On Wednesday, as many of my journalistic brethren were packing themselves into the designated press vans for U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s visit, I took a different approach.
Not because I wanted to, though, but because the vans were full and the BDN already had two seats filled with a reporter and photographer.
So instead of snuggling up with a bunch of sweaty reporters on a wild and crazy ride through the Maine woods, I woke early, pointed my own car north, and (armed with a cooler full of snacks and drinks) eventually meandered my way into Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.
My eventual destination: The scenic overlook at Mile 6 on the monument’s Loop Road. Haven’t been there yet? Do yourself a favor. Go. And do what I did: Pack a lunch. Plan to sit, and gaze at the beautiful mountain and lakes in the distance, and think.
But before you get there, take some time to poke around and explore. Just don’t get discouraged by some of the things you see.
When I turned off Route 11, which runs from Medway toward the park, it didn’t take long before the warm-and-fuzzy, going-to-the-monument feelings were doused. In fact, at the corner of Swift Brook Road, a private woods road that leads into the monument lands, I saw one of those “National Park No” signs that were so common during the battle over that land’s future.
And every so often, I saw other reminders of that old battle, which some still want to fight. A sign on a bridge that informs those who pass over it that the bridge’s owner is an opponent of the national monument. A sign attached to a piece of parked logging equipment that expressed the owner’s distrust of the federal government.
On my trip, I saw a few out-of-state license plates on cars heading toward the monument. In the monument itself, I saw nothing but smiling people who were pleased to be able to utilize the land, and who were apprehensive about what the current administration might do to undercut their predecessor’s executive order.
On that trip, I found myself observing plenty, pulling over often, and jotting notes about what I was seeing.
What did I see? I saw a bit of evidence that some locals will never let go, nor accept the presence of a national monument in their town.
And I saw plenty more evidence that it really doesn’t matter … so long as the federal government doesn’t do something incredibly rash, like remove that official “monument” status.
The monument infrastructure I found on Wednesday was still a work in progress, no doubt about it. But compared to what was there four years ago, when I first visited, that progress is remarkable.
The roads are smooth. The signage is plentiful and readable (or, it is after you get into the monument itself; blame Governor LePage for the lack of signs elsewhere). And around each turn, I found myself thinking, “I can’t wait to come back here after this brand new monument has matured a bit.”
Not that I’ll wait that long, of course.
There are some — our governor among them — that will tell you that Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument is nothing more than cut-over woodlot. And I suppose, if your background is in the forest products industry, as his is, that’s an appropriate way to view it.
But guess what? One person’s cut-over woodlot is another’s regenerating forest. And you know what loves regenerating forests, and thrive in those habitats? Critters, including our iconic moose.
And yes, people seem to love the place, too. At the scenic overlook, I met a man who turned reluctant when I asked if I could interview him for a column.
His reason: Although he loved the monument, he didn’t think his boss would appreciate finding out that he’d skipped work and driven 150 miles into the woods so that he could take a few photos of Mount Katahdin.
“I want to get photos from here, of each season of the first year since it was designated a monument,” he explained.
So he watches the weather forecast, plans his days to “play hooky,” and remains (mostly) quiet about his quest.
He also hoped to talk to Zinke, he admitted, and to tell him what a gift he felt the monument is to the people of the U.S.
Nearby, a woman painted. A young couple oohed and ahhed about the view. A gentle breeze blew, birds sang.
And it just didn’t matter.
It was just another great day in one of Maine’s truly special places.
No matter what a few naysayers might tell you.
John Holyoke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke