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American Impressions, Chapter 12: Maine
The Quiet Border

A map of the continental United States looks like a quilt of geographic compactness and symmetry. But where, exactly, does America begin? I mean geographically, a starting line of sorts.

I found myself looking for that beginning on a cold January afternoon—it was about 10 degrees—in the North Maine Woods, at the northernmost part of that huge chunk of the state that juts into Canada like an incursion. U.S. Route 1 begins there, at Fort Kent, a bridge away from Canada. A Chamber of Commerce sign by the roadside marks the spot and tells the distance to the road’s end in Key West (2,209 miles). But it’s not the beginning. A state route grafts off, like a local dare, burrowing further west into the Maine unknown along the St. John River (the local Rio Grande with Canada) and through four or five villages of a thickly wooded region called the Allagash.

My standard Rand McNally map showed S.R. 161 finally ending at Dickey, although a private logging road picks up somewhere beyond that point. A foot of week-old snow and ice bordered the road as I drove on, trying without success to distinguish between lone houses and villages. Packed snow and ice overtook 161 the further I went, miles past Dickey. There was no way to tell where the road turned to dirt, where the official road ended and the private road began, whether I was trespassing or not, whether there even was a beginning to America.

I expected to come out of every curve on a decisive scene, a landmark, a clearing that said I’d arrived, but every curve led to another. Some sections of the roadside forest looked like they’d been razed recently, to judge from the tuft-like young firs cottoning the landscape. Other sections looked mature enough for the chain-saws, which couldn’t be far off: the only vehicle that passed me by in half an hour was a loaded logging truck.

The road became hillier. Houses disappeared. The wheels began to churn the ice instead of gripping it, and the sun fell behind the tree-line. On a straight stretch that led to yet another curve, I idled the van, stepped outside, and touched the frozen ground. This was it, I decided. The Beginning. No bang, no billboards, no souvenir-peddlers. Just silence and geographic haze—such rarities, both, in America, where roads usually shout precision and frenzy—and it was perfect. “In Maine,” Edmund Muskie, one of the state’s most famous sons (and an ex-presidential contender), once said, “we have a saying that you don’t say anything that doesn’t improve on silence.” On this stretch of road, nothing could.

With the threat of dusk moving me along, I turned around and drove back toward Madawaska, a border town 50 miles away. The beginning may have lacked a beginning, but its fuzziness couldn’t better describe the border culture of Northern Maine, where few things are clearly defined, least of all an actual border most people would rather didn’t exist.

Lloyd Woods likes to ask students one question in particular when he visits schools to explain his job as the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service’s area port director in Madawaska. “How many here have traveled to a foreign country in the last six months?” Two or three hands usually go up. “How many of you have traveled to Canada in the last six months?” Every hand in the class goes up. When Woods tells the students that they’ve all been to a foreign country, they act surprised.

It’s what I love about the U.S.-Canada border, a 3,987-mile slice of haplessness in a world of paranoia.

I was attracted to the area of the St. John Valley because I’ve always idealized America’s border with Canada. I wanted to live the border life for a few days, see to what extent it speaks to people’s allegiances, cross in and out of Canada for no other reason than to take advantage of a fluidity unique in the history of boundaries. It sounds silly, but there’s a thrill to that simple freedom. In my native Lebanon, I’d grown up with national boundaries studded with barbed wire and machine gun turrets. Even in Europe, international crossings remain stiff with suspicions and guards armed to the gills, as if enmity was required by tradition. Nothing but concrete markers and a swath of cleared land marks the line between Canada and the United States. It’s especially convenient to the wildlife that roams on both sides and that trips, 99 percent of the time, the electronic sensors geared to tip off the Border Patrol of any suspicious movement.

To most people, the border with Canada doesn’t mean much more than that between Florida and Georgia. Nor should it. Every day $1 billion in trade crosses the line from both sides, by far the richest exchange of any two nations on Earth. Taking for granted the border’s near-irrelevance is a minor advantage of living in North America.

The U.S.-Canadian border isn’t just peaceful. It’s an encumbrance, at least in Maine. “As far as the people are concerned, there is no border,” says Gerry Robinson, executive director of the Fort Kent Area Chamber of Commerce. “The customs are the same. What makes the difference is the governments.”

Some examples: Two sisters bought a vacuum cleaner together and planned to share it. But one sister lives in Edmunston, across the river from Madawaska; the other one lives in the United States. American customs won’t let the vacuum cleaner be used on American soil because U.S. duties weren’t paid on the product. And when Robinson and her husband agreed to help a chiropractor friend in Edmunston move his office with their pick-up truck, Canadian customs officials barred the Robinsons from carrying out the favor because they didn’t have a work permit. “We’ll be watching you,” Robinson recalls the border officials telling her and her husband, “and if you do help him, we’ll arrest you.”

”A lot of Canadians have told me that even with the exchange rate being unfavorable, our prices are still cheaper. But they won’t come over here because of all the aggravation they have to go through,” Robinson says. “The river has never divided us up here. It’s the politics that divide us. Politics and the crazy laws.”

So it isn’t all peace and love. Customs and INS officials—“We’re two different agencies,” Lloyd Woods insists on clarifying—take their job very seriously, the more so because they sense that the rest of us border-hoppers have a hard time taking them, or at least their challenge, seriously.

In the mid-1990s, 1.2 million people a year tried entering the United States illegally from Mexico, compared with just 13,000 from Canada (60 percent of them Canadians). The numbers just aren’t there to make a case for taking the border seriously even if just the other year the Border Patrol at Swanton, Vt., caught 93 Pakistanis, 45 Indians, 50 Romanians, 24 South Koreans, 43 Poles, 22 Israelis, 13 Britons and one person from Uzbekistan.

It’s even quieter in Madawaska. “The criminal element hasn’t reached this area,” Woods says. “We’re so far away.” The worst it got there was back in the ‘20s and ‘30s when the smuggling of Canadian beef and margarine and pigs was big business. Even drugs aren’t a worry.

Between the two sides there have been potato wars (especially in Maine), timber wars, electricity wars, magazine wars, wheat wars and salmon wars, but none has caused everyday border crossers as much grief as the Beanie Baby war. Canadians aren’t as fanatical about the bean-filled dolls as Americans, which makes the dolls more available on Canadian shelves. But returning Americans have been punished by the U.S. Customs Service for smuggling beanies. (The St. Albans, Vt., crossing seized a collection of 1,500 babies last year). Americans were allowed one Beanie Baby import “for personal use” every 30 days until grandpas and grandmas, some of them arrested for smuggling, howled enough to raise the threshold to 30.

Trivialities aside, the border can be downplayed only so much. For one group of people on either side of the St. John River, trade wars and beanie regulations don’t rate anywhere near the border’s effect on something more fragile than international relations: The viability of Acadian culture.

Maine’s North Country has always existed with uncertain borders, with a culture that neither Canada nor America can claim exclusively, and with a different set of political rules. This far north, some Mainers don’t even consider themselves part of either country. Communities along the St. John Valley still refer to themselves as the Madawaska Republic, a left-over from Acadian days when French-speaking settlers of British North America were booted out of New Brunswick in the late 18th century and skipped the escape boats that went to Louisiana, preferring instead the wilds of northern Maine, which were then just wild rather than specifically Maine: The actual border was set in a compromising mood with British North America in 1842.

Sixteen French families settled the St. John Valley with names like Mercure, Cyr, Thibodeau, Pelletier, Daigle and Duperr. The names on both sides of the river still identify everything from streets to funeral homes to towing services. But New Brunswick officially is bilingual. Maine isn’t, and every few years the Maine Legislature produces arguments to make English the official language. None has yet succeeded, but for Acadians, that brings back memories of the 1950s and ‘60s when schools bent on assimilation forbade children from speaking French, punishing them severely if they did. The era of multiculturalism reversed course, but too late. On the American side of the border, the Acadian culture is dying.

”It’s not going to be here” in a generation or two, says Barney Pelletier, principal at St. Francis Elementary, an outpost of a school on State Road 161. When he started teaching in the mid-‘60s, 60 percent of his students were bilingual. No longer. “You see it in all families. Children of elementary school age do not speak French. You’d not have more than three or four students here that can carry a conversation in French. We’re losing our heritage. I remember way back when my grandmother couldn’t speak English. Now my daughter wouldn’t be able to say one full sentence in French.”

The region’s poverty isn’t helping: 22 of Pelletier’s 89 students are foster children—not because the St. John Valley has a big heart, but because participating in the state’s foster program is at least a source of income. The Fraser Papers mill at Madawaska is the largest private employer, nearby Fort Kent has a hospital, a branch of the state university and a clothing manufacturer, but it’s not enough to keep young people from leaving. The irony, for those who do grow up bilingual, is that they become attractive to employers in the global economy, which means away from the valley.

But every August when the valley celebrates its Acadian heritage through festivals and family reunions, exiles return, and so does Acadian fervor.

”I always marvel at the Americans versus the Canadians, how much you folks are flag wavers,” Yvon Cyr, an exile from the Canadian side of the river, tells me from his home in Guelph, Ontario. “We’re not—except the Acadians. There are Acadians waving their flag all night long. They’re very proud of their heritage. The problem is, it’s like myself: I’m an Acadian, I moved away 20-30 years ago. Why? Because the opportunities weren’t there. It’s a very limited culture.”

Like Cyr, I grew up bilingual, with French as my mother tongue. I became trilingual when I came to the United States, then consciously decided to become as assimilated as possible to the American culture. That meant embracing America at the expense of my other languages. I wasn’t losing my heritage as much as nurturing a new one, the choice of one’s heritage mattering at least as much as heredity. But I can’t deny that one reason I was reluctant to leave the St. John Valley had to do with nothing other than the pleasure of hearing and speaking French again.

The bond of a language can be overestimated, and language preservation can be taken to ridiculous extremes, as with French in Quebec, where merchants aren’t allowed to post English signs in their storefronts unless the message is also posted in equal or larger-size French.

But the loss of a language culture can be underestimated, too. It’s nothing tangible. The best analogy I could think of was with the Pacific redwoods. We can get along without them, and get along well. But losing them would impoverish us simply for not having them there, even if most of us never see a redwood. Protecting them requires effort and money, but not unrealistic amounts of either. So it is with cultures like Acadia’s, except that Acadia’s loss is now a matter of time.

The notion of “a place apart” is applied so liberally to so many parts of the United States that it’s now meaningless marketing. Almost every community I have visited in a dozen states so far, from Alaska to the East Coast, claims to be a place apart. The St. John Valley doesn’t make the claim, although it should. Geographic beginnings and ends, political boundaries as most of us understand them, even American-ness—all those things don’t apply much to Maine’s North Country. Calling it the Madawaska Republic sounds eccentric, but it’s not really a joke.

Far from being an outpost of rebellion on the model of the West’s fanatic militias, the area’s Acadian roots show how cultural independence can be just as powerful as a claim to political independence. The fact that Acadian culture is now dying in the St. John Valley, with little resistance, makes it all the more compelling. The tourist trade used to be minimal, but the roar of snowmobiles is now frequent, and luxury trails have been cut everywhere for them. They’re evidence of a shift along the valley. To survive economically, it is assimilating with the rest of America culturally.

There really is nothing to do but count the years—it won’t be many—until the Madawaska Republic becomes a place apart like a thousand others in America, a Key West for the North Maine Woods. By then the sign in Fort Kent marking the starting line of U.S. Route 1 could legitimately be moved to a more exact beginning deep in the Allagash, where the uncertainty of American beginnings can be replaced with the uniform precision of a highway sign and a geographic marker, and it will be written in only one language.


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MAINE IN BRIEF


Entered Union: March 15, 1820

Notable facts: 17.5 million acres in Maine are forested. More than a third of the state’s manufacturing industry is related to timbering, with an estimated 110,000 jobs directly or indirectly involved in forestry. In 1997, the industry produced 1.1 billion board feet of pine, spruce and fir.

The state in quotes: “There are almost limitless opportunities for hunting and fishing; stirring rapids and lovely waterfalls tumbling into deep pools where great cream-bellied trout strike savagely at the fly; shallow side streams arched overhead with thick black spruce and pungent fir leading to still caverns and tiny lakes where wild game gather to feed and drink, and to sunlit glades in which deer are caught browsing.”—From a description of the Allagash in the American Guide Series’ 1937 edition of “ Maine.” The description still applies in 1999.

RESOURCES

Books:
Other than local folktales and homemade or self-published collections of stories and histories, very little has been written about the Maine North Woods, in sharp contrast with the numerous books available on Maine subjects from Augusta and Bangor and on south. Many of the books on Acadian culture are nevertheless available and listed on an Acadian home page on the Internet, with prices and shipping information, at http://www.acadian.org/acadbook.html or by calling the Acadian Cultural Exchange of Northern Maine, RDF #2, Box 99, Madawaska, ME, 04756; 207-728-4272.

* Sarah Orne Jewett’s “The Country of the Pointed Firs” (Modern Library, $13.50), is a classic in the canon of Maine literature.

* Broad literary vistas of the state include “Maine Speaks: An Anthology of Maine Literature” (The Maine Literary Project, $19.95) and “The Quotable Moose: A Contemporary Maine Reader” (University Press of New England, $17.95).

Web sites:
* Acadian Genealogy Homepage: www.acadian.org

* Maine tourism: www.visitmaine.com

* North Maine Woods: www.northmainewoods.org

* New England History: www.virtualnewengland.com

 

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