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Down East Dispatch: A homesick Alaska cartoonist spends a year in Maine

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Posted: Sunday, June 17, 2012 12:34 am | Updated: 10:36 am, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

In 2011 I journeyed out of state looking for work, adventure and a fresh start on life. In other words, following a woman.

Now after an extended, year-long hiatus exploring coastal Maine, we’ve migrated back home, North to Alaska. Fortunately Homeland Security looked the other way, the passports were still valid, and our pickup truck still had its iconic license plate from the Gold Rush Centennial (the historical one depicting a stream of people also leaving Alaska).

Now while this plate pretty much gives one carte blanche to drive like an idiot everywhere across America, it came particularly in handy in the town of Bar Harbor, Maine, especially when you were the sort of driver who somehow kept getting lost on an island.

This was one among many endearing traits that quickly made this transplanted Alaskan stand out like a beached and beleaguered beluga. Because of Sarah Palin, now the popular Lower 48 stereotype of someone from the Last Frontier is not just that of a deranged, armed and alcoholic Unabomber character.

While I didn’t pull in nearly as much in speaking fees as the former half-term governor, I did often find myself acting as a defacto ambassador, constantly apologizing on behalf of the majority of Alaskans for her television show, Ice Road Truckers and Deadliest Catch. That or someone always wants to buy you another beer because that’s actually what life is really like in Maine, except instead of Ted Nugent they have Stephen King.

It was especially easy to fit in around that neck of the woods because Maine is a region where the males of our species can still be observed in their hairy phase (it being the Southern-most extent of its natural range).

Besides sporting traditional Carhartt and flannel plumage, another standard fashion accessory seen while strolling around downtown was the ubiquitous pairs of knee-high rubber boots. But unless you had just been kicked out of the house, these weren’t referred to as “breakup boots,” but they were usually accompanied by the familiar scent of lingering eau de fish (which, like in Alaska, will also probably get you kicked out the house). And, much like the arctic, Maine people also displayed layers of blubber, which has crucial insulating properties protecting large mammals from inclement weather.

This might also have something to do with the fact that even though Alaska ranks nationally as No. 1 in per capita consumption of ice cream, there was no comparison to the number of businesses offering homemade confectioneries in Maine, often within easy waddling distance from one another.

After living for more than two decades in the Interior, I thought I knew the concept of “cold,” having earned enough cabin-cred to play poseur sourdough and go toe-to-toe with any salty dog who dared to complain about what passes for “winter” in New England. But when the reality of this phenomenon called “wind-chill” first cut through my clothing and I whimpered like a puppy left alone outside at night, I found myself adopting another regional custom: simply complaining about the weather, regardless of how good or bad it was.

Researchers now think that the sound of running water is the trigger for beavers to begin building their dams, but all I know is that personally being anywhere near the Atlantic coast will trigger the instinctual drive for an Alaskan to quickly find a nearby bush. Given the demographics of Maine’s aged population this helped explain the numerous Port-A-Potties that dotted Acadia National Park. And speaking of barbaric customs, the ex-cabin-dweller’s habit of simply going off a convenient porch is a definite no-no, especially in a place where people will actually hold it until they reach a trailhead bathroom.

Along with being the oldest state in the nation, Maine is also the absolutely whitest state as far as residents go. This not withstanding, I was definitely the palest person anyone had ever seen, which made it much easier for the search parties to locate the lost Alaskan’s body. Not that hiking was anything near what we’d call “wilderness”: After climbing the highest point on the North Atlantic seaboard (Cadillac Mountain at 1,529 feet) I was rewarded with stunning views from a parking lot and gift shop. Where, yes, there was more ice-cream.

Besides complaining about how hot it was in December, I found out the ultimate faux pas while in the culinary crown jewel of New England was the cardinal sin of passing on more lobster … because it “just isn’t as good as king crab.” However I did discover one novel cure for the homesick Alaskan was to buy artificial lobster, which is actually made from good ol’ Alaskan Pollack. I guess it’s true that anything is edible with enough butter. Not to mention there’s something called “flounder,” which I guess is like a baby halibut.

Don’t get me started on what passes for moose and bear in Maine, but I guess size isn’t everything. Unless you’re talking about mosquitoes, which now I’ll gladly take any day after the nightmare of picking off the innumerable ticks every time we’d leave the house. As it turns out, the symptoms of Lyme disease include headache, muscle pain and fatigue, plus depression and brain damage, which, come to think of it, is virtually indistinguishable from living through a normal Alaska winter.

And so, having experimented with the great Alaskan Bungee Cord experience of moving somewhere else, it’s good to be home. Now I’m going to Hot Licks. 

Jamie Smith’s cartoon feature “Nuggets” has been appearing in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner since 1988. A collection of his Maine work “Bad Clams” is available online through Lulu.com. He will be giving a show and tell of recent works at the Literacy Council of Alaska on from 6-7 p.m. on June 29.

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