Hoppin’ down the muddy trail


Take ten miles of soggy Bemis track oozing along the cutoffs and swamp lands of lower Mooselookmeguntic Lake. Add about three more miles of private dirt road snaking up the shore still shadowed by snow banks. Mix in plenty of early spring snow. Freeze, melt, rechill and thaw until soft, and what have you got? A route to town that looks like Oreo cookie left soaking in milk too long and feels like a rodeo rink.

As I said back in Finding Community, we don’t really live in Rangeley. We live in a “suburb” of town given the Maine-unique distinction of a “plantation.” I always thought the name stood for a place with tons more trees than people. But, according to Wikipedia, in colonial times when Maine belonged to Massachusetts, this term came in use to describe a “minor civil division.” So, in Rangeley Plantation (population about 155) we don’t have councilors or selectmen. We have assessors. And Mother Nature keeps them plenty busy assessing and maintaining the stretches of roads and bridges that connect us back to the big town.

“We don’t live on this road,” I told a first-time visitor last April. “This is our main town road. Our place is on a side road off of this road a few more miles from here.” We were about midway down the Bemis Road—also known by those of us who consider it a major thoroughfare as the Bemis Track. “Back when folks came here by train, this was actually a train track,” I explained. “See how straight it is? But it all got washed out in the Great March Flood of 1936, so now it’s a road.” I couldn’t tell if he was impressed or scared. He just jostled back and forth in the passenger seat, peering out the window in silence. But I’m pretty sure I heard him haul in his breath as we motored across the one-lane causeway bridge at the southern tip of the lake. “Almost there,” I promised rounding a corner and chugging up a small hill onto my “camp” road.

Friends generally don’t come here during mud season. And if they do, they don’t come out this far. They get part way into the Plantation and either park it and call for help, or spin around and slide back down the mountain. Even UPS—the guys driving huge brown trucks, wearing brown uniforms who look like they could handle a little extra wet dirt—won’t venture out past the town package depot this time of year. But, with our address label officially stating we live on a trail, I can’t say as I blame them for dropping our boxes off in another zip code and having us retrieve them there. 

After more than 20 years of negotiating our way from southern New Hampshire, Tom and I knew what we were “getting ourselves into” when we decided to retire up here off the beaten track. Money, house, road. Boiled down to their essence, those were our determining factors as our thoughts turned from “Wouldn’t it be nice?” to “How can we make it happen?” Would our savings hold out? Could we really turn the old camp into a house? What was the likelihood we’d got stuck out there? Plus, lurking in the grey area at the end of the money-house-road list were generic retirement questions about health and sanity. Would our health and our fondness for each other’s company last as long as our savings? But in the big game of chance called life, we knew that mental and physical wellness were cards we’d carry with us no matter what road we chose. So, as much as anyone could, we prepared for all scenarios, got our ducks in a row. We vowed to balance frugality with adventure, to eat from our garden whenever nature cooperated, and figure out how much homemade wine consumption would fortify our hearts and souls without jeopardizing our self-sufficiency. We packed up our life in the bigger city and made the one-way trip to Rangeley.

For our “back home” friends, the route from there to here does take a little getting used to. TomTom and Garmin help with some of the trip, but get confused when friends type in our “trail” and get warned they’re on their own from Route 17. From there, they have to rely on plain, old Tom’s highlighted squiggle on the Maine Atlas and their own senses of direction and adventure. Personally, I think the resulting candid commentary tops their barking GPS monotones anyways. Where else can you go from “See how pretty the lake is over there?” to “I think I might see the lake again,” to “What the hell were they thinking?” and back again all in less than 25 miles?

So far so good, though, I’m happy to report. The pantry is full. Most days, we still talk to each other more than we talk to ourselves or the beagles. We haven’t found ourselves standing at the end of the driveway wearing tin foil hats barking at the full moon yet, either. We’re even managing to take frequent trips beyond and back without calling for rescue. But we don’t kid ourselves for a minute that we can take all the credit. We get constant support from some very special people—two in particular. Thanks to our lead assessor/town road agent and the plow man hired by our private road association—who defy all geological, hydrological and meteorological laws to keep our travel lanes clear —we’re staying on track with retirement in the woods. Even during this worst winter/spring in memory, we have never been stranded, marooned or otherwise stuck out here 13 miles from pavement.

And Tom and I don’t need to kid ourselves that pavement is by any means better than dirt. For more than 30 years, we lived right alongside a real city, tax-dollar funded road. Salmon Falls Road, it was called, named for the river bordering New Hampshire and Maine it follows. Once a place of fishing folklore and sprawling farms, it is now mostly a commuter corridor for folks wanting to work closer to Boston. To say it was paved would be generous. It was a long stretch of tar patches connecting pot holes through swamp land that ate hub caps like M&Ms. On those unfortunate summer evenings we were back home from Rangeley, a steady stream of tire thumping outside our bedroom window kept us awake, longing for loons and waves lapping the shore. We were only a couple miles from  hospitals, stores and all those other things friends closer to Boston want us to be able to get to now. But, most days, the route to those conveniences was an obstacle course that gave us much less bang for our tax dollar and more pounding on the Subaru suspension than driving down the dirt roads in the Plantation.

Getting out here is never what you’d call a smooth ride, though, not a cruise control sort of commute. I was reminded of that recently while driving alone back from town through a low spot in the road. A torrent of melted snow rushed down off Bemis Mountain and across the track on its way into Mooselookmeguntic where no amount of maintenance or tax dollars could have kept the dirt surface solid. My Subaru tires started to sink like four fudge doughnuts and I sucked in my breath and steered my way through. “What the hell were we thinking?” I started to say. But then I thought I could see a patch of open lake water through the trees…and summer somewhere right around the corner.

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