Maine, in the northeastern corner of the US, keeps a low profile. It’s not because it doesn’t have a lot to offer; it does, in fact. Remember, this is a state whose nickname is “Vacationland.” But advertising isn’t in the budget. It’s a big state with Rhode Island-sized areas populated only by the plentiful moose, the occasional family, and other wild animals. Think Montana, except with a coastline.
Maine is like two states in one: the coastline supports one type of “Mainiac:” urbane, professional, sophisticated . . . or at least literate. The inland regions, on the other hand, provide shelter for an entirely different breed: hardy, shy, independent . . . in other words, dirt poor. And in Central Maine is where we find our next destination.
While Kennebunkport in the southern tip of the state can call to mind yacht clubs, lawn croquet, and lobster bakes, most of us can’t afford the dock fees. Instead of stopping in Kennebunkport, we head to Old Orchard Beach and fight the concert-sized crowds and the model airplane-sized deer flies. Or we trek further up to Portland for the live music and big city traffic. Or we check out Bath or Boothbay Harbor for the waterfront views and the Down East accents. Sometimes, we venture all the way up to Camden and Belfast to marvel at the small cottage life sprinkled amidst the antique furniture sales. Every once in a while, we even make it to Acadia National Park near Bar Harbor (pronounced “Bah Hahbah,” like you’re Ebenezer Scrooge) for some real R&R.
But every one of these places is located on or near the coastline. That just won’t do for two adventure-loving dolts like yours truly. We had to venture into the Great Unknown. For every town like bucolic Camden, there are ten like toxic Rumford, a place that owes its existence—and its horrid smell—to a paper mill. For every scenic Belfast, there are ten like dull Gray, a place that lives up to its name. Then there’s Waterville.
Located in Central Maine 25 miles north of Augusta, the state capital, Waterville is home to two private colleges: Colby College and Thomas College. One is a prestigious liberal arts institution often confused with a former all-girls school (named Colby-Sawyer), and the other is a small business college often confused for a prestigious liberal arts institution. Between them, they account for the main reason Waterville exists today. That, and to make the residents of Skowhegan feel good about themselves.
Known as “H2O-ville” by disgruntled chemistry majors, Waterville caters to the colleges, and rightly so. The Railroad Square Cinema and its art film reruns would never have made it past its first year without the college crowd. The Record Connection, a used music store, owes its life to college poseurs. You Know Whose Pub exists to serve college students when they tire of cafeteria food, which usually starts sometime in October.
But what about the other residents of Waterville?
Watervillains (our term, not theirs) are poor, sturdy folk who dress themselves in the latest fashions from Zayre’s—a cheap local knockoff of a discount Sears—which is now sadly closed. Goodwill’s second-hand hand-me-downs must have forced them out of business.
The locals eat simple foods: fish they can catch, animals they can identify, and plants they can grow in the short season from May to August. They lead simple lives of honest toil with fierce hardiness. They rarely complain; in fact, they rarely speak at all. If you try to start a conversation, you won’t get much past: “You cahn’t get thay-ah from hee-ah.”
Many Watervillains live in a house someone in their family built back in the 1920s. Nothing in the years since has been thrown out past the yard’s border. Anything that can be burned has been. Everything they still own serves two purposes, such as the family pet/hunting dog, snow shovel/coat hanger, and tool shed/outhouse.
If you come across this sign, you’re either completely lost or waiting for Spring Break to end. In either case, we pity you.
On one wrong-turn visit to town, we entered what we thought was an ordinary greasy spoon for lunch. When we ordered a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich, the waitress, a plump sweetheart with a moustache, shouted at the kitchen window, “Lebanese pizza!” It turns out that Waterville has a significant population of Lebanese (the Maronite Christian variety, for those of you from Homeland Security).
So if you really want to get away from it all—the affluent jungle, the tasteful stores, the cell phone connections—take a trip to Waterville, Maine, to see how the other half lives. Your own home will never look so good.
Lessons Learned: Waterville is a city, especially compared to the surrounding towns, but it is as rural-feeling a city as any town you’ll find in Iowa. There are good reasons to head to Maine (skiing in the winter, boating in the summer), but you really have to want to go to Waterville to get there. Or anywhere near there.
How We Saw It
Communication Breakdown: 2
Customer Dis-service: 2
Discomfort Level: 3
Grunge Factor: 3
Inactivity Guide: 5
Spontaneous Consumption: 1
Fun Fraction: 1/5
If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Portland International Jetport (Portland, Maine)
Native Population: 15,600
Normal Attractions: Colby or Thomas College events, like homecoming, graduation, or $1 beer night.
Final Point of Interest: Waterville was originally a settlement of the Canibas tribe. Little wonder a liberal arts college sprang up there. “Dude!”