August 29, 2013

Alan Caron: To learn more about Maine, make the pilgrimage to Quebec

Travel the route hundreds of thousands took to get here, and support the towns and businesses along the way.

For Maine's quarter-million Canadian French descendants, the trip to Quebec can be a moving combination of ancestral history and extended family. Even for those of us who never learned the language of our grandparents, there are French phrases and names in Quebec that are like old friends re-appearing out of the deepest wells of memory.

Whatever your ancestry, a trip to Quebec should be on every Mainer's must-do list. If you yearn to see Europe someday but wonder if you'll be able to, Quebec is the nearest and most affordable alternative, evoking all of the architecture, sounds and smells of a French city and its surrounding farmland.

Drive there if you can, to see the land that lies between us and Canada, to imagine the hundreds of thousands of settlers who traveled that same route, and to support the communities and businesses along the way.

We traveled to Quebec last week, up Old Canada Road -- now called Route 201 and the John F. Kennedy Highway on the Quebec side -- to share the city with old friends from Washington and Thailand.

Quebec claims to be the oldest city in North America, dating back to 1608. For 150 years it was the unofficial capital of New France and its five provinces, which stretched from Canada to New Orleans, and from the Mississippi to the Appalachians.

Just before our own revolution, the seemingly invincible citadel of Quebec was finally overtaken by the British, which led to New France becoming part of modern-day Canada. But you would hardly know that the British rule Quebec when walking the cobbled winding streets of Quebec City, or driving around its ancient island breadbasket, the Ile d'Orleans.

The locals seem to regard the British as little more than intruding guests who have long outstayed their welcome. Not that the people of Quebec are unfriendly to the non-French. In all my visits there, I have yet to hear or feel anything but welcoming good cheer.

The trip up Old Canada Road is always an emotional one for me. It is the road that my grandfather traveled, on a horse-drawn wagon, to come to Waterville and settle on a farm outside town. It is the road that I took each summer to what was the single most exciting day of the year (besides Christmas): when all of the children of our neighborhood rode packed school buses to the Skowhegan Fair.

Route 201 departs Route 95 just north of Waterville and takes you first to Skowhegan. Be sure to pull over at the former downtown bank, now a cafe called the Bankery. Your trip will be infinitely more pleasant with a few of its pecan cinnamon buns.

Skowhegan is one of many Maine towns in western and northern Maine that is struggling to reinvent itself, after decades of declines in the surrounding family farming and the loss of jobs in the woods and mills. Despite the difficulties, they seem to have a can-do determination and a crop of new, young innovators forging ahead.

After Skowhegan you find a succession of smaller and smaller towns, including Bingham, The Forks and Jackman. Here you'll see farms giving way to forests, lots of houses with silver metal roofs, and a determined frontier feel.

Try breaking up your trip with an overnight and a rafting experience on the Kennebec. We stayed at the Hawk's Nest in West Forks, which is a massive log lodge with good food and rooms and a spirited crowd in the evening. Be prepared to be awakened early by the smell of sizzling bacon.

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