“Welcome to Maine,” says the bus driver. I return his tired smile, hoist my backpack and walk out of the Portland Transportation Center. It’s early on an autumn morning, I have a few days to explore this corner of the United States and I’m keen to forget the overnight journey north from New York. There are places in the US that exist on maps but almost entirely evade references in popular culture and rarely attract international travellers. Apparently, Jacksonville is the biggest city in Florida but I’ve never seen a picture of it or met anyone who spent time there. Today, Maine’s biggest city leaps into existence.
Like Tasmania, Maine is almost entirely forested, sparsely populated, mostly empties itself of people motivated by fame and wealth and is ruthlessly parochial. You could call yourself a New Yorker after living in NYC for a week and no one would care, but I soon discover my Airbnb host in Portland moved here from Vermont more than 30 years ago and is still referred to as “from away”. Conversely, if it wasn’t for Stephen King and the bottled water brand Poland Spring, America’s sense of itself might peter out before New Hampshire’s eastern border, where the licence plates move from New Hampshire – Live Free or Die to Maine – Vacationland. Apparently, Maine is the 44th most-visited state. Its latest licence plate has moved from suggestive to pointed: Maine – Lobster. My early morning walk along the busy piers and wharves suggests the tourism plan is working.
It’s still early, but the city is already at a low bustle. Throughout the day it doesn’t get much noisier. After the well-heeled throngs of central Boston and Manhattan’s ceaseless anxiety, the slow traffic, unhurried conversations and occasional muted honk of a ferry is soothing. This feels like a city to come home to. Even the signs – so ubiquitous in New York – that suggest, “If you see something, say something”, have another line added to them here: “It’s probably nothing.”
Portland still has a busy working harbour, but the streets around its docks are lined with craft shops, cafes, upmarket outdoor clothing stores, brew pubs and emporiums for the holidaymaker. The russet-brick pavements of Fore Street, a line of colonial-era buildings in the city’s Old Port district, undulate with tree roots, around street signs and at the entrance to small parks.
In an airy shop selling expensive jeans, chatty staff play indie pop on the stereo and talk about moving to Brooklyn. After a lengthy conversation with one attendant about the local metal scene, craft beer and the merits of his archaeology degree, talk again turns to moving away. “Portland’s all right, I guess. But…” he wrinkles his forehead, extends his arms in an exaggerated shrug and gestures at the city around him. “It’s not like I’m 50 or into golf and fishing.”
That evening, my “from away” host, Janet, sketches a more optimistic picture of Portland’s remarkable evolution from an outpost whose fortunes ebbed on the profitability of timber and fishing to one of the most thriving arts centres in the north-east. Her enthusiasm for interpretive dance, slam poetry and life drawing proves uninfectious, but anyone whose life can include these things and an apartment with bay windows and a view over the harbour must be doing something right.
Twelve hours later, I wake to a room full of sunlight and an ocean breeze teasing the curtains. Outside there is a cloudless sky and a scattering of islands in Casco Bay. A nearby cafe called The Front Room has a menu that lists exoticisms such as biscuits and gravy, silver dollar pancakes and something called red flannel hash. In a city such as Portland, a suburban cafe offers a rare chance to watch locals be locals. I order an Americano and, fulfilling the backpacker stereotype familiar to cafe staff the world over, I inquire about the wi-fi. “Yes, we do have wi-fi,” the waitress says, “but it’s not for sharing. We like to keep it to ourselves.” I thrill at the blackness of the Maine sense of humour, but there is no suggestion she’s joking. She pours me three-quarters of a cup of black coffee and walks away. I leave a tip.
Later that morning I board a bus and take a seat behind an elderly man whose gaze briefly meets mine before returning to the window. A man of a similar age boards at the next stop and sits next to him. Neither makes any sign of recognition. After a minute or so of silence, a very American conversation ensues.
“Did you hear the weather forecast for today?”
“No. I’m from Bangor so any day without snow is fine by me.”
“I just put on this coat this morning and now look at the sun.”
“I thought a sweater would be fine. Now I’m beginning to think I should have gone for something lighter.”
“I always say you get every season every day here. I’m just in town visiting my son – he’s working over at the hospital. He’s an orderly there.”
“You know, I had to go into hospital just last month. Just a check-up, I got given the all clear, but it’s never easy, you always worry.”
“I retired a couple of years ago and two of the guys I worked with, both real healthy, got cancer. They’re both okay but, phew, you never can tell.”
“I exercise every day, walk at least two miles.”
“I haven’t smoked in a few years – that scare was enough to make me give up.”
“Well, this is my stop. I’ll see ya later.”
“Yep, see ya.”
Dazzled by their ability to communicate without any inquiry, I alight the bus and walk past bright, clean and boxy weatherboard houses down to the harbour to take a mailboat ferry to the islands off the coast. It’s now that I begin to notice the city’s cleanliness. There are few rubbish bins and no litter. The sea doesn’t smell briny, but clean. In fact, there are barely any smells in Portland besides cooking aromas and the odd flowering plant. For a city that processes so many fish, there is also a curious lack of birds. This Truman Show feeling is only exacerbated by my ferry ride through Casco Bay.
As we chug between bucolic islands, delivering packages and collecting Santa sacks of mail, the bay’s beauty is disconcerting. The ferry goes from pier to pier but we can’t leave the boat, keeping each island at a wide-angle remove. Sunlight breaks over perfectly proportioned houses. Coppices thick with thin trees in complementary shades of green could only result from specific planning. Immaculate cars and golf carts move slowly along narrow, gently curving roads that run by Astroturf-green fields. Cows stand idly behind a fence as if posing for a milk carton. Locals, or people holidaying “from away”, dressed in pristine outdoor gear, wave keenly as we depart. All these preternatural scenes are lit with rich autumnal tones that even Spielberg, in full historic romanticism mode, would surely regard as a bit much.
Back on land I visit Gritty McDuff’s, a microbrew pub that lets me get my bearings and contemplate tomorrow’s overnight bus trip out of town. If the ride here was anything to go by, it will be long and sleepless, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that I’m already dreaming.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 2, 2018 as "Maine course". Subscribe here.