Tuesday, January 21, 2014

True North

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: We spent an exciting weekend in northern Maine, visiting the Maine School for Science andMathematics, which Youngest hopes to attend.

MSSM is in Limestone, the location of the former Loring Air Force Base. How far north is it? Further north than Quebec. Further north than Bismark, ND. Further north than Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

Photo: Kevin Bennett, Bangor Daily News
We left at Portland at 9:30am for a five to six hour trip, on a day when the forecast was light snow in the morning, clearing before noon. The forecast was wrong. We arrived in Presque Isle at 6:30pm. Traveling across the snow-and-ice covered I-95, we averaged 35-40 mph, except for the hour we spent going 0mph after we spun out of control and wedged ourselves backwards in the heavy snow bank along the median. We (and the car) are all okay, but poor Ross, who drove the WHOLE time, now seems to be suffering from a kind of PTSD. When we got up Monday morning to make the trip to Caribou and Limestone, he got kind of pasty and started 
breathing heavily as soon as we hit the road.

This is, as near as I can tell, the essence of Aroostook County, the largest county east of the Mississippi, with a land mass bigger than all of southern New England:  the hotel clerk who took my reservation said they were hurting because there was "no snow." At the truck stop in Houlton where we gassed up and got coffee, the owner said the drive north from there was smooth - the roads were clear and they hadn't been plowing because there was "no snow."
Photo by Martin Brown

We drove from Houlton to Presque Isle on a road entirely covered with snow, while snow fell from the sky, and when we got here, there was at least six inches of snow on the ground. That's "no snow" in the County. We had gotten the message by our second day, so when the helpful and chatty hotel clerk warned us the road (singular) from Presque Isle to Caribou was "a little slippery," we figured correctly that meant it was pretty much glare ice.
We had gone up over three degrees of latitude from our home, and as we drove due east to Limestone, the morning sun was far to the south. We recently watched THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW to get ourselves whipped up during the Polar Vortex, but as near as I can tell, people in this part of Maine wouldn't actually notice a difference if a new ice age hit.

I told Ross I usually think of myself as a rugged northern kind of gal, but this place makes me feel like a tourist from North Carolina. He said from this point on, he's going to tell people we live in the southern latitudes. 

We're all back home now, safe and sound, with Youngest studying hard for the SAT this Saturday. If she gets into the highly-competitive school, we'll be making a lot more trips  to Caribou. It may be time to look into four-wheel-drive - and some down coats for all of us!


  1. Brrr . . . it’s a sure thing that Caribou is not on my list of places that I’d like to visit any time soon! So glad to know you survived the snow and ice “adventure” and that you are all safe . . . . I hope your daughter gets into the school, but winter trips there certainly don’t sound very inviting . . . . Getting down coats and four-wheel-drive sounds like a really great plan if winter trips to Caribou are in your future.
    With snow predicted here today, I’m not planning to venture anywhere near a car, or even to step outside the door. I’ll just park myself in front of the fireplace with a good book . . . .

  2. Julia, I wish her the best. That would be a great opportunity with an enriched residential program. You are right. It Is way north. One of my grandmother's sisters had a wild blueberry farm up in Greenville. I thought that was high up there. Nope. Only halfway to Caribou. Just a thought—when we were up north no one visited us in the winter time.

    Best wishes to her for high scores on the SAT, great recommendations, and a smooth admissions process.

  3. Good luck to the gal and better luck to you guys if she gets in. Yikes!

  4. Yow..what an adventure..those grueling road trips are so--terrifying. You don't have to worry about yourself, you have to worry about all the other driver, some of whom are crazy, incompetent, and unlucky-and all of whom dare just as frightened. But happily, it turns into just a great story..

    And now we brace for another snow..we're supposed to get 8 inches. HOw about you?

    Good luck to the Youngest!

  5. Good lucky to you all Julia-may the right outcome prevail! Yes to the 4 wheel drive! Even better, I don't suppose there's a train going up that way?? (wishful thinking I'm sure.)

    I so don't miss winter driving. We used to go on weekend ski trips when the kids were little--we had many terrifying adventures on the way. Black ice is the worst...

  6. All best wishes for Youngest... Or maybe she'll choose a school in California?

    As a former Buffalonian, I can attest that stick shift is great for snow (downshift instead of hitting the breaks...)

  7. Yikes, Julia! So glad you are okay. That skid into the snowbank must have been unnerving.

    How cool that your daughter might go to MSSM. A friend's son was a student there perhaps 10 years ago and he absolutely loved it.
    If she gets in, it would make you and Ross emty nesters - wow!

    As for the drive to the County, work duties mean my beloved makes that trip a couple of times each winter. It always seems to be snowing. An all-wheel drive car with winter tires and heavy-duty wipers is essential, along with a full-charged cellphone (though the service is spotty in places), and all the emergency gear AAA advises we all keep in the car during the winter.

  8. It's all relative, isn't it? My nephew lives in St. Cloud, MN, and they think anything above zero is t-shirt weather. Above freezing? Time to wear shorts.

    As a veteran of three daughters who went far away to school, I can tell you that visiting is not the problem; gnawing your knuckles raw when she goes back and forth on her own, though, is. So plan to buy two four-wheel drive vehicles, one for her.

  9. Oh, gee, and I was feeling sorry for myself because we're expecting between 6 and 12 inches of snow from today into tomorrow. You have my deepest sympathy, Julia! And just reading about your experiences gave me palpitations!

    I'm in southern CT, and this is as far north as I ever want to live!

    Good luck to your daughter; I hope she gets to live her dream!

  10. aemsia theseJulia, this sounds so harrowing that I feel cold reading it.
    Tell her to look at schools in Florida. It never snows there! (Oh, but it does have hurricanes, doesn't it?)

    My kids all went to college in Southern California and I remember driving those 550 miles up and down with cars piled full of their belongings. By the last child we wised up and gave him a car.

  11. Aaaand...today we're expected to have -15 degrees F windchill here in southern Maine with 3-6 inches of snow coming in tonight. Clearly, I haven't escaped far enough south!

    Thanks for your best wishes for Youngest, everybody. It's a challenging school to get into - there are about four applicants for every spot in the freshman class - but Ross and I keep reminding her that just making the attempt is something to be proud of. Certainly surviving our trip to the County is something to be proud of!

  12. There is something so strange this morning. I definitely did not write the words amnesia these at the front of my post!

    And I don't have amnesia either. Gremlins or Russian Hackers?

  13. Ice and snow are terrifying to drive in - and I am a complete wimp about even walking very far in them, too. I know this will find its way into a book, Julia.

    We're hunkering down for "blizzard-like" conditions overnight here near Boston. I will NOT be getting in the car.

  14. Rhys, chuckling. Russian hackers, for sure.

    Julia, best wishes for Youngest and big hugs for Ross. There are few things scarier than driving on ice. Maybe in a hurricane? I did that once in England, if you can believe it.

    And why don't you already have 4 wheel drive and down coats if you are expecting -15 windchill??? Isn't there a little store in Maine called LL Bean? :-)

  15. Maybe a summer trip? Probably beautiful then.

  16. Oh that's super scary (says the ex-Californian girl), Julia. So glad you-all made it back in one piece. Crossing fingers for Youngest!

    I've never thought about Maine's hump before -- I'd never in a million years have thought it was further north than Quebec.

  17. Julia, it's little wonder you write such great snow survival scenes for Clare and Russ. So glad you all came through the trip unscathed. Good luck to Youngest on her SAT and acceptance into such a prestigious school. She sounds like a special young lady.

  18. The Day After Tomorrow? That's hilarious! At least they holed up in the library. Back in the 70's we lived in El Paso, pre-baby, and were driving up to Denver to visit my brother. Snow and ice in New Mexico. We stopped to put chains on the tires. While dog was making yellow snow, Frank was being blown across the ice whenever he let go of the car. We made it, but found out later the highway patrol was closing the highway behind us as we tooled along.

  19. That sounds like an ordeal and a half. My own most-recent snow-driving Waterloo was coming home from the airport last spring when another one of these jumbo storms lingered over the north east. Granted, that's nothing compared to y'all's trip to the North Pole. (FWIW, I doubt there's a Caribou, FL. ;) ) Her heart's really set on that school? ;) ;)

  20. Thanks for the geography lesson! Why is that school there? They need a southern Maine campus. Maybe you could open one.

    I drove this afternoon about four miles round trip, and I was a wreck. I think I am officially old.

    (Snowing on Cape Cod.)

  21. So glad you made it safely! Sounds like quite an adventure - and I love the picture from The Day After Tomorrow...I was watching it the other day and thinking it looked like Michigan two weeks ago, with a foot and a half of snow, and negative 25 windchill.

    I think there's some kind of rule that the worse the weather, the crazier drivers you see on the roads, too! Hope Ross has recovered from having to be at the wheel for that kind of trip!