My knowledge, respect and admiration for the state of Maine grew 1,320-fold last week after spending six days driving – you guessed it – 1,320 miles around Vacationland in a counterclockwise circumnavigation, mainly along Route 1.

John Balentine, a former managing editor for the Lakes Region Weekly, lives in Windham.

Aroostook County – simply and reverently referred to as “The County” and especially the far northern reaches of it, nicknamed “The Crown of Maine” – has eluded me for as long as I’ve lived in Maine, 21 years now. (I know, I’ll never be a real Mainer. No need to remind me.)

But, last week, as I enjoyed a few precious vacation days, we started off from Windham, picked up Route 1 in Yarmouth and barely left it until we got to Fort Kent, which is the end, or beginning, of that historic East Coast byway originally built in 1926.

In Fort Kent, we took a quick side trip down to the town of Allagash to see that famous eponymous river, headed back up to Fort Kent, where we took a right and headed due south on Route 11 through Eagle Lake, Patten and eventually into Millinocket.

From that classic former mill town we took Route 6 to Greenville and then came back home via Jackman and Waterville. It wasn’t an exact circumnavigation of Maine, but close.

We saw everything from lighthouses off Schoodic Peninsula and Penobscot Bay to entrepreneurial roadside shops and attractions dotting Route 1 from the Midcoast up to Bar Harbor.

We saw animals, too. And birds. Plenty of them, including a bald eagle that jazzed up the desolate doldrums of Route 1 prior to reaching Weston and its Million Dollar View (of Katahdin) Scenic Byway.

We saw numerous churches, indications of the French-Canadian influence, as well as many border crossings and patrol vehicles. And, of course, we drove by farms of all kinds – from backbreaking, low-bush Downeast blueberry fields to huge Aroostook potato, broccoli and canola operations rivaling Great Plains growers.

I knew Aroostook, which was the ultimate destination and raison d’être for this vacation, was famous for its tasty potatoes, but this trip taught me so much more.

Though I’ve lived here for two decades, experiencing Aroostook County has eluded me. It’s a place we Southern Mainers only hear about when the news is especially noteworthy, from spring flooding of the St. John River to epic snow totals or a rare World Cup biathlon event.

To finally visit Presque Isle, Fort Kent, Madawaska, Frenchville, Limestone, Caribou and Allagash, and to finally see the picturesque river valleys and rolling farmlands and to finally meet some of its friendly, thickly accented residents – including a farmer who gave us pumpkins and a logging truck driver with an outgoing personality the size of Aroostook – makes me feel like I really know Maine better.

And, of course, Maine’s sacred mountain, Katahdin, was part of the trip as well. It’s an amazing thing, especially for a hiker like me who did the Appalachian Trail in 1999, to approach Katahdin not from the south via Millinocket but by the northeast via Route 11 and Patten, where we beheld it breathtakingly just south of town. I used to think Baxter State Park was in northern Maine. It’s not; there’s a lot more above it.

I intended to share a list, compiled during the drive, of all the things we learned and saw on our wild Maine adventure, but there’s not enough room here to do it justice. Let it be said, however, that if you haven’t been to Aroostook or even Downeast areas west of the well-trod Acadia National Park, you should book a trip. Can you really call yourself a Mainer if you haven’t been to such important parts of it?

One disappointing realization during the trip was the former Loring Air Force Base, located between Caribou and Limestone, which is precisely in the middle of nowhere. I can tell Loring, with its massive hangars, administration buildings and base housing, was once a mighty military post, but now it’s definitely post-military and nearly post-apocalyptic.

The buildings are crumbling. The paint is chipping. Many roads and runways and parking lots are weed infested and severely potholed. But it’s beautiful in its own decrepit, dystopian way and was worth the side trip, especially to see signs of life from the ongoing attempt, vain as it seems to be, to revitalize the former base into an economic hub named Loring Commerce Center. If it becomes as successful as the conversion of the former Brunswick Naval Air Station into Brunswick Landing, I’m sure the residents of Limestone and Caribou would applaud.

I don’t take many vacations and haven’t been anywhere of note since the pandemic started, but this trip made up for lost time. I just wish we could have stayed longer and learned more about Amazing Aroostook.

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