Have you ever wanted to sell everything you own and just "take off?" Travel the country's back roads, paddle down a meandering stream, experience breath-taking mountain views, walk among 100-year old trees, and just marvel at America's beauty? That is the dream that my partner, Betsy, and I decided to make a reality. This blog describes our adventure. The food we eat, people we meet, sights we see, and the enjoyment we find in traveling.

Friday, September 4, 2020

Presque Isle, Maine

Our summer trip through Maine continued farther north in the state and into Aroostook County.  Talk to a Mainer about traveling up to Aroostook and you will realize they have a few nicknames for the county.  Being the largest county in the state, and greater in size than Rhode Island and Connecticut combined, Mainer’s pay homage to its size by simply calling it “The County.”  Aroostook also garners the nickname “The Crown of Maine” because of its location sitting prominently at the top of the state touching Canada to the east, west, and north.  The name Aroostook is an Indian word meaning "beautiful river."  Whatever Mainer’s call it, we called the agricultural-dominated landscape beautiful with amazing color contrasts and simplicity.

Aroostook is the agricultural region of Maine.  Fields of waving grains and green tufts with plump potatoes under them replace the typical Maine scenes of coastal harbors and rocky shores.  Back in the 1940’s, Maine was the largest potato producing state in the country.  Sorry Idaho, you were not always king of the spud!  Maine now ranks tenth in the country in potato production covering 63,000 acres.  Family farms are still in existence and every fall, kids get a two-week break from school to help in the potato harvest.  The harvest is a great way for youngsters to stay attached to the land, help out the family farm, and earn money.  Other major agricultural entities in the region are broccoli, hay, and small grain rotation crops. 

Instead of fresh lobsters from the ocean, we enjoyed fresh “new” potatoes from the ground.  We were curious, what really is a “new” potato?  The term wasn’t new to us, we grew up hearing our grandparents mention new potatoes, but admittedly we had no clue exactly what they were.  “New” potatoes are potatoes picked before maturity that have been freshly dug and brought to market without curing.  Since they are dug early, they have delicate thin skins, lower starch content, high moisture content, and tend to have a sweeter flavor.

Delving into the “what is there to do in Presque Isle” we found some interesting oddities.  Quickly, we discovered Presque Isle was the launching site of not one, but two, transatlantic balloon crossings.  The first one occurred in 1978 when three people inflated a balloon and set out for a 137-hour, six-day flight traversing the Atlantic Ocean and landed in a barley field near Paris.  The night they landed, one of the pilots Larry Newman was allowed to sleep with his wife in the same bed where Charles Lindbergh slept after his historic transatlantic flight five decades earlier.  The second crossing was the first Transatlantic Solo Crossing occurring in 1984.  Their launching sites are commemorated with monuments for the public to see.  Ironically, hot air balloons were developed in the late 1700's but it took nearly 200 years and 14 failed missions before an ocean crossing was completed.

But the oddest thing we found in Presque Isle was the scattering of large balls resembling planets.  Turns out the folks of The County got together and built the world’s largest scale model of the Solar System.  Yep that’s right, they like their planets in Aroostook.  The model strings along 40 miles of Route 1 from Presque Isle to the town of Houlton and all the planets are on the side of the road so you astronomic geeks (or curious tourists like us) can stop and admire.  The model of the Sun is inside a building at the University of Maine at Presque Isle and tiny Pluto resides down south in the town of Houlton.

And yes, there are plenty of things to do in the outdoors around Presque Isle.  We spent a morning hiking Aroostook State Park, Maine’s first state park.  There are miles of gentle cross-country ski trails you can hike or select one of the many paths up Quaggy Jo Mountain for a great view of the agricultural expanse that we came to appreciate in northern Maine. 

Another nice, short but steep hike is up Haystack Mountain.  It only takes about 10-15 minutes to ascend the half mile (round trip) moderate trail where you are rewarded with some beautiful views and grasp the diverse landscape of Aroostook County.  

Driving to the hiking site, we spotted a gorgeous field of sunflowers that dazzle the landscape.  Come to find out the sunflowers are grown for birdseed but they also sell them to passerby’s that stop to admire them. Pick as many as you want and leave your money in the box.  Gotta love all the honor systems in Maine! 

We hung our hats in the town of Presque Isle at Arndt’s Aroostook River Lodge and Campground which we liked immediately.  Our site had a nice large grassy yard with a shade tree and there were a few miles of hiking trails on the grounds for Spirit to run.  There is lots more to do in the vast county and plenty to explore just across the river in Canada.  Maybe another year.  


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