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First Foliage

by Edie Clark
copyright 2002 All rights reserved.

Aroostook County is a big northern expanse, a Maine place long known for its potatoes and for its pine woods but maybe only recently for its spectacular autumn foliage. I’ve come up from New Hampshire the fast way, on Rt. 95, the Maine Turnpike. The roads make this helmet-shaped county into a round, a loop that can go either way. I get off at Smyrna Mills and head toward Rt. 11 which will take me up the western side of the county first.

As soon as I turn off the highway, the fields open out like magic. The colors are vivid and delicious, like ripe fruit.

This is decidedly the pine side of the state. Logging trucks zoom past me as I potter along, searching for color. It’s not so hard to find. A surprising composition: a stand of spruce trees, dense, green, and then a single maple flaming from the midst of the green.

The road is dense that way. Woods interspersed with pulp mills, little villages with big Catholic churches, snowmobiles for sale on the front lawns.

In Portage, there is a big long lake. At a little spot beside the road I stop. The docks are pulled up for the season now, for the lake season is short up here. Across the lake, which looks wintry with rolling waves coming onto a rocky shoreline, big rising hills blaze with color.

Route 11 takes me through long stretches of forest. Eagle Lake provides an opening. The road follows the lake, which is long like a river, for many miles. At one point, there is a roadside spot, lots of picnic tables on a rise above the lake. Cheddar cheese and new apples taste good, looking out over the colorful hills on the far side of the lake.

Fort Kent is only a few miles north and there I decide to go west on Route 161. From what I can fathom from the map, this will take me as far as I can go into the rest of Aroostook County, which shows on the map as a great empty space with no roads, that great legendary wilderness. Route 161 eventually turns to dirt and then ends, satisfyingly, at a checkpoint: the entry to the Great North Woods where logging trucks have the right of way. Knowing I’ve reached the end of the road, I turn at the rope and head back to Fort Kent.

On the way, I stop to sit beside the St. John River, which runs fast and shallow and clear. It is a wide river and across is just woods, all gold and red and patches of green that promise a bit more color to come. In the middle of the river is a sand bar and on the sand bar are patches of weeds growing. They have turned red and gold and yellow, a mirror of the colors in the hills on the far side of the river. I spend a half an hour or more just waiting to catch the light on the sand bar with my camera. The right light never comes. I will have to remember those colors the way I saw them, keep the snapshot in my mind.

Fort Kent is small, neat and tidy. It has something of a shine to it. In someone’s front yard, a replica of the Eiffel Tower reminds me of the intensity of the French influence here. A big red pickup truck is parked beside the road, across from St. Louis Catholic Church. The Church has such an unusual steeple, iron lattice work, painted silver. From a distance, it looks like lace. I stop to take a picture and the man in his pickup truck smiles and holds up a red apple from one of the bags. On his tailgate, he has bags of apples, potatoes and pumpkins. The potatoes are red and he grew them himself, he says. $2 for 11 pounds. “They are ninety percent organic,” he says and his smile reveals a shining set of china teeth. I buy a bag of reds. I don’t know what 90% organic could mean -- somewhat like 90% married -- but I like his beret and his strong French accent.

In Fort Kent, there are saw mills, potato warehouses, car dealers and a brand new MacDonald’s. I find Pierrette’s Kitchen, right across from MacDonald’s, where a long line of cars at the drive-through make a mockery of the phrase “fast food”. I make my way through the cloying fast-food odor of burgers and fries into Pierrette’s, where bright red geraniums bloom on the windowsill and old, red-handled kitchen ornaments adorn the walls. The floors are made of wood and the ceiling is pressed tin, painted white. Acadian music is playing from a stereo and it makes my feet itchy. A smiling, strong-looking woman with a bun of white hair comes to take my order and I ask for the special of the day, a grilled cheese and a bowl of something called Italian Wedding Soup which, when it arrives in front of me, thick and steaming, I guess is made from a chicken stock with fresh spinach, orzo, and sausage. Whatever it is made of, the soup has a strange quality of making me feel better, though I had not known I felt badly. I feed in big spoonfuls and I can feel myself strengthen. The grilled cheese is nothing more than bread and cheese, toasted on the grill, but it has a similar effect of making me feel really well. Fortified.

Outside, there is a chill wind coming through. From Fort Kent I choose to take the back roads back to Rt. 11. They lead me through the heart of the potato fields, which roll big and wide. The road takes me to the crest of one of the biggest hills and it feels as if there is no higher place on this earth. The vista is panoramic. On all sides, there are wide brown fields, fringed in the colors of the season, and inside the fields, big red tractors move slowly, like royalty, across the big landscape. Aroostook county has big fields and big skies, bigger than any that I know of in all of New England. This is our Kansas, our Iowa.

Just a few miles south and east of Fort Kent, in the wonderful little village of St. Agatha, it is time to find a place to stay and the Long Lake Motor Inn looks neat and lovely, with its view of the big lake but I choose the Auberge du Lac, a bed and breakfast further out of town, on Long Lake. The names on the mailboxes up here are pure French: Lucien, Ayotte, DuMais, Cyr, Michaud, Ouelette.

It is Gerald (the French pronunciation: shay-rald) and Grace Ouelette who run the Auberge, from their new and solid home above the lake. It was Gerald’s third great grandfather, Moen Ouelette, who founded this lake, Gerald tells me as he shows me to my comfortable bedroom. “He came here from Normandy,” he says, in a heavy French accent, “and started logging here. More recently, we have done potato farming.”

Gerald works with his brother on a potato farm down the road but he and Grace are hoping to expand the Auberge into a full service inn so that he can leave the potato farming to the younger generations.

Gerald told me that fewer than 10% of the farms harvest with barrels any longer. I have seen the barrels at the ends of driveways, holding up mailboxes or containing trash. Such was the way of the milk can when better, more efficient methods of transporting milk came into being. Most farms now use the big, dragon-like harvesters which stick their noses into the earth and bring the potatoes up onto conveyor belts that transport the harvest into the trucks. At this time of year, for weeks, the trucks carry the potatoes to the houses where they are stored throughout the winter. Potato haulers rule the road, back and forth, the big V-shaped trucks move.

Both Grace and Gerald have lived away and come back. Grace lived away for 16 years and then returned to marry Gerald. She says that she can smell the harvest, a mix of the trucks and the earth and the newly dug potatoes. “When I came home, I smelled the harvest for the first time,” she told me. “It smelled like home.” Now she looks forward to this time of year, the smell lingering in the air like a homecooked meal.

After a wonderful breakfast that included the French speciality ployes (somewhere between a crepe and a pancake and Grace makes hers with buckwheat flour. Very fine.), they send me off. “Go into the valley for the foliage,” Grace says, her parting words. She talks about the foliage with passion, as if it is something she still, even at this age, cannot believe. “It’s so bright. It is just like someone ran out and painted the leaves.”

It takes a valley to really see the foliage, the wide vista and gentle rolling hills, covered with maples and birch, yellows and reds, the river in between. From St. Agatha, I follow Route One into the St. John River Valley, a place of rolling hills and ploughed fields. The fields are edges in trees ablaze. Grace was right, this is as pretty a place as I have ever seen in all of New England.

I pass through the town of Van Buren and then continue down the valley. You can see the Canadian side, St. Leonard, Riviere Verte, towns and farms that are like a mirror image to the Maine side. A freight train going in the opposite direction moves beside me for a while, blocking the river.

Along the road, everywhere, are small stands, with hand painted signs boasting: New Potatoes, reds and whites and golds and blues, $2 for ten pounds, mostly. I stop at one that catches my eye, more like a little cabinet than a farmstand. It has doors on it, to close at night and ten pound bags are stacked on either side of the shelf. On one side are the reds, on the other are the white. I pick out a bag of reds and one of whites. I put my money into the cigar can on the counter, honor system, and pack the bags into my trunk.

Potatoes are not the only crop. I pass by wide fields of broccoli and, in one spectacular instance, an expanse of sunflowers that would have had Van Gogh busy at his canvas.

Caribou is probably the biggest town in the county and there is traffic here and also in Presque Isle so I pass through quickly but on the other side is Aroostook State Park, a glorious spot that makes me wish I had more time. And that I had brought my tent. I sit instead at one of the many picnic tables right beside the lake. A storm comes up and rain beats on the surface of the lake. The foliage is brillaint in the darkness of the sudden storm.

A little ways south, in the town of Bridgewater, I stop at a place called Milliken’s Old Stuff. The building looks as if it once was the town’s general store and Leon Milliken, seated behind the counter, confirms that impression for me. In fact, it was his father’s store, he tells me, a place that sold everything, shoes, linoleum, food, nails, sweaters and hats. Leon, who is now in his sixties, grew up here but left when he could find a break and spent most of his life elsewhere, trading stocks. But he’s back now, he and his wife, with a fervor for the town that only a native can have. His “old stuff” is wonderful and I find an old Juice-O-Matic and a fine round iron skillet, a little bit of Aroostook to take back to my New Hampshire kitchen.

I’m hungry for a potato now. The sun is angling low and the colors in the hills are lit like fire. My eyes are weary from all the color and I find a pine-paneled, green carpeted room at the Stardust Motel in Houlton. I park my car right next to the door and carry my bags in. It is just right for tonight.

I head over to the Elm Tree Diner which is warm and steamy. The menu is full of choices and I order dinner, which includes a big, round baked potato. It arrives on my plate wrapped in foil, confirming evidence that it was baked, in a real oven. It is a Yukon Gold and I eat it without reserve, along with the rest of the meal of grilled salmon and peas. There is also a small dish heaped with the dull orange harvest of blue hubbard squash. Where else could I find a place that serves blue hubbard, fresh from the fields? There are hot rolls. All around me, the people lean toward each other and exchange news and, as they listen, they give expressions Norman Rockwell would have been happy to paint. The portions are enough for a hungry man so I cannot eat it all but I am lured to the desserts. There are 16 kinds of homemade pies listed but it’s the puddings, all of them made there, that snag me. There’s bread pudding and tapioca and rice pudding and grapenut pudding, one of my favorite things. I order that, which comes to me, a big scoop overflowing its stout glass dish. The waitress is young, maybe still in high school, and when she smiles, she reveals a row of braces on her teeth. She’s anxious to please. When she brings the check, it is for $5.23 and I say, oh, no, there must be a mistake so we go over the bill together and, no, there is no mistake.

Back at the Stardust, I am sleepy and the room, with its Fifties-style furniture, makes me feel strangely at home. The TV gets only four stations and there is no remote. Outside the door is a box of petunias that bloom brightly in pink and deep purple and a web-seated folding chair. I imagine that in the heat of the summer, this chair would be pleasant, to sit out in the cool of the evening and watch the cars pass by. But it is the end of September and tonight there are forecasts for temperatures in the twenties, even snow in the higher elevations. I snug down into the big bed and in the morning I rise with the sun. I step outside. The road is still, not a car, not even a potato truck passes by and the air in Houlton is cold and crisp. If I breathe deep, I can smell the harvest, I can smell The County in fall.

I pack my bags into the car and turn the car south, back down toward my home in New Hampshire, where the foliage season has just begun.