Once a Mainer, Always a Mainer
Elizabeth Peavey, Down East contributing editor, tried to stay away from Maine. She really did.
Anyone who grows up in Maine and has a lick of sense generally has one supreme goal: To get out. If you're from Maine and, by chance or by choice, you end up as an adult living in Maine, you run the risk of being labeled a Loser.
Sure, Maine's a great place to call home, providing you're from somewhere else. There's a certain unspoken cachet - a sense of pioneering derring-do - in moving to Maine, and transplants love this state with steadfast devotion. They're first in line in January for reservations at Baxter State Park. They never miss the Common Ground Fair. Their Subaru Outbacks sport loon conservation plates and Maine Public Radio window decals. They get all moony at the mere mention of fresh seafood (which makes me want to poke them in the eye with a Mrs. Paul's fish stick). They pick and preserve berries in season, snowshoe or cross-country ski in winter and kayak in summer. They buy their produce at farmers' markets and know Gulf Hagas was not named for a Scottish offal dish that is boiled in a sheep's stomach.
They are, in a word, nouveau Mainers.
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm no xenophobe. Most of my closest friends are, in fact, from away. I even married a non-native. (OK, so he moved to Maine when he was eight years old, but still.)
It's just that I feel I get a bit of attitude from these transplants. Because I don't look like I'm from Maine (with the exception of my woods wear, it's all black clothing all the time) or sound like I'm from Maine (I grew up in front of the TV; my accent is Walter Cronkite with a splash of Captain Kangaroo), I'm frequently asked where I'm from. When they find out I'm a native, they give me that up-and-down look that tells me they view me as lacking. That my choice to live here was through a character defect. That I wasn't quite capable of making it anywhere else. That I was weaned on potatoes and Allens coffee brandy - which is, of course, ridiculous. Everyone knows one doesn't serve a cordial with a starch.
I hate to admit it - especially as someone who has made a career out of flying in the face of, well, everything - but this scrutiny can roil up old insecurities in me. I know I owe no one an explanation for my decision to live in Maine, but these assessments put me on the defensive. And that is because, for most of my youth, I couldn't have agreed more.
This feeling was especially poignant growing up in the small Midcoast town of Bath, home of the Bath Iron Works. As pretty a little city as it is today, during my formative years, it was a mill town. Everyone seemed to be related, even if it was in a second-cousin, twice-removed fashion. Most of my teachers were Mainers, many locals. The majority of my classmates' dads worked at the Yard (as BIW is called). When the company had its annual family day at Small Point Beach, tumbleweeds all but tossed down Front Street. While my parents were from Maine, they were not from Bath. I had no local relatives. My father was not employed by BIW. I did not attend the picnics. Because I could not join their reindeer games, I made it my goal to be nothing like my townsfolk.
In the hands of another Maine writer, this story would have a gorier resolution involving a spoiled prom night. My answer, however, was flight. My wanderlust began the moment I could point my scooter down the hill on which we lived. I remember once being referred to as, "that girl from up the street" by one of the neighborhood moms. It sounded glamorous, dangerous even. From that moment on, I knew the traveling life was for me. After all, Out There was waiting.
My mission to unMaine myself took me around the world - from the tip of Tasmania to the top of the Isle of Skye. It started with a Sierra Club hiking trip in the Wyoming Rockies in high school. When the time for choosing a college came around, I blindly and hastily selected the University of Denver, applied and was accepted. All that remained was the agonizing wait.
You know, life is funny. You think you have it in a stranglehold, and then Pow! a sucker punch, right in the kisser. For reasons that are no longer important, the Denver thing didn't happen. Instead, I was railroaded into attending the University of Maine at Orono. U.M. Zero. Death. I wept the entire way up that familiar route so well worn by both my older brothers before me, not for leaving home, as some do, but for not leaving home thoroughly enough.
Everyone I knew at Orono who was from Maine seemed to have an excuse for being there - a financial aid package that didn't come through, a late application. We all complained about our fate, but few did anything about it. After three semesters, with my unMaineing clearly on the downslide, I escaped — to Portland. OK, it was a baby step, but it was movement.
That was January, 1979. In another year, my traveling life really began, starting with a semester in London (where I was simply referred to as "the American") and a month long solo trek around the British Isles. The following spring, I did Europe. On trains in Italy and buses in Greece, I would sketch blobby maps of the States that looked like drunken cows and show fellow travelers where I was from. "Maine," I would shout, circling the cow's head. (Shouting always helps overcome language barriers.) "J'habite A Maine." (So does speaking French, even if no one else does.)
A year or so later, I loaded up my Subaru and spent four months driving solo (much to my parents' horror) around the U.S. and Canada. When I returned to Portland, it was as a citizen of the world. Maine was just a way station. I finished my degree, kicked around and then applied to and got rejected from graduate school. After the sudden and unexpected death of my beloved dad and two years of grieving, flight, once again, seemed the only balm. I moved to San Francisco, where being from Maine turned out to be a boon. I was regarded as exotic, and I got tons of job interviews. Actually, they were more like views. "Look everyone," the H.R. representative would say, parading me in front her colleagues, as though a moose had just wandered in off Market Street. "Miss Peavey is from Maine." When she said the word, she almost shouted.
Virtually everyone I knew in San Francisco was a transplant, so even though I had a California license and bank account, I was still ostensibly from Maine. And then, on a trip to Australia, someone asked me where I was from and, without thinking, I responded: "San Francisco." Finally, the moment I had been waiting for all my life: To not be from Maine. But my answer sounded hollow, as though someone I didn't know had spoken for me.
Two years in San Francisco were followed by a year in Boston, but that stint was a rough one. It was 1990, and the economy and the job market had hit the skids. Playing the Maine card no longer worked. No one there found me fascinating. Or employable. Things bottomed out. After weighing my options, I looked to Maine.
I knew reentry would be rough, especially considering each time I had left the state it was in a spray of gravel and a chorus of "So long, suckers." What, after all, could a broke, thirty-one-year-old, failed playwright/poet with a r`sum` that bordered on science fiction do in a place where people who actually possessed real job skills couldn't find work? What argument could one possibly present on the side of going back? And what kind of loser, after all, gives up on the great Out There at the first sign of trouble and retreats?
Well, the answer was, this kind of loser. I wanted to go home.
Excerpted from Maine & Me: 10 Years of Down East Adventures, by Elizabeth Peavey, published by Down East.
- By: Elizabeth Peavey