Postcard from Maine

I’ve traveled the lower reaches of the Kennebec River many times, but yesterday was the first in memory that I’ve made my way so far upriver, on axels this time instead of a keel. I stopped in towns from my childhood, towns from my family’s history, towns that caught my eye as I drove through. I subjected donuts up and down the river to a vigorous taste test. (A toasted coconut from Gardiner coasted to an impressive win.) I crossed the river a dozen times, exploring every footbridge I passed and switching from bank to bank to avoid the busy and bland main thoroughfare. The smaller roads ran closer to the river, through fields of corn stubble and past contented farmhouses. My ultimate destination was Skowhegan, a town on a crook of river that makes it easy to remember on a map and impossible to forget in person. As I came upriver, far above head of tide, the Kennebec had been getting wilder, switchier, and narrower. Just below Skowhegan my sleepy road hugged the river, which was running swift. The far bank was steep and close, a wall of pine trees that the water gave back as an inky green muddled with the current. I was not the only one who pulled over to watch in dumb wonder. Skowhegan itself is friendly and eclectic, Maine’s industrial past and its political history, its artistic heritage and foodie present converging there like tributaries. Somehow, the local granary is hip and contemporary. Bernard Langlais’s wooden sculptures prowl and haunt the streets. Maine’s shoemaking past hangs on here in a New Balance factory. At the heart of town, the river wraps around a rocky island and plunges through a rugged gorge. People have drawn life and power from the falls for centuries, and when I first came into town I couldn’t look away from the gorge, the twin dams on either side of the island, the ice caked on the dam walls like towering sheets of frosting. Immediately upriver from most of its dams the Kennebec, unsurprisingly, gets fat and tranquil. But above the dam at Skowhegan the river is not tamed for long. It is getting close now to its headwaters in Maine’s great wilderness and it comes around this wicked bend with rippling determination. Behind me, in town, a donut waits patiently for its chance at greatness.