Sunday, January 20, 2019

Maine-ly Cold…

Painting by my brother Paul Marquart

So you think that the temp at 32 degrees (and lower with wind chill) in Louisiana is icy? Think of Limestone, Maine at 22 degrees below zero this morning! I say Limestone, Maine, because years ago I experienced 52 degrees below zero (wind chill factored in) one winter night in this northernmost land of winter gales on the northeastern tip of the U.S. near the border of New Brunswick, Canada. I spent one year among potato, dairy, and beef farmers on the Aroostook Plateau because the U.S. Army had sent my husband to Maine. He worked in a radar shack perched at the border of the U.S. and Canada, on “Alert,” searching for any enemy planes that might fly overhead. In the upper story of a farmhouse equipped with an ancient oil stove and a red electric blanket, we survived a bitterly long winter, peering out of the upstairs window at nearly 100 inches of snow that season.

Maine is a place where the sun rises first in the U.S., so we saw sunlight before anyone in my native Louisiana, and I was told that the air was one of the healthiest in the U.S. However, if a person has no indoor interests like reading, listening to music, or writing (and no one owned a television set in my neighborhood), she’s likely to develop a raging case of cabin fever. Think of a place once covered with thick glaciers that smoothed and rounded the hills and mountains, filled rivers, and moved rocks around, and you may be able to envision where I spent that winter. Much of the surrounding land near Limestone included white pine, fir, maple, oak, and spruce trees in dense forests that added to our feelings of isolation. 

But potatoes made Aroostook County, Maine famous. Potatoes formed the mainstay at mealtime for struggling non-commissioned officers in the U.S. Army, and pinto beans came in a close second for a regular table staple. This menu proved so fattening that when we returned to Louisiana, our families marveled at our girths. “How did you gain so much weight living on next to nothing?” they asked. On this poor person’s diet, we managed to become rosy-cheeked and round, despite suffering from the extreme cold. On payday, we sought platters of fried oysters and mugs of beer down the road in Houlton, Maine, but this was a once-a-month occurrence.

Maine’s cold winters have fostered a pantheon of writers; e.g., Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Stephen King, disparate types of literary giants; however, both were born in Portland, Maine, and are examples of those who survived merciless winters by writing and reading. As did Sarah Orne Jewett who wrote a series of interconnected sketches of New England life and whose Country of the Pointed Firs became a literary classic. I also think of the essayist E. B. White, but he had enough sense to schedule his visits during summer months.

At one time in the Maine backwoods, moonshine was a thriving industry, and smugglers hid boatloads of illegal whiskey in coves along the Maine coast — a gracious plenty of bathtub gin and rum running provided farmers with extra income. By the time we arrived, prohibition had long ended, but today I wonder whether the dense forests hide illegal activities like meth labs.

Caribou, Maine lay right down the road from us and still has an extensive collection of artifacts from the Red Paint people, but we didn’t frequent places of culture during our stay in Aroostook County, although I should have done more research since French-Canadians in my background formed a large part of the population in my area of Louisiana. The Acadian Historic Village outside Van Buren, Maine contains sixteen fully restored or reconstructed buildings showing how Acadians lived in the 18th and 19th centuries. 

We left Aroostook County near the time of the great Northern Maine Fair and the Crown of Maine Balloon Festival, two occasions during warm weather that brought people out of hibernation. We had endured perhaps the worst winter of my life, and I’ve never returned to that region — perhaps I’ll venture to the Acadia National Park or Monhegan Island one day, but a re-run to Limestone, Maine isn’t on my bucket list.

By May, defrosting had begun in northern Maine, and freezing temps (32 degrees) like those we have been complaining about in New Iberia as “unbearably cold” actually allowed us to go outdoors in shirtsleeves. By June, we had been home in Louisiana one month, just in time to escape the scourge of Maine’s north woods black flies that descend in June and hover in gray clouds of thousands that leave no patch of human skin unbloodied (shades of Louisiana mosquitoes). 

In 1998, a storm President Clinton dubbed as a national disaster covered some areas of Maine with three inches of ice. Are you readers feeling warmer yet?

Painting by Diane’s brother Paul

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