It's hard to know what's home and away when you've been wandering. I'm pretty sure my home is Maine, although I now live in Boston. In the context of the intense localism felt by native Mainers, I barely even make the cut of what it means to really be of Maine. I was born there, but my roots are shallow, not even a generation deep. My mother is from Wisconsin and my father, Colorado. Moreover, my own Maine history is skewed, geographically impartial. I grew up in Portland and made childhood memories with sand and marsh, not the granite and pine that makes up most of the state. If Maine was a record, I've only heard track one, side A, the song about waves crashing not fresh water flowing.
As such, I've been spending a great deal of time trying to figure out if I really am a Mainer, if it makes sense to call the state home. It seems to me that knowing Maine as home is an idea deeply rooted in one's relationship to the landscape. Rural, sparsely populated, and densely packed with more trees than buildings, Mother Nature is every Mainer's landlord, boss, and spiritual advisor. Natives describe the natural landscape as if it is a relative to them, an older sister or brother that both pushes them down in the mud and holds them up to grab a good branch to climb a tree. The place and the experiences of moving through that place matter when figuring out what's home.
So, as I add yet another year to my life as a thin-skinned Boston boy, I do what I can to move through Maine in all ways possible, looking for a self-defining way to exist in that place. Hiking trips to the northern and western corners of the state mixed with routine jumps in the ocean have become personal journeys to figure out who I am when I'm there. The trips completed, the photographs made, and the shared experiences with friends are all voiced in a language learned from the land. Maine speaks and I try to listen. Is it calling me home?
These forays in and across the state have left me with a realization that there are two dominant types of relationships to the Maine landscape: labor and leisure. People tend to see the natural features of the state as a place of work or a place of play. Or, both, as they often overlap: dirt roads frequently have both gravel pits and trail heads and beaches often have both washed up bait bags and soft sand bars. When I drive 95 North and cross that big green bridge in Portsmouth, I tend to feel both the labor and leisure of Maine. As a result I feel both home and away when I'm there. I used to labor to build a life there. Now I just visit to play. Going home has become a job. The work is figuring out if I am indeed going home or away.
I had not fully understood the importance of dwelling on what filled the space between my head and the land until recently. Last May my roommate and I completed a bicycle tour that threaded parts of southern, central, and midcoast Maine. We rode a few hundred miles over five days, camping each night and carrying everything we needed on our bikes. We set out from Camden, rode to Orono, slept, rode to Acadia National Park and spent two nights with a day trip of riding in between, rode to Bucksport, slept, and finally rode back to Camden. The riding ranged from as much as eighty miles a day to as low as thirty. It was enough to test my knees and avoid feeling like car-campers. No coolers of beer and burgers, no phone chargers or acoustic guitars. We earned our sleep and plastic bottle whiskey by climbing hill after hill of cracked and crumbling asphalt. Tired muscles on even more tired ground.
Our route meandered through a Maine found in a Google image search as well as the less Instagramed Maine of modular homes and rusting Buick frames. We saw the postcard landscapes that people from away come to see. We saw where each scene ended and began, connected by our bicycles on the landscape. Two Maines: leisure and labor.
It was on this bike tour I realized that, at least for now, I am hopelessly caught between these two Maines. It's not quite home, I don’t work there. It's not quite away, I am still from there. I have come to believe this wandering feeling is inevitable while I live in Boston. Forever homeward bound, away from where I live. My relationship to Maine is that of leisure. Even though we rode upwards of eighty miles some days, at times through rain, it was still a vacation. A vacation with work, but a vacation all the same. That's that. I am one of them, one of them from away, at least for now.
So, I don't really know what's homework and what's awaywork anymore. I'm caught in the riptide, sucked out to sea. I can see my home rising up from the water's horizon line but I can't quite swim to it. Until I can move back to Maine and put my labors back into that land it's going to feel like both home and away. While I'm stuck in Boston finishing graduate school, I'll make the pilgrimage when I can, shoot some photos, and exist on the land, pretending I won't have to leave for a different home.
On the last stretch of the last day we rode back through the tourist haven of Camden. It had been five days of pine and marsh, granite and sand. Five days of multiple Maines. Climbing a small hill, knees burning, ocean to our left, cottages to our right, a man tending a garden for the coming summer tourists at a bed and breakfast looked up from his trowel at my roommate and I. Seeing our fully loaded bikes and sunburned faces he shouted, "you're not supposed to be here yet!" I wanted to shout back, to tell him that it's okay, I'm from Maine, I'm not a tourist, I know it's May, I know it's not summer yet. But faced with the reality of needing my breath for the work of climbing the hill in front of me, all I could do was pull air, not words, in and out of my lungs. I was both home and away, working to find my place.
Text/Photo - Sam Shupe