Maine is my home and my heritage. It has shaped me and my life. Dad grew up on a small farm in North Wayne, went into the Army after high school, then came home and started working at Wilson’s Dollar Stores as a clerk, eventually becoming part-owner. Mom grew up Downeast in Lubec, where my grandfather was a fish inspector and my grandmother packed sardines. Mom moved to Winthrop to live with an aunt after high school, met Dad, and got married soon after.
Winthrop was an idyllic town in which to grow up, although I didn’t know it at the time. Both sides of Main Street were lined with stores named for their owners, and the owners were in the stores. At 4 years old, I walked a mile to school, right through the downtown where everyone knew me. By the age of 12, I had three jobs: selling my 4-H Club vegetables at a stand outside Wilson’s and delivering them door to door, mowing lawns, and working at Wilson’s.
I like to say I was born a sportsman, a Methodist, and a Republican. But really, I was born a Mainer. Mom was the church organist and choir director, so of course, I sang in the youth choir and later the adult choir. Today, when folks ask why I am so comfortable speaking in public, I say that Mom had me singing in public when I was 7 years old, and if you can sing in public, speaking is easy.
We were family-centered, with Mom staying home to care for us and our home, and Dad working. We grew our own vegetables and hunted our own meat. Many Sundays after church, we’d all get in the car and take an afternoon drive, enjoying a picnic along the way. Year-round, friends would gather in our yard to play basketball on the full court that Dad constructed for us. If it was snowing, a couple of guys would do the shoveling while the rest of us played.
School was important to us, but not so much that there wasn’t time to play sports and be in the band. When my high school basketball team went to the locker room at halftime, I walked over in my basketball uniform, picked up my trumpet, and played with the band. Our high school band represented Maine in President Lyndon Johnson’s inaugural parade. We rode for more than 12 hours in a school bus to get there, my first trip out of state except for those Little League team visits to Fenway Park to cheer for the Red Sox.
I didn’t get out of state again until I was a junior at the University of Maine, when I won a 4-H trip to Washington, D. C., where a two-hour visit with Sen. Margaret Chase Smith inspired me to become a political activist.
Some of my greatest days were those spent hunting and fishing with Dad. We hunted together for 53 years, a special privilege. It was no accident that I’ve spent my career advocating for sportsmen and women and writing about hunting and fishing.
Is my Maine, the Maine of my youth, the Maine that tourists fantasize about, still real? Not really. I haven’t seen a kid on a bike with a fishing rod for many years. Rural Maine is struggling mightily to maintain its population and economy. But there is still something special about our state.
Spend time in a local community café, where the food is as good as the friendship. Shop at Reny’s and Marden’s. Catch native brook trout. Wander the woods (yes, we have the largest contiguous forest in the country). Float the rivers and streams (yes, you won’t see a building or another person). Hike the shoreline (yes, we have lots of protected conservation lands with awesome hiking trails).
Sit on the deck of a Maine sporting camp enjoying the peace and quiet. Hike the amazing and stunningly beautiful trails at West Quoddy Head Lighthouse. Even presidents come here for these experiences.
And sure, you can enjoy a lobster dinner and our 3,500 miles of coastline, but please, spend some time inland, in our small towns. Visit a farmer’s market. Yes, we value the opportunity to produce our own healthy food. The western mountains and great north woods are amazing and restorative. And that’s really what Maine is all about.
My new favorite T-shirt, purchased from Bev Olson in Mount Vernon, says: “Maine. The Way Life Is. Don’t Change it.” I do have to acknowledge that my state has changed, significantly, although we embrace the old Maine and remain tethered to it.
I was born a Mainer and will die a Mainer, with a smile on my face, knowing how blessed I have been.