by Andrew Miller
In the summer of 1957, when I was ten years old, my father rented a cabin near Milbridge, in Down East Maine. It was near the end of a peninsula, several hundred yards from the ocean and surrounded by spruce trees. The wood siding was a dull green and except for red trim, blended into the evergreen forest. The cabin had no electricity and one of my chores was to carry water for drinking and washing from a nearby well. The outhouse, a closet-sized wooden structure that enclosed a two-hole pit latrine, was a short distance away. My mother cooked on a kerosene stove indoors or on a stone fireplace outside. We read by lamplight, ate meals on stools fashioned from nail kegs, and all slept in a single bunkroom. Above the main room was a tiny loft where I used to play, accessible only by ladder. Several times my father purchased live lobsters from a fisherman hauling traps just offshore. I had never seen live lobsters, watched them being cooked, or eaten one.
My father learned about the cabin from its owner, a botanist friend who worked at the Smithsonian Institution. We knew about its primitive condition before leaving home. Although truly roughing it, the experience was not that unusual for my parents. Both were born near the turn of the century and grew up in homes without running water or electricity. These privations were minor, more than made up for by the availability of fresh seafood, the stunning views of rocky coves, nearby islands, and endless mudflats. For me, lugging water by hand and using an outhouse wasn’t that bothersome. And, at that age, I would have assumed that everything—the outhouse, the dimly lit remote cabin—would remain unchanged forever.
Our home was in Pittsburgh and my father plotted our 850-mile, three-day trip to Milbridge using paper maps. He recorded major highway intersections on 3×5 cards that he flipped through as we drove. Packed into our 1953 Plymouth, we traveled east on the Pennsylvania turnpike, then north on the New York thruway. After weaving about on side roads, we continued east on the brand new, partially completed Mass Pike. South of Portland, we joined U.S. Route 1, then followed the coast north and east through dozens of small towns until we reached Milbridge.
Before that two-week vacation, I had no experience with tides and rocky coastlines, knew nothing of marine life or saltwater. Possibly this was part of my father’s plan: to introduce a little brine into my veins. He woke me early on the first morning and together we strode down a narrow path to the ocean. The sky was clear, and the sun poured through the evergreen branches, spattering the ferns and reindeer moss with bright yellow. We clambered over boulders to reach the tidal zone, then slipped and slid over greasy mats of rockweed to the water’s edge. Airbladders on the stems made satisfying pops under our weight. I knelt beside a shallow pool, barnacles cutting into my knees, and pulled out a gray-green sea urchin, one of a tightly packed cluster. Its nearly motionless spines left tiny indentations in my skin. Sea stars were everywhere, carpeting the pools, draped over exposed rocks like sleeping cats. From a crevice between two rocks, my father pulled one out larger than his hand. When he saw the envious look on my face, he tossed it my way. I had never held one and marveled at its cold crusty arms that barely moved. Everything I saw—the creatures exposed by low tide, the huge boulders littering the shoreline, massive expanses of rockweed and kelp—was more dramatic and diverse than anything I had ever seen along lakes, rivers, and sandy beaches in Pennsylvania. By comparison, freshwater habits were dull and uninteresting.
Fifty years would pass before I returned to that cabin or that section of the Maine coast. Part of the reason was distance. After leaving Pittsburgh, I never lived closer than 1,000 miles from Maine. Another reason was a fear that the cabin would never look the way it did in 1957. I didn’t want to return and see it flooded with incandescent light, hear the steady hum of an electric refrigerator, the rhythmic churning of a washing machine or dishwasher.
In the late 1990s I met Kathryn, who lived in Tallahassee but also owned a house and property on Deer Isle, about 60 miles southwest of Milbridge. We had the same political inclinations, loved cats, reading, and the out of doors. And, of course, there was the Maine connection. We married, then a few years later, retired. I began to think about that cabin. Was it still there, and would it have changed after 50 years? And, since I was older, would it seem different, perhaps not as exciting as it was back then?
It was a cold and rainy November afternoon in 2007, and we were driving east on U.S. Route 1 toward Milbridge. From the start, Kathryn was uneasy about my ability to find the cabin. I had gotten my initial bearings from The Maine Atlas and Gazetteer but planned to rely mainly on memory. I was certain it was near the tip of a peninsula, about six miles south of Milbridge. We had to find a gravel road that turned south off U.S. Route 1 near town. Kathryn kept reminding me that I had a lousy sense of direction and hadn’t been there in half a century. Her humor wasn’t helped by the weather. The rain showed no sign of letting up, and a light fog had begun to settle, obscuring the road ahead.
As we approached Milbridge, I spotted a secondary road that cut off to the right. Although it wasn’t gravel, it looked familiar and headed south. “This is it,” I said.
Kathryn kept quiet until we made the turn. “Amazing that you remember this so well—and you were only ten years old!” She nudged my shoulder. I detected a hint of sarcasm in her voice. Fifty years ago I was probably absorbed in Mad Magazine and not paying much attention. I couldn’t think of a snappy response and remained quiet. Better not to roil the waters, especially if we had to drive back into town for directions.
It didn’t take long before houses, trailers, and stacks of lobster traps gave way to abandoned apple orchards and old fields. The road narrowed and the asphalt began to deteriorate. Kathryn grabbed The Maine Atlas and Gazetteer and began flipping through pages. I pressed on.
A few minutes later, the bumpy pavement deteriorated to even bumpier gravel. The road narrowed and the power lines quit. The rest of the peninsula was off the grid. The lack of electricity was key to my memory—this had to be the correct road. I spotted a weedy two-track lane that cut off to the east. It was narrow and quickly disappeared into the trees. We turned in, then stopped. The way forward was blocked by an old car.
“Probably a clammer,” Kathryn said. “Bet he’s got a gun.”
I knew that clammers could be very suspicious of strangers snooping around their favorite spots. But hey, I wanted to find that cabin. Kathryn stayed in the car and I went ahead on foot.
A few hundred yards down the two-track road, I smelled wood smoke and spotted the cabin. A bit larger than I remembered, but still sheathed with green siding and red trim, surrounded by spruce trees. A young man was out front, hauling brush and feeding a fire. He didn’t look like a clammer.
“Hello,” I called through the trees. He stopped tossing branches into the flames and stared at me. He said nothing while I introduced myself and told him that my family had vacationed here in 1957. I explained that my father had known the owner. He tossed another branch in the fire, paused while the smoke rose, then motioned toward a strip of land near the ocean.
“That was my grandfather. He’s buried over there.”
The man was from Blue Hill, not far from Deer Isle, and had traveled up for the day to do chores. Quite a coincidence that we were both here at the same time.
The cabin had not been sold and was still in the family. Sometime during the sixties, they added a room on the first floor with a line of windows that faced east. The new ones matched the original windows—two small panes over a single. We went inside. The tiny loft where I used to play had been converted to a full-sized room. Nail kegs surrounded the table and the bunkroom was unchanged. They still fetched water from a well and there was no electricity, not even a generator. I saw one concession to modernity: a propane-fueled refrigerator, stove, and lights. But still no electricity to power a telephone or computer. A vacation here this summer wouldn’t differ much from one 50 years ago.
I’ve heard many warnings about returning to childhood haunts. They will seem smaller, less magical and more mundane when viewed through adult eyes. But for me, nothing had changed. I almost expected to see my father carrying wood to the fireplace or hear my mother calling us for supper. During our vacation in the fifties, my parents were about the same age as I was during this return visit. That made me feel a bit giddy. I pondered the difficulty of that trip for them, especially my mother. The burden of preparing meals, keeping bodies and clothes clean without hot water from the tap must have been tough. Something a ten-year old wouldn’t worry about.
It was a sunny morning in 2018, and Kathryn and I were again on Route 1 driving toward Milbridge. Ten years had elapsed since tour previous visit, and much had happened. Both my children were married and had children of their own. I had been thinking more about the cabin, and worried that it might have been sold or knocked down. If still standing, it might no longer be tethered to the past. I imagined a paved driveway, a satellite dish, black electric lines looping through spruce trees.
Just as before, we turned south off the highway, felt the pavement give way to gravel, saw the power lines quit. But north of the two-track lane we were assaulted by a cluster of irate signs. END OF TOWN ROAD shouted the first, then,NO OUTLET, DEAD END, PRIVATE ROAD, NO TRESPASSING. The gravel road continued, but we weren’t supposed to. Whoever posted those signs was angrier than Kathryn’s gun-toting clammer.
I worried that the southern tip of the peninsula had been sold. The new owner might have torn the cabin down, not interested in a dwelling without electricity or running water. I might only find a strip of raw earth, scraps of green and red lumber, broken glass, bulldozer tracks. That image would forever overlay my memory of sitting around the table on nail kegs, traipsing under spruce trees, wandering the coast with my father.
A plat map would explain who owned the property. We turned around and started toward Milbridge in search of the Town Office. I imagined an ancient building with sloping floors that creaked underfoot, the air thick with the aroma of damp plaster and moldy paper. What I had conjured in my imagination had been retired in 2013 in favor of a new structure in a new location. We parked in front of a simple gray clapboard building with gable roof. It housed both the public library and the Town Office.
The new Town Office was efficient and well-lit: no fusty tomes stacked on wooden shelves, spooky corridors, shadowy offices. With the help of a records clerk, I learned that a large block of land on the southern tip of the peninsula had been sold, but not the cabin or surrounding property. I obtained the owner’s contact information and later we spoke by telephone. She was the daughter of the man who rented the cabin to my father, whose bones lay near the ocean. It was her son who was burning brush during our visit in 2007. She said that her mother purchased the land in 1934, paying less than one dollar a foot for 500 feet of ocean frontage.
“Ignore those signs and go back,” she said. The person who had purchased the southern tip of the peninsula posted them. But her family still had right of access.
Again, I drove north and east on Route 1, down the gravel road toward the tip of the peninsula. I passed the signs and parked in a clearing surrounded by spruce trees. Near the cabin was a sign that read, ‘Wildlife and Friends, Welcome.’ The cabin looked the same, still had green siding and red trim. Even the free-standing outhouse was there. I peeked through a window, saw the nail kegs, the bunk room, the propane stove and refrigerator.
In Walking, Henry David Thoreau laments the concept of private property, extolls the virtues of ‘…walking over the surface of God’s earth.’ He wandered everywhere in the woods near Concord. In an early version of his essay, delivered as a lecture to the Concord Lyceum in 1851, Thoreau said: ‘But possibly the day will come when … fences shall be multiplied… to confine men to the public road, and walking over the surface of God’s earth shall be construed to mean trespassing…’ For me, that day had arrived.
Perhaps the new owner posted those signs because he was upset by curious tourists or locals who roamed his land when he wasn’t there. When I visited with my parents, we hiked around the peninsula almost every evening. We never asked who owned the land, and no one ever stopped us.
I left the cabin behind, brushed through moist evergreen saplings toward the ocean. Reindeer moss crunched under my feet, stirring up the aroma of damp soil and decaying wood. When I reached the rocky shoreline I stopped, leaned against a spindly spruce tree. The shoreline was shrouded in fog. Somewhere offshore, a lobster boat muttered along; the gentle thrum-thrum-thrum of diesel accompanied by the barely audible strains of country western music. Where the rocks gave way to water, a narrow swath of kelp and rockweed undulated with the waves. Gulls glided in circles overhead, their black-tipped wings rigid and steady, their bodies tremulous in the breeze. Too bad the tide was in. Otherwise I’d scramble over the boulders and down to the pools, search out a few sea stars, maybe an urchin or two.
Andrew Miller retired from a career that included university teaching and research in aquatic systems at a government laboratory. Now he has time to pursue his long-held interest in creative writing. He summers on Deer Isle, Maine with his wife Kathryn and Maine Coon cat, Smokey. Recent work has appeared in: Typehouse Literary Magazine, Front Porch Review, Blue Lake Review, The Meadow, Northern Woodlands, and Down East.
His website is http://www.andrewcmiller.com/