From Mexico To China

17 augusta riverLinda Burton posting from Augusta, Maine –My target today was the easternmost capital city in the United States. I knew my drive would take me through Vermont’s Green Mountains and New Hampshire’s White Mountains before getting to Maine; from the Maine state line, the map showed twisting roads and changing highway numbers. I expected to get confused, but I didn’t expect to wind up in Mexico, or China. I’m studying the map now, trying to follow the route my GPS used to get me 17 st johnsbury 2from Montpelier, Vermont to Augusta, Maine. It put me on US Highway 2 from Montpelier, and that curved me into St Johnsbury, where I disregarded its instructions long enough to drive around the postcard-pretty town; it has an incredible collection of church spires in just a few blocks, all framed by mountains. I stopped at a crosswalk on the St Johnsbury Academy campus while a crossing guard waved through a parade of young people in jackets and ties. It wasn’t far from there to the Connecticut River (Connecticut’s capital city, Hartford, is 200 miles to the south); the river separates Vermont and New Hampshire, flows through the middle of Massachusetts, divides East Hartford and West Hartford, and winds up in Long Island Sound. New Hampshire’s Live Free or Die sign welcomed me; the mountains and valleys seemed to expand. More signs; Franconia 17 franconia nNotch, Pinkham Notch, Mt Washington (New Hampshire’s highest point at 6,288 feet). Signs for cog railways, ski runs, snowmobile routes, moose crossings. I stopped for gas at Gorham. “Where am I?” I asked, studying a Maine map posted on the wall. “You’re still in New Hampshire,” the nice lady replied, “where are you headed?” We looked for Augusta; “Follow the Androscoggin River,” she pointed, “and go to Mexico.”

17 mexico signFinally into Maine (Open for Business, said the welcome sign), and the Androscoggin River. It led me north past the Sunday River ski run, Puzzle Mountain, and Black Mountain; then it made a sharp turn to the south, and there I was in Mexico. Mexico, Maine (population 2,681, US Census 2010) is the “Gateway to the Western Mountains” of Maine, offering all the things a person comes to Maine to do. The land once was part of Holmanstown Plantation (go back to 1789); it was incorporated as “Mexico” in 1818; the name was inspired by local sympathy for Mexico’s fight for independence from Spain. So, 17 mexico chicken signthat explains that, I thought; I’d wondered about all the Mexico restaurants, such as the Mexico Chicken Coop, which promises a Mexican menu once in a while. Otherwise, it’s Peppercorn Brandy Ribeyes, or Black Maple Salmon. Across the Androscoggin is the town of Rumford, and its paper mill; the Swift River meanders around the edge of it all. Remember Ed McMahon, Johnny Carson’s longtime sidekick? He was from Mexico, I’m told.

17 maine signsI followed the Androscoggin as it continued south; then I slowed to 35 mph through the town of Peru. To the west were the towns of Paris, and Poland; to the east Vienna, and Rome. I missed Norway (population 5,014, US Census 2010), a bigger dot on the map, with a number of claims to fame. It is home to Lake Pennesseewassee, for one, which drains into the Androscoggin (I love these names, stay with me on the spelling). It was settled by a number of Revolutionary War soldiers; its name origin was lost when the town records were destroyed in a fire. At one time the falls on the Little 17 snowshoes norwayAndroscoggin provided power for two grain mills, a cloth and carding mill, a furniture factory, a box factory, and a shovel handle factory; a tannery made harnesses and trunks; a shoe factory was built in 1872. Norway also was considered the “Snowshoe Capital of the World” because of the Tubbs Snowshoe Company, opened in 1906 by Walter Tubbs. They made most of the snowshoes ordered by the government during WWII; they supplied the polar expeditions of Byrd and Peary. K2 Sports owns the company now and the snowshoes are manufactured abroad. Remember Lake Pennesseewassee, it’s coming up on a spelling test.

17 chair lake 3I slowed for small communities every fifteen miles or so; veering away from the river at times; passing marshy ponds (just right for moose grazing?) and larger lakes. The sky was so blue the water’s reflection looked solid enough to walk across, a steely, brilliant shine. How would it be to spend a summer sitting in a low-slung “Made in Maine” Adirondack chair, right by the shores of Lake Androscoggin? The residents of Wayne, Maine (population 1,189, US Census 2010) get to do just that; the town is in the “heart of the lakes;” and so is Camp Androscoggin, an all-boys camp established back in 1907. Campfire singing must be big; some famous former campers (and counselors) are Stephen Sondheim, Alan Jay Lerner, and Tom Leher.

17 china maineThe GPS sent me onto Highway 202; signs pointed to Augusta, and China, which claims to be Maine’s friendliest town. I headed into Augusta; my 42nd stop on the Journey Across America. Augusta is the capital of the state of Maine and has been since 1827 (Maine became the 23rd state admitted to the Union on March 15, 1820). Augusta has a population of 19,136 (US Census 2010) and is the third smallest of the capital cities, after Montpelier, Vermont and Pierre, South Dakota. Augusta is at the head of tide on the Kennebec River, which means it was a magnet for industry; in its early days there were sawmills and textile mills; I’ll save that 17 midwifes talestory for a full-blown history post. Along with the story of Martha Ballard (1735-1812), a midwife who kept a diary of her work, and of life near the Kennebec, writing every day for 27 years. A “discovery” many years after her death, researcher and historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich used it to write A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, for which she received a Pulitzer Prize, and many other honors. Martha Ballard’s original diary is the property of the state of Maine, and it’s here, in Augusta; seeing it is one of my first priorities.

For now, I’m settling in. The woods are thick behind my hotel and Alex and Jack are happy cats; we have two rooms and windows pointing in different directions; we can watch for moose. When Matisse checked me in, she said they sometimes go ambling across the parking lot. From the sofa I saw the almost-full moon rise over the tree tops; the cats were asleep on either side of me. Time for bed. “Goodnight moon,” I said, as I closed the curtains. I’m tired; after all, I drove all the way from Mexico to China today.

Mexico, Maine

Norway, Maine

Wayne, Maine

Camp Androscoggin

Augusta, Maine

China, Maine