Tuesday, June 14, 2011

for real.

I just read Robin Hemley's beautiful story about authenticity in Orion magazine. In addition being absorbed in his writing, I felt strangely vindicated. I've been thinking about authenticity too, ever since Adam and I took our Easter-weekend trip to the Maine coast. I wanted to get as far north as we would conceivably drive; Adam wanted to put in just outside Portland to give us more time on the water and less in the car. Because I'd been difficult to live with the week leading up to our trip, I acquiesced, and we decided to park outside of Yarmouth, load our kayaks and paddle to a primitive campsite on the Maine Island Trail called Little Chebeague Island. After poring over a nautical chart, we decided it looked like a good spot. But a map doesn't really tell you much about a place, does it?

Adam had never been to Maine before, and he may or may not have expected the unwavering line of lobster cage- and colorful buoy-plastered docks that you see in Audobon or Yankee magazine. I'm not sure. I'd been to Maine, and knew that the farther north – the farther “down east” we got – the more “authentic” our experience would be – if you correlate authenticity with lobster cages, brightly painted buoys and salty fishermen. If you stay on the southern coast, the most likely you are to run into a fisherman is on your menu at the Red Lobster. In fairness, I didn't really tell Adam this.

Our long weekend of kayaking was to take place in mid-April, before we parted ways for the summer. Such is the life of a transient seasonal worker. Along with not having health insurance or a mailing address, you say goodbye to your partner for months at a time. But I digress. Adam and I planned our trip early in the season in hopes of avoiding every “real” traveler's nightmare, the dreaded “crowds.” When we left Vermont, it was snowing hard. When we arrived in Freeport it was raining even harder, and everything except LL Bean was closed. Crowds were non-existent. We ended up staying in an Econolodge for the night.

The next morning we put in beneath a four-lane cement bridge with an active smokestack, perhaps from a coal-burning power plant, rising majestically behind it. And I do not say “majestically” with sarcasm. The sheer dominance of the edifice, it's towering presence over a very bland, flat, blue-and-brown landscape was in fact something akin to majestic.

Our plan was an easy paddle halfway around Big Chebeague Island to Little Chebeague, where we'd camp. I envisioned a rocky beach strewn with bubble weed and hemmed in by dripping walls of hemlock. But when we hit Little Cheabague at 3:00 p.m., we decided to just keep on going. We'd circumnavigate the bigger island and camp on the mainland; anything to get away from this place. It was that bad. We could see the belching smokestack from the post-winter, tide-littered lifeless campsite.

It wasn't just that, though. Our whole paddle that day was eerie. We passed one huge, featureless vacation home after another, and each one was strangely silent and empty, closed up for the season. Both of us fresh out of the open West, we commiserated what Adam called “the eviction of the American public from its land.” There were no places here to just pull over and camp. We were restricted to the one designated site with its fine view of the power plant. Although, if we'd popped a tent and lit a campfire in someone's back yard we probably wouldn't have been bothered. Paddling around Chebeague Island was like sneaking through the backyards of a perfectly preserved, post-apocalyptic wealthy Maine island community. Except it was cold and windy, and tall brown grasses whipped at the shore.

We did end up driving further north, camped in the dunes on a lonely beach, and had a great trip. But while I pulled my paddle again and again through the North Atlantic that weekend, I thought a lot about authenticity, mostly in terms of working landscapes. The reason Chebeague Island hadn't appealed to me – had disconcerted me even – was because it was devoid of the people who, upon working a place, leave their thumbprint firmly upon it. Lobster traps and buoys may be no better a gauge for authenticity than Walmarts and gas stations – or, for that matter, than vacation homes and yacht clubs – but they are decisively indicative of an industry that engages with the place from which it and it alone has emerged.

On the Maine or Alaskan coast, maybe this means fishing. Wrangell, Alaska was at first an ugly place to me filled with ugly buildings. But then it became a real place, filled of people who tip their bartenders with crab legs and tell Tlingit stories to get through the winters and drink cheap beer on their boats in the neverending summer nights. When I got to the town of Sitka later on, it seemed so prettified as to not fit in with the logging-scarred, fishy-smelling landscape I'd come to know.

I had the opposite experience in Vermont. Moving back here after several years away, I first thought my chosen town of Norwich had rural character, with its quiet town green and front porches and vestiges of agricultural charm. Then I lived there for five weeks and realized it's all a front, a bunch of rich people who bought up the pieces of what they imagine a small town used to be like, and fought hard in local government to keep it that way. With some exceptions, it's a place that looks rural and charming but is missing the cow shit, calloused hands and squinty eyes often found on people who work the land for real. The people who live in Norwich mostly work at nearby Dartmouth College or Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, and hire gardeners to keep that quaint lilac blooming by their front door.

“Stepping out into the parking lot,” Hemley writes, “I find myself thinking about how often our idea of what's real differs from what's actually there. And about how certain concepts persist in our consciousness long after they've disappeared.”

In the margin, I scrawl, “I'm as guilty as anyone. I like to travel, and when I travel, I want to see something that makes the time and expense worth it: I want to see something 'real.' So, maybe, I have this image in my head of what a 'real' place looks like – based on history, books, movies or stereotypes – and this concept persists, coloring what I choose to see, where I focus my camera lens. Does that eventually make the other stuff I see fake? And if so, do I end up blocking it out, putting on blinkers, creating my own myopic version of reality?”

Whatever your place is – suburban, post-industrial, post-apocalyptic, blue-collar, white-collar, bike-riders or pickup-drivers – my only suggestion is that you live there. Actually be there. There's no such thing as a community without people, and every person, no matter how uninteresting on the surface, has some indefinable quality that makes them a human and makes them interesting and through them, gives a sense of authenticity to the place they live. Which is, it seems, what we're all after these days. 

1 comment:

  1. This is beautifully written, Krista.

    I just love this line: "Paddling around Chebeague Island was like sneaking through the backyards of a perfectly preserved, post-apocalyptic wealthy Maine island community."

    As a Mainer who lives in Portland, down the coast in the "less authentic" Maine, I want you to know that we have a working waterfront, and you can go down any morning and see fishermen. Indeed, I have a friend whose husband is a lobsterman! And they live right here in the the biggest city in the state!


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