Meanwhile, there was Maine with all its charms and curiosities: Fried clams. The Windham, Maine, property that had a mint condition replica of a 1950s gas station. “Lobstah.” Locals wintering in “Florider.” Lighthouses. The Italian corner store. Winslow Homer. Dark, plump wild turkeys filing across a country road. “Christina’s World.” Old Town Canoes. The seventeen-hundred-pound “chocolate moose.” A public reading of Whittier’s “Snowbound.” A boat and trailer in every other driveway. A Portland Seadogs Double-A baseball game disappearing behind fog. Dunkin Donuts. Sap gushing from a pruned maple limb in the spring. Maple syrup. Bundled and sheltered “CAMP WOOD” for sale along a rural roadside littered with windfallen . . . camp wood. The cottage industry of personal pickups with snowplows. Roiling, whirlpooling, thundering, misting Maine rivers guided by granite through downtowns after a day of heavy rain. Lightning bugs burning spark holes in a June evening.
Maine summers have long been known for their comfort, for being warm but generally not hot. In addition to “The Pine Tree State,” Maine’s nickname is “Vacationland.” For generations, people, including members of my family, have flocked to Maine to have a taste of the wild and, especially, to escape the torrid summer heat of the states south of Maine. For instance, if you lived in Morristown, New Jersey, and on a July day the temperature there was 91°F and the humidity is 90%, you were forgiven for longing to be in a breezy Maine coastal town like Bar Harbor or Christmas Cove; or, if you favored deep woods and fresh water, to be loafing on the summit of Maine’s Mt. Katahdin, where the famed Appalachian Trail terminates, or to be taking an invigorating plunge in Maine’s Moosehead Lake (“like a gleaming silver platter at the end of the table,” wrote Thoreau). Indeed, nothing―not even the most pleasant day in New Mexico―beat an August afternoon in our backyard in Gorham, the temperature in the 80s, and I relaxing against the trunk of a pine, listening to the breeze in the treetops and the fiddling of insects, recalling my childhood, my butt upon a new-mowed lawn interwoven with scintillating pine needles.
But the operative word here is “relaxing.” On many summer days in Maine, if I was engaging in a vigorous activity while working or playing outdoors, my body often felt greased with sweat. And while the first floor of our house was generally comfortable in the summer, we often had fans exhausting the heat from our second-floor bedrooms on summer nights. We even considered an air-conditioner for one of the bedrooms. Living in the arid West nearly all her life, Linda was more sensitive to the Northeast humidity than I. Yet we both concluded we were just too spoiled by the aridity of the Southwest.
The rains continued throughout the Maine summer. As in the spring, there were the vast, wet, but low-key systems that moved through Gorham like a slow train. But there were also the brief thunderstorms whose violence rivaled anything I ever experienced in the Southwest, although a violence somewhat cushioned by all the vegetation. After a calm, sunny morning and early afternoon, during which I might have guided our newly-acquired self-propelled rotary mower over our entire lawn, I’d take a hot shower and repair to our front porch, where I’d sip a cold drink. Then, a breeze would arrive from some indeterminant direction, creating a foamy sibilance in the leafy crowns of the huge maples in our front yard. I’d hear a sky-crumpling shudder of thunder. Yes, a thunderstorm was soon to arrive, but from where? In the desert Southwest, one could see storms approaching from miles away. However, storms approached our heavily wooded Gorham neighborhood like a blimp might approach a man in a closet with its door ajar. But arrive the storm would, bringing more thunder―and lightning. As in the Southwest, the harder the downpour, the more one could expect a bolt of lightning and heart-stopping crack of thunder: that seemingly incompatible mixture of fire and water. The torrent would enclose our property, overflow our gutters, send water vomiting from the drainpipes, and set the creeks in our neighborhood to temporarily singing.
 Spoiled? In July of 2019, in an online article/survey about coping with summer heat, presumably in the New York metropolitan area, The New York Times posited this: “Humidity is the best weather. It’s good for your skin, but you probably knew that. A healthy dose can improve the quality of your sleep and clear up breathing problems. Maybe that sounds familiar, too. But did you know that humidity can enhance your sense of smell? A moist nose works better than a dry nose, and scents, delightful and otherwise, are more easily trapped by muggy air where they linger longer. Then there’s this: Humidity may have given rise to some of humanity’s most complex languages. According to one theory, the persistent swampiness in some parts of the world limbered up the voice boxes of local inhabitants, allowing them to create languages with a wide range of subtle tones. And if all of that isn’t enough to convince you, there’s one more reason to love humidity: It’s egalitarian. No one needs to be worried about being a sweaty mess, when everyone’s a sweaty mess.” At the time I read it, 614 readers agreed with the preceding, and 3385 disagreed.
I resumed working, now as a practical nurse with all its expectations and responsibilities―honestly, not every one of which I met. I briefly worked at a couple of long-term-care facilities, one that did business in an aged structure in South Portland, the other a unit of a luxurious “retirement community” on the coastline of the town of Scarborough. Neither worked out.
I then settled into a long-term-care facility in Westbrook, where I primarily passed medications on a locked dementia floor, many of whose residents had Alzheimer’s Disease. There, I cared for residents who covered a spectrum of diagnoses and behaviors: calm, cooperative people; people who mumbled to themselves as they constantly paced the sleeping pods and common areas; people who fought with other residents and exploded at the slightest provocation; people who refused medications; fall-risk residents who set off piercing alarms as they rose out of boredom from seats and beds; bedridden people in tearful pain, contending with severe pressure sores and praying to die. Every other week a young man arrived on the floor, and with his guitar, untrained voice, and evangelical bent he performed creaky gospel songs for the residents.
I worked the swing shift. Every shift began and ended with the tedium of accounting for the opiates in the medication cart. On my feet throughout the shift, I’d drag home through the often-foggy New England shoreline night exhausted. I lost ten pounds during this experience, and quit―even eschewing a small but obviously thoughtful going-away ceremony with cake―after nine months. I then worked at a family-practice clinic that employed four physicians―here, as in Alamosa, working more as a medical assistant than a practical nurse. I vastly preferred this to working in a long-term-care facility. However, I never recaptured in Maine the pleasure and rewards I felt delivering healthcare in the San Luis Valley.
Several days after our arrival, I went with Buddy for a first walk well beyond our front door. Our destination was a place Bruce’s brother―the previous owner of our house, who would soon have a house built for himself and his wife immediately behind us―called the “ottah pond.” That is, the otter pond. (Although I had a Boston roommate at boarding school, the Maine accent would take as much getting used to as the woods. And, yes, I obliquely know the Maine accent differs from a Boston accent and a southern Maine accent differs from a northern Maine accent.) We walked in the direction of our road’s dead end and crossed a single-track railroad line we had been told was abandoned. We then headed down an asphalt trail that paralleled the track.
It was a raw morning. The temperature was forty. The skies were leaden. The air was still. Fog filled the woods in places. A foot and a half of old, dull snow blanketed the woods and the occasional open space. The asphalt trail, obviously used heavily by snowmobilers and cross-country skiers, consisted of flattened snow and rotten ice. It was all I could do to avoid slipping and falling. Vast patches of ice were new to Buddy and he, too, fought to keep his hindquarters aloft. The countryside was quiet but for the occasional call of a crow and the distant bark of a dog―a deep bellow, probably that of a Labrador, which, I would soon learn, is a very popular canine in watery Maine.
The gloom of the morning and the density of my surroundings were certainly different, got me to wondering: Is this what inspired some of my favorite writers: Emerson, Thoreau, Frost, Hal Borland, William Cullen Bryant, Henry Beston, Edward Hoagland? Would this sea of towering wood succor or smother me? Comfort me or unnerve me with all I imagined it was concealing? Would this gray sky soothe my eyes or throw me into a depression?
Soon we arrived at the pond―actually one of several ponds―where the asphalt trail ended and the railroad track disappeared in a dense, gray tangle of trees and brush. (I would later learn that the track ran from Portland to the northeastern New Hampshire town of Whitefield.) The world opened up somewhat at this body of water and patchy ice that I estimated was about the size of the flats behind our house in Alamosa. The pond was as melancholy as the morning, but, during our walk back to the house, the prospect of swimming in it on a hot July afternoon―after all these years, to feel the sting of some fresh, clear water up my nose, to paraphrase Mainer E.B. White―lifted my spirits as I negotiated the trail, now with a bit more sure-footedness.
The spring rains that occurred not long after our arrival fascinated me. I’d awaken in the morning to a gray lid over Gorham―and, I’d assume, all of New England. Then, with no fanfare―no heralding wind, thunder, or lightning, as was common in the desert Southwest―it would rain. And rain. And rain. Not torrential rain, just, amid a fundamental stillness, a relentlessly pouring rain. It drummed with “Bolero” monotony on our roof. In the deep woods, where its billions of droplets struck billions of spring-exploding leaves, it hissed, chattered, and roared. James Dickey wrote of the “pressure” of the Eastern woods; these rains compounded that pressure. Accompanying the percussion of rain on leaf was the ubiquitous melody of droplets on puddles everywhere.
Of course, I took measures against the wetness, perhaps overdoing it. Shrouded in my ethylene vinyl acetate rain poncho still stiff and glossy with desert disuse, I galumphed around downtown Gorham with a Frankenstein gait in my new, shin-high, size-15 muck boots. (I would have preferred L.L. Bean’s lighter, “legendary” leather-and-rubber boot―all over Maine since 1912 and popular at my boarding school―had it not stopped at size 14.) Meanwhile, I marveled as women in mere tee-shirts and dresses, their bare feet in flip-flops, splashed with little apparent concern upon asphalt and concrete. In the night with an oily chill that followed, the hollows that abutted the rural roads filled with the eerie music of the amphibians locally known as peepers.
We left Alamosa on a warm afternoon in late February. Sammy, our mover, was a Mexican-American from―frankly, to my surprise―the aforementioned Clinton, Massachusetts. I drove the pickup that pulled our 23-foot travel trailer; Linda drove the SUV; and we divided the four dogs between us. We spent six nights on the road to Maine, sleeping in Brush, Colorado; Council Bluffs, Iowa; Chicago, Illinois; Cleveland, Ohio; Utica, New York; and Warner, New Hampshire, where my sister and brother-in-law lived. Shortly after crossing into New York State, we exited I-90 and pulled into an empty lot gleaming with snow in the town of Ripley. As we let the dogs wander, I ceremoniously brought a pinch of the fresh snow to my lips. New York! Where I went to college, had my first legal beer, lost my virginity, dropped acid for the first time!
Four days later we closed on house #4 at a lawyer’s office in downtown Gorham. Shortly thereafter, we arrived at the house on a dead-end road. The neighborhood was covered with a couple feet of old, graying ice and snow. Bruce, one of our new neighbors, was helping Sammy jockey his massive rig to an optimal unloading place. It was the first of many occasions in which Bruce would help us.
After several days we established a modicum of order in the house. The 35-year-old structure was a variation on the common New England Cape Cod style. It had a second floor and a unfinished basement, which meant stairways, a new element in our homeowning experience. The front of the house had a small, screened-in porch. The detached, pitched-roof, two-car garage had a large attic. The house sat on a little more than an acre, two-thirds of which was lawn, shrubbery, and groundcover. Trees of all sizes―white pine, maple, oak, birch, hemlock, larch―guarded, hugged, and canopied our house. The remaining one-third acre was densely wooded: our own little parcel of Maine wilderness. Nearly all of the fifteen or twenty other properties on our three-quarter-mile-long road were of similar size. We no longer had the wide-open surroundings we enjoyed in southern New Mexico and Colorado; on the other hand, I was grateful for the privacy and solitude provided by the crush of trees.