Thursday, July 05, 2007


Ottawa to Bar Harbor Part 3: An ode to Route 2 East

For weeks - scratch that, for months - before we left, I peered at various online and paper maps trying to get some feeling for the inscrutable red line that led from Vermont across the tip of New Hampshire and into the heart of Maine: US Route 2.

You can't discern a lot from a map. Even with Google Map's satellite feature, which often gives me an alarming sense of vertigo, you can't really get a feel for the road itself. It seemed a little twisty, and I could tell it started in the mountains and meandered through dozens of small towns. But without context, they were just lines and dots. Was it desolate? Idyllic? Remote? Backed up with traffic? Lined with houses or autobody repair junkyards or pawn shops? Scary or spectacular? The map was enigmatic.

Different mapping software occasionally suggested bypassing Route 2 entirely, suggesting instead that we deke down I89 and then back up I95 along the coast. But with all the time we were logging in the car, Beloved and I agreed that we wanted the trip to be as much about the voyage as the destination. We decided against the interstates, and committed ourselves to Main Street, New England - for better or worse.

In the end, it was the right choice. I loved this highway. I loved its character, its quirky twists, its general stores and Exxon stations, its moose-alerts and billboards, its traffic lights and small-town flavour. I had a real sense of driving through the heart of the place, peering in its windows to see how the people were living, instead of flying past the back gate at 65 mph. We glimpsed sparkling creeks and passed by sheer cliff faces; we drove alongside railway tracks and snowmobile trails; we stopped in grassy picnic areas and Dunkin Donuts on the main strip. Occassionally, we got a few heady minutes sailing along at 55 mph, only to come to a sudden halt at a red light in a nameless intersection.

At times, the forest crept right up to the gravel shoulders. At other times, the road widened into Main Street for innumerable towns so small they didn't even merit a point on my map. I happened to be reading Stephen King's latest novel, Lisey's Story, throughout our trip, and I was tickled to come across this description early in the book: "No Soapa was how the locals referred to Noway-South Paris in neighboring Oxford County, towns which also happened to be within a day's drive of such exotic-sounding wide spots in the road as Mexico, Madrid, Gilead, China, and Corinth." It was truly exquisite actually being in Maine and seeing the places, real and imaginary, through Stephen King's literary lenses. We passed through Mexico and Gilead, and I laughed and pointed out the seemingly confused road sign that pointed to "No So Paris" before I even got to that page in the book.

In one notable series of twists and turns in Maine, Route 2 through the tiny side-by-side towns of Rumsford and Mexico makes at least half a dozen 90 degree turns at it overlays Prospect Ave, Franklin Street, Rumford Ave, Hancock Street, Lincoln Ave, Main Street and River Road - all within less than 10 minutes of driving. Don't blink or you'll miss the turn!

A few miles down the road, we stopped for lunch at the Dixfield House of Pizza. Dixfield itself isn't much of a town, and there weren't a lot of choices for meals. That was another challenge of planning a trip based on nothing but an inky line on a map - we could never guess if the upcoming dot was a crossroad with a smattering of houses and a general store, a sleepy little village or a full-fledged town with a (gasp!) Pizza Hut and a McDonalds. The Dixfield House of Pizza was a gem of a find. It wasn't much to look at, with a walk-up counter and molded plastic picnic-style benches around laminate-topped tables, but I had my favourite meal of the trip there. A simple 10-inch pepperoni pizza, shared with both boys, and one of those old-skool salads with iceberg lettuce and exactly two slices of cucumber, tomato, onion and green pepper. And you bet it was served in one of those brown faux-wood salad bowls that everybody's mom had in the late 1970s. I don't know whether it was the heat or the hunger or the simple pleasure of a simple meal, but my mouth still waters when I think about it. And that was the first place, just an hour or so inside the Maine state line, that I heard someone actually say "Ayuh."

When we finally left Route 2 to pick up the I95 for 50 or 60 miles before the last hour-long stretch to Mount Desert Island, I was sad to see it go. No doubt we covered a lot of ground in a hurry on the Interstate, but I think we would have felt like we'd been past New England instead of in the heart of it had we gone the Interstate route.

By the end of the day, it took us seven hours to travel less than 400 km. By comparison, we can drive to Toronto from Ottawa, more or less the same distance, in less than five hours on the 401, even with a leisurely lunch break.

Turns out the fastest route is not always the best route. It's a good lesson for a hurry-up, impatient sort of girl like me.

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