The only thing separating Madawaska from Canada is the St. John River, which means more students from Madawaska Middle/High School have traveled to another country than their own nation’s capital.

That will start to change Jan. 18, when 28 students in the school band, known as the Pride of Madawaska, board a bus shortly after midnight for a 16-hour trip to Washington, D.C., where they will perform the next day in a concert at the Lincoln Memorial. The Jan. 19 “Make America Great! Welcome Concert” will kick off three days of events highlighted by President-elect Donald Trump’s swearing in as the 45th president of the United States at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 20.

The students, says principal Wayne Anderson, are “ecstatic.”

“They’re very excited,” he said. “They’re really anxious to see if we can pull this off. Obviously this is going to be a fairly costly endeavor. We’re in the throes right now of some massive fundraising.”

School officials estimate the three-day trip will cost about $20,000 for transportation and lodging. As of Monday night, the band boosters had raised $12,000 in donations ranging in amounts from $10 to $2,500, band director Ben Meiklejohn said.

It was Meiklejohn’s idea to apply for a performance spot in the inauguration festivities. A former Portland resident, Meiklejohn moved to Madawaska in October to begin his new job as band director. As he was unpacking his belongings in his new apartment, Meiklejohn came across some old photos from 1989, when he and his fellow bandmates from Kennebunk High School marched in the inaugural parade for President George H.W. Bush. Meiklejohn’s instrument was the oboe, but that’s a wooden instrument that shouldn’t be played in cold weather, so the band made him a flag bearer instead.

‘We’ll really be representing small-town America’

— Ben Meiklejohn, Madawaska band director

He still remembers what it was like to march past the Bush family, representing the first family’s second-home state of Maine.

“He stood up and went out of his way to wave to us, and acknowledged that he knew it was us,” Meiklejohn recalled. “It was so nice to get the recognition of the president himself. As a kid, that means a lot.”

SELECTED IN DECEMBER

When the band director, now 45, ran across his old photos, “a light bulb went off,” he said. “I thought: Wow, I have a band and it’s a presidential inauguration this year, so why don’t I give it a shot and apply, and see what happens?”

Meiklejohn applied in November for a spot in the inaugural parade, and heard back in mid-December that the Pride of Madawaska had been chosen for the Lincoln Memorial concert. No bands from Maine were chosen to march in the inaugural parade this year.

Just a dozen ensembles will be playing in the “Voices of America” concert, and only 40 bands will march in the parade, Meiklejohn said.

“We’ll really be representing small-town America,” he said. “From what I understand, they are going for people from the far reaches of the country, the corners of the country.”

Madawaska is the northernmost town in Maine, and as the country’s northeasternmost point is considered one of the “four corners” of the continental United States.

Meiklejohn didn’t tell the students what he had up his sleeve until the band’s participation was confirmed by inauguration officials. When he told the students they had to have their band uniforms fitted, the students balked, questioning why that had to be done when they weren’t expecting another performance until spring. Meiklejohn just replied, “Well, we might have a venue in store for January.”

“I think only a handful of them have been outside of Maine,” he said. “When I first announced it to them, they were in disbelief at first. They thought I was joking with them or something.”

‘A ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME CHANCE’

Elizabeth Dufresne, a 14-year-old ninth-grader who plays the flute, says she and her friends were “wicked excited” when Meiklejohn broke the news.

“I am looking forward just getting to go down and doing this with my band because our band is very close,” she said. “It’s kind of like a second family, so getting to do this with them is really exciting and fun. We haven’t played in front of that many people before. We did the Bangor parade, but that’s not as big as this is going to be.”

Emma Pelletier, a 13-year-old eighth-grader who plays the clarinet, said she is thinking of it as “a great experience and a once-in-a-lifetime chance.”

The concert performers were asked to present program proposals. Meiklejohn submitted a program that would last 5½ minutes and includes “The Dirigo March” – Maine’s official march, composed by Maine native Leo Pepin of Augusta – and a popular march called “Main Street America,” arranged by Gary Gilroy. The program has not yet been officially approved, but the students are practicing the material early every morning, seven days a week, until it’s time to hit the road.

The practice schedule is rigorous, Pelletier said, “but I think we can manage. Everyone is committed. They really want to go to Washington and do a good job.”

It will be a quick trip. They’ll drive down on Jan. 18, check into their hotel in the late afternoon, rest and get oriented. They’ll play the concert the next day, then board the bus on Jan. 20 for the trip back to Maine. They’d like to squeeze in an extra day of sightseeing, but only if they can raise the money to pay for it. Meiklejohn estimates it would cost “probably a few thousand” to make that happen.

“If we were to raise more money,” Meiklejohn said, “then we could add on an extra day of lodging and bus rental.”

Local residents and businesses are donating through the school system’s website, madawaskaschools.org/district.

‘IT’S NOT A POLITICAL TRIP FOR US’

Despite the contentious election, neither Meiklejohn nor Anderson is concerned about politics and rhetoric ruining the students’ experiences. Although Madawaska voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton, Meiklejohn said not a single parent or student has objected to the band attending the inauguration.

“We don’t see this as a political event for us,” Anderson said. “We really do a good job here at school of keeping the politics out of the building and focusing on the academics, so for us it’s a wonderful opportunity for the kids to go down there and display their talents, to see the process of bringing a president in firsthand to go along with their American government classes and their civics classes, and really have an academic bent to this process as well as them having a good time. So for us, it doesn’t matter whether it’s Republican or it’s Democrat, because it’s not a political trip for us. It’s academic.”

Meiklejohn said that’s the way it was for him in 1989.

“Certainly when I was marching for George Bush, I didn’t get the feeling that my marching made me a Bush supporter, and it didn’t change my appreciation for participating in the event, either,” he said.

“I think at this kind of event everyone’s looking beyond the politics,” Meiklejohn said. “It doesn’t feel like something political that we’re participating in. It’s just a tradition of democracy. It’s like clockwork: Since the founding of our country, every four years a president gets inaugurated and that’s never changed.”

Both Dufresne and Pelletier said that while they hope to learn more about politics while they are in Washington, they are going on the trip to make music, not political points.

“I’m really just there to play in the band and have fun,” Dufresne said.