Su Lum: Maine traffic jams
September 2, 2003
Every summer since 1951, members of my family have spent the bulk of August on Drake’s Island, on the lower east coast of Maine near the town of Wells. It’s hard to believe that it was over 50 years ago, or that I was there for only four summers before I went off on my own.
My mother, who is on the doorstep of 97, stopped going three years ago because the drive was too much and she couldn’t navigate down to the beach for her daily walks, but my sister and brother-in-law and their daughter Kathy and her family still go there every summer.
The digs went from rooms in a boarding house to a summer house with no hot water, to other houses I never saw, and ended up in a house right on the beach with unthinkable amenities that included not only hot water but a washer/dryer.
Except for a brief foray in 1964 to introduce our daughter Skye to my parents when we were en route from Alaska to Aspen, a place we had never heard of, I didn’t see Drake’s Island again until 1998, when Skye, then 36, and my 6-year-old granddaughter Riley and I flew out for a mini-reunion.
Getting there was not easy. We flew from Aspen to Denver and, after a wait, we flew to Boston, then, after a wait, took a little puddle-jumper plane from Boston to Portland, where the pilot himself walked down the aisle to check that all 16 passengers had their seat belts fastened. In Portland, we rented a car and drove another hour to Drake’s Island, arriving late at night.
There were changes: the community store, where I bought comic books and chocolate-covered orange ice Popsicles, was gone, and the beachfront houses stretched a little farther along the beach, but it was startlingly much the same as I had remembered it.
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Route 1, which connects Ogunquit, Wells, Kennebunk and Kennebunkport, is a two-lane road with a center turning (not a passing) lane. At certain hours of the day Route 1 was a traffic jam in the ’50s and it was still a traffic jam in 1998.
Skye and I, like any tourists but with the advantage of coaching from my family, quickly learned how to avoid the crush. If you’re going out to dinner in Ogunquit, go early. If you’re grocery shopping in Kennebunk, don’t go in the late afternoon.
If you want to troll the many unique gift shops in Kennebunkport, don’t start out at high noon on Saturday. If you’re headed for the antique barns along Route 1, do it before lunchtime.
Route 1 is like the tides: you wait for high tides to cavort in the waves, and you wait for low tides when you can walk for miles and see what the high tide left behind, or just lie on the beach baking in the sun, or build elaborate castles in the wet sand. When driving Route 1, you wait for the low tides of traffic.
There is always an element wanting to widen Route 1, to enter the 21st century, make it easier for tourists to get there.
Back in the ’50s there was an imposing, eerie, dark empty mansion just outside of Kennebunkport which sat out on the rocks, lashed by the ocean. We called it “Mandelay” because it reminded us of the creepy place described in DuMaurier’s book, “Rebecca.”
This estate was bought by the Bush family, and when George I was running for president, bumper stickers popped up saying, “Save Kennebunkport, vote for Dukakis.”
The worst happened, but even that didn’t ruin those towns. Route 1 saved them. Turning Route 1 into a freeway would have opened the floodgates for big hotels, Starbucks, trophy homes, mini-malls and box stores. My family, and all the other families who come year after year because they love the place the way it is, would have gone elsewhere.
[Su Lum is a longtime local who thinks Aspen lost sight of itself. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times.]
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