In 2009, I moved from Washington state to Maine. I clarify Washington state because when you say Washington in Maine people assume you are talking about D.C. And when I talk to anyone who is not from Maine about Portland, they assume Portland, Oregon. In Maine we can’t help but assume Portland, ME in conversation; it is the largest city and the hippest destination in Maine.
Maine is a big state, but it is also a small state. It is an old state. I can feel the weight of history in Maine. Maine is heavy. Maine is made up of a lot of small spaces. Many of these are beautiful spaces. In its relationship to other parts of the east, it is beautiful and unique. Some people I meet when I travel don’t even know that Maine is a state.
Many of the people I meet in Maine have never, or rarely, been outside of Maine. Some have been to Boston or Canada or, maybe, Florida. Maine is a larger state than I expected when I moved there, and many people in Maine regularly travel two or more hours to get somewhere else in Maine. And it is a long way to go to get out of Maine, or New England.
If you are from Maine, you are a Mainer. If you aren’t, you are “from away.” People I know who are “from away” are often people who have specifically chosen to live in Maine (for any variety of reasons). Maine can be a great place to live and there are things I love about Maine. But if your heart is in the West—in Mountains and valleys and big trees and the flat forever of the Pacific Ocean—Maine, and the east more generally, can never compare.
Before moving to Maine I had spent my childhood, and most of my education and professional life, in the West. Born in Mountainview, CA; raised in El Cajon, CA; college in Redlands, CA and then Arcata, CA. Graduate school in Corvallis, Oregon and then Pullman, Washington.
And a brief stint in Moorehead, Minnesota—my first job as an assistant professor.
As a child I had been to Pennsylvania to visit my grandparents, uncles, and cousins a few times. We flew there, but we drove into Ohio to feed the fish at the Spillway.
Visiting my mom’s family I also traveled to Bakersfield, CA and Davis, CA. In high school I attended a week-long awkward youth leaders conference in Washington, D.C. and spent an awkward weekend at Pepperdine University.
There are a handful of other places I visited as a child, mostly in California, and places I probably have forgotten. But, my lists here illustrate one thing: I have been a west coast girl. I knew very little of the east.
This brief list also illustrates that travel was a pretty regular part of my childhood, and was certainly something I took for granted. I had the privilege to see different parts of my home state and my country, but we also travelled out of the necessity of seeing a family that was divided between the east coast and the West. I did not see a lot of east, but I knew that I loved the West. That too, I took for granted.
People who have not been to the West really cannot understand what they are missing; they cannot feel and see the difference. They do not crave mountains. My old California friend, who now lives in the Fingerlakes region of New York, knows exactly what I am talking about. I am not the only displaced Californian who dreams of mountains and ocean.
Getting out of Maine was a much needed shift in perspective. In Maine, every inch is owned, every perspective limited. Other places are becoming more and more like this, but in the West you can still see miles of nothing surrounded by big mountains, big sky, big water. The Atlantic might be big water, but it cannot meet the massive horizon and setting sun of the West.
I had been missing the West, dreaming of mountains and the Pacific Ocean, of open spaces. I thought I could live without these things, but I can’t. I thought that maybe I was romanticizing the West, and maybe I am, but this trip reinforced the differences between east and West. The sameness is a subject for another blog. We are all, after all, Americans.
When we were still a couple weeks away from home, we hit 10,000 miles. We were still in the middle of tall mountains and big spaces. It is a feeling that really cannot be described, but I hope that all of my students, colleagues, friends, and family who have not been to northern California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana will have the opportunity to go to these places, if only for a shift in perspective.