return of the native

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For more than 25 years I’ve had a William Hamilton cartoon from The New Yorker on my bulletin board that shows a couple of soignée dames talking to a guy in a checked hunting jacket. One of the ladies is ululating—“Maine! What an authentic place to come from.” I’ve heard that line before. I’m from Maine.

Summer rolls around and Americans start thinking vacation. And when they start thinking vacation, they start thinking Vacationland, Maine’s annoying moniker. No one wants to be a vacation destination—even if they make a living off tourists—but as my late father used to point out, tourists eventually go home.

Maine has marketed itself as a tourist mecca since the 19th century. Henry David Thoreau was a tourist in Maine. Mainers don’t seem to be able to stop taunting the rest of the country. Drive across the great bridge that spans the Piscataqua River separating Maine from our right wing neighbor New Hampshire (“Live Free or Die”) and there is a big sign that proclaims “Maine, the Way Life Should Be.”

Tourism is one of the state’s major moneymakers. Nearly 28 million people spent more than $5 billion visiting Maine last year. More than 85,000 people have jobs directly related to tourism. That’s more people than live in the state’s largest city, Portland.

Since most of the mills closed or moved to Sri Lanka, marketing Maine is all Maine has left to market. Maine sells Maine. The Way Life Should Be. It’s a fantasy. But what’s the harm?

Tourists have been good to Maine and tourism is a soft industry that is not incompatible with Maine life and it harms the environment less than fracking would. Folks complain about tourists causing traffic jams. Trust me, the worst traffic jam in Maine history would be a rolling backup on the inner loop of the beltway most weekday mornings.

Maine has made its pact with the devil. The state fiercely promotes itself as a four-season destination—allowing tourists to get lost in the woods year-round. (But, hey, it keeps the game wardens busy.) The most sparsely populated state east of the Mississippi and larger than the rest of New England combined, Maine has one big problem. More than 70 million Americans and Canadians live within a one-day drive of Vacationland. Yikes! Even gas prices over $4 a gallon could not keep them away.

And so it is that I am going home in July for a visit, a vacationer in Vacationland, a grouchy expatriate. Tourists think Maine is a pine-covered wonderland, just one lighthouse and picturesque village after another, with L.L. Bean thrown in for rainy days. But I’m from the interior of the state, a town of dark, satanic mills where the industrial revolution began—and ended. Tourists do not visit dark, satanic mills. How would that look on a bumper sticker? I VISITED A DARK, SATANIC MILL.

If home is where the heart is then I think it takes a hard heart to love a mill town. But Maine is home. I’ll have dinner with my brother one night (that’s often more than enough) at his house on an island in Casco Bay. My brother loathes tourists and is a rich source of weird stories involving flatlanders who’ve had misadventures on the Appalachian Trail, were plucked from watery death by the Coast Guard off Owls Head or were rescued by the warden service from whitewater rafting trips run amok. Some of his stories are even true.

I never stay in Maine long now. I have become a “fair weather Maine man.” That’s not a compliment. I drive around and look at the past, the things that are no longer there. The funny thing about the things that are no longer there is that I can clearly see them all. I stop at Fat Boy’s, an old Route 1 drive-in where my father ate lunch. I visit a few friends. I get lots of dinner invitations. My brother marvels at my popularity, observing that when you only come home once a year people are actually glad to see you. That’s the idea.

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