Down the Road a Piece

By MILT GROSS | Jan 19, 2014

Those old Belgrade, Maine vacations

“One summer, along about 1904, my father rented a camp on a lake in Maine and took us all there for the month of August,” is the first line of a chapter in a book I’m read-reading for the third time, One Man’s Meat by the late writer E.B. White.

This sentence is a genuine reader grabber that grabbed me and took me back to our family’s August vacations in Belgrade. It grabbed me enough to rouse me from the sofa on a mid-January Saturday, where I was waiting for the snow to melt.

That sentence not only grabbed me, but it took me back quite a few years to when my father used his railroad-employee’s family railroad pass to bring us to Maine to Belgrade....also in August. Those trips were perhaps some of the most memorable chapters of my sojourn here in earth -- 52 years of which have been as a resident of what once my favorite vacationland. (I’ve been telling folks I’d been here 45 years. My, how time flies when you’re residing in Maine Vacationland and just dug out the calculator to learn you’ve been here 52 years.)

We, like E.B. White, did our long-distant traveling in those days by train. From our Paoli, PA home to Philadelphia, then to New York’s Penn Station, then to Boston or Portland by Pullman. Waking up after a Pullman night and looking out the window to view evergreen trees whisking past was a delightful other awakening, the now we were in the genuine north country.

The train from Portland to Augusta was on a two-car makeup, the first of which was a baggage car and the one toting us was half baggage and half coach. It clickety clacked us along until Augusta, where in those days there actually was passenger train service and where my Great Aunt Amy Brackett met us with her Model T Ford.

In which we made it the dozen or so miles to her farmhouse, which was as far from Paoli emotionally as was Maine itself. The old cape had rough hewn timbers in the attic and a six-foot-long vertical stone holding up the house from down in the basement. That stone was held vertically by smaller stones place strategically at its base.

That to-my-child’s-mind-frightening because it seemed insecure way to hold up an entire house, added to the awe I felt about the place. Unlike our Paoli oil-boiler and radiators, the Belgrade house was heated by a kerosene stove in the parlor.

The barn leaned a good bit from the weariness of the ages, the grass in the field behind the barn for a great hideout for my little sister and I to hide in from each other, and the breeze swishing quietly through the three spruce in the front yard created a perfect outdoor playground filled with solitude and a distant view across field, forest, and lake.

The distant sound of a night train about a half-mile away provided the perfect feeling of homesickness that guaranteed that in a week or so we’d be on our way home to the comforts of Suburbia.

But the time in Belgrade set the stage for my dream of returning to Maine year after year until that returning one year was to a permanent home. One year my father and I discovered Baxter State Park on a map, and off we went with our quilts and cooking pots and pans snatched from the farmhouse kitchen, and our dreams of excitement. The park provided plenty of the latter, including the climb up Katahdin and the three-legged buck that objected to my pushing his nose away from our breakfast by placing his ion-velvet (thank God for velvet) antlers in my anatomy and backing me up against the lean-to.

We came back a couple of times, saw our first moose which my father described as 14 feet tall and had more climbing adventure. The road into Katahdin Stream Campground in  those days was a one-lane affair that wound through the forest with signs warning the motorist to blow the horn on curves to avoid being hit by a car heading the opposite direction. (They didn’t warn us about moose, and my education about those big guys waited until I had moved to Maine permanently so couldn’t entirely ever escape their huge frightening presence.)

Lake St. George State Park hasn’t changed since our visits there to swim and picnic, but it has increased in popularity. The last time Dolores and I drove there to put our canoe in the lake, the landing was so crowded we didn’t get the canoe into the lake’s water. I remember my Aunt Ruth swimming there during that first visit those long years ago.

Nor has Reid State Park changed over the years, nor the state fairs, and maybe not some of the real-estate auctions we visited where we looked over the old furniture, and I looked over the pale-white-skinned Maine girls who also attended.

As the years passed, our means of getting to Maine changed from train to car. Now the only train gets one as far as Portland. I was teaching in Danforth, when the last passenger train passed through on its way to non-existence. (Now we have a handful of tourist trains in the Pine Tree State, one of which Dolores and I rode from Belfast a couple of years ago after parking our Toyota at the station. In those vacation days, I had never heard of a Toyota, we moved about by Plymouth and Ford.)

From the Belgrade farmhouse, we walked down the road and rented a rowboat on Messalonski Stream. The rowboat had a crooked scull, if that’s the correct word for the length-wise piece of wood that forms the boat’s backbone, which had me rowing in circles at times when I planned to head upstream. Upstream led to Messalonski Lake, which we couldn’t reach because the distance was greater than our available time -- some type of mathematical formula there, I assume.

Moose would disturb the dairy cows of the neighboring farm, and one day the cows disturbed my father and I when we climbed into the pasture over the fence. The herd came at us for what purpose we didn’t wait to learn. We scampered back over the fence to the safety of the non-pasture that makes up most of Maine. One afternoon he and I got turned around following cow paths in the woods just off a pasture, and we were saved from lostness -- a new word, I believe, -- by stumbling accidentally back out to the pasture.

The pines and spruce near the farmhouse were two or three feet tall, and my father dug several up one August and brought them to a new home in Paoli, where the last I was after 30 or so years were about ten feet in height. Their relatives back in Belgrade had in the same period of time become a part of Maine’s forest.

I can’t go back in time to those vacationland days, nor would I choose such a trip. Today we have two Toyotas, both of which always start on the coldest mornings, an iMac that has more features than we’ll ever discover, a house that’s heated by an electric heat pump on a fraction of the cost of oil -- or wood or wood pellets, and a life without the mystery of all those years between then and now.

Our camera is a lot different now. We used to take a photo, hope it would be okay, send away the film, and wait for the prints to return in two or three weeks. Now we take the shot, load it onto our iMac, and can e-mail it anywhere we desire. Those long-ago cameras were good for 20 or 30 pictures, while our digital beast cranks out some 70 or so at a time.

Now I e-mail one column to an editor in Mongolia, who sends it back to a Millinocket online paper. In years after the farmhouse vacations and before now, a newspaper gave me a pile of paper on which to write stories and an envelope in which to mail them....and a phone for breaking news.

Our life today is much more convenient, but it will never take away those memories of our August vacations in Belgrade.

Thanks, E.B. White, for that lead sentence which has once more brought it all back into a pleasant focus.

Milt Gross can be reached for corrections, harassment, or other purposes at lesstraveledway@roadrunner.com.

Milton M. Gross copyright 2013

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