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The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Day 6

Wednesday, Sept. 28, 1960 – Deer Isle, Maine

John Steinbeck left Eleanor Brace’s house on Deer Isle in on Wednesday afternoon and drove north along the coast on U.S. Highway 1 toward the top of Maine. He called his wife from a grocery store, but where he stopped for the night is not known. It was probably in or near Calais, in northeast Maine on the Canadian border.

 

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Waitress Traci Brown takes care of some locals at Karen’s Diner in Calais, Maine.

Breakfast in Calais

We’ll never know if Steinbeck stopped at the border town of Calais for a bed or a cup of bad coffee, but he had to pass down its main street as he drove north on U.S. 1 toward the top of Maine. Pronounced callous despite or perhaps in spite of its French origins, Calais is in Washington County, the state’s poorest. Across the St. Croix River from New Brunswick, Calais was only 22 miles from my beach resort at Gleason Cove. Its economy was far healthier in 1960, according to one of the local “Down Easters”/”Up Easters” I met at the counter in Karen’s Main Street Diner.

The 60-something man, wearing a pristine gold and black United States Army baseball cap, told a familiar story of change and decline. Hundreds of good-paying jobs had disappeared at the paper mills. Young people were leaving and would never come back. The town had lost 25 percent of its population since 1990 and was now about 3,100. Local unemployment was 11 percent compared to the state average of 7.9 percent. If it weren’t for the fact that the department of homeland security beefed up the three border crossings with Canada after it learned one of the 9/11 hijackers entered the States at Calais, he said, there’d be even fewer jobs around.

Karen’s had to be the best diner in a hundred miles – maybe the only one. A friendly pit stop for anyone following Steinbeck’s trail into upper Maine, it’s one of those priceless family-run eateries where getting a perfect breakfast is routine, not a matter of chance. I ordered what would become my signature breakfast for the rest of my trip. It was a #2 at Karen’s – two eggs over medium, sausage, home fries, wheat toast and coffee. It cost $6.25 and became the standard against which I compared 25 others like it that followed. Steinbeck wrote that getting a bad breakfast on the road was almost impossible, and he was still right.

— Excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”