he becomes president, there’ll be so many wins, we’ll become bored with winning.
Trump is an enigma and seeing him speak only made him more so. He shows no self-consciousness, emits total confidence, rarely smiles but is clearing having fun, and it’s unclear whether he’s even seriously trying to get elected.
But I understand the draw better now. There’s a valid reason a large chunk of working people are listening to Donald Trump. Seeing him speak didn’t feel like watching a politician. Every ten seconds or so there was a line that drew laughter. It was a fun time watching him. And, while most modern politicians are far too careful in selecting their wording so as not to get something wrong and anger any set of people, Trump just lets it rip.
He breaks every rule that a political commentator a year ago would’ve set. And, he’s been, for many months now, a major political party’s presidential front-runner.
If nothing else, he has proved talking heads on cable news to be fools and maybe will quell the political media’s obsession in recent years with gaffes.
Is it just a long-durational publicity stunt? Who knows. Trump is more famous now than ever and he can cash in big time down the road with book deals, television contracts, et cetera. Could he leave the race soon while still on top, sensing an irreversible decline in the polls? He can pretty much do whatever he feels like and that’s the major part of his draw. There’s never been a U.S. presidential campaign like that of Donald Trump.
As he wrapped up his talk, he stepped down from the stand and shook Dean Blake’s hand. “Thank you, man,” Trump said to Blake. On the way out, he shook more hands and signed a magazine with his face on the cover.
Following the handshake, Dean Blake stood up on his chair, knowing this is the one time of most broadcasts of the event that the cameras will be panned out to the crowd. He turned toward the press risers and cameras at the back of the room and waved both arms.
Following the event, we drove south to the town of Concord, Massachusetts, where we ate breakfast. We walked the loop trail around Walden Pond where Henry David Thoreau in the 1840s had a small cabin and kept a journal. From his entries, he wrote his most famous work, Walden, an account of building and living in his 10-by-15 cabin, where he could think, reflect and write.
From there, we took Route 2, which turns into the Mohawk Trail in the Berkshires, one of the most scenic drives in America. The trees and the scenery were gorgeous. The road courses alongside both the Cold River and the Deerfield River for long stretches in the Pioneer Valley.
Once back in New York State, taking Route 22 south, I dropped off Travis at the Wassaic Train Station, so he could ride the Harlem Line down to the city to catch a full night’s sleep before returning to work the next day on the United States’ most-crowded island.
Delivering the dependable rental car back to the city of Rensselaer’s train station, I wondered whether Dan Blankenship will still be around and lucid in 2020. I started to hope the mysteries of Oak Island will remain sealed for another five years till my former misdeeds will be absolved and I’ll be allowed a closer look.