Life Imitates Art in Western Maine
By Bijan Bayne
When most of us think of Maine, we picture coastal fishing villages, preppy island resorts, and vintage lighthouses. A tour of Western Maine is a lakeland and forest adventure in a region full of real and imaginary ties to novelist Stephen King. Bridgton, where King raised his children, became the town of "Castle Rock" in his stories. The writer summers on Lake Kezar (Dark Score Lake in the book "Bag of Bones"). Less than an hour from Portland, thousands visit this region to canoe, take in the fall foliage, or ski. One may also track down King's sources of inspiration.
Stephen King is from Durham, Maine, and is perhaps the state's best-known native son. Whether a King fan or not, a southwestern tour of the state offers attractions for everyone- skiing at Sugarloaf or Sunday River, great local antiques and craft shops, romantic lakefront bed and breakfasts, and steamboat rides on the Songo River. The other story is told by King in his thrillers, and the locals whose lives surround him.
Western Maine grew as a logging center. Tall tales sprung from the woodsmen's camps, where, from September to April, the workers shared labor, meals and stories. The best place to learn of this heritage is the shop of R.J. Richard (on Rangeley's Main Street), also known as "The Mad Whittler". The son of a logger who lived to be 93, he carves out a living crafting lifesize figures with a chainsaw. Ladies need not feel exclluded, Richard will induct you into his worldwide "Bunny Club" by giving you a tiny wooden rabbit. Visit Rangeley Lakes' Logging Museum, which features art dedicated to the woodsman tradition. "The Mad Whittler" himself conducts the tour, full of spirit and appreciation.
Ask your Rangeley innkeeper or hotelier for a good spot to pick blueberries in season. Also here is a stony lodge home overlooking the nearby and the distant mountains- this was the residence of Dr. Wilhelm Reich, an Austrian immigrant to 1940s and 1950s Maine who was equal parts Sigmund Freud and Nikola Tesla. Reich was a proponent of a human energy he called "orgone". A tour led by a volunteer who knew the scientist, includes the doctor's study, his B-movieesque technical equipment, and the rooftop observation deck. The view is captivating.
While in the Rangeley Lakes area, dine at the Kawanhee Inn and Restaurant in Weld, a log-lined retreat where the young Stephen King worked as a dishwasher. Order the smooth chowder, and finish with a local blueberry-filled dessert. Teddy Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover are among those who came here to fly fish with "Fly Rod" Crosby, a colorful local woman who knew Annie Oakley. Not far from here is Naples, a lakefront town where King served as a kitchen hand for a defunct hotel called The Woodlands. There he met a Black cook who served as the model for Dick Halloran, the clairvoyant chef in "The Shining". The rest of the impetus for this tale was King's real-life winter gig as caretaker for the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, built by one Francis Edgar Stanley. A must see for both King readers and auto lovers is The Stanley Museum in appropriately-named Kingfield. Once a schoolhouse, this white-columned edifice houses the vintage turn-of-the-20th-century steam-powered cars that shattered land speed records. Museum founder Susan Davis will chauffeur you about town in style in a rare Stanley. Kingfield is best known for the slopes of Sugarloaf- for East Coast skiing there's no equal.
To top off an evening here, dine at the stately Herbert Hotel, a restored Victorian that was one of the first finest stays north of Boston in its 1930's heyday. Traveling west, you'll come to Route 302 in Bridgton. This town is cast in fiction as "Castle Rock", which appears in King fiction, and is the name of the production company that converts the novels into movies. The Food City supermarket in the little mall at 119 Main Street here was the Federal Foods of King's dreamy novella "The Mist". If you've read the story, the store is identical to what your mind's eye conjured up. Continue a short drive north to Lovell, where King has a summer home on Palmer Lane in the Lake Kezar area. On the main road here, King was struck by a van in June of 1999- he has since donated ambulances to Bridgton's Northern Cumberland Memorial Hospital on South High Street. For a possible King sighting, head into the nondescript market called Melby's on Route 35 in North Waterford. The locals still call it Tut's, a former name.
Keep north into Bethel, where can lunch or play 18 holes at the Bethel Inn. Later, have a bite at Cho-Sun Sushi on 119 Main St. The owner, Pak Sun Lane, is a good friend of both King and his novelist wife Tabitha.
No trip to this region would be complete without a stop at Poland Springs. As you approach in your vehicle, you'll feel you've left the U.S. and entered a New England Oz. Once a Shaker village, the upper crust flocked here to schmooze, spa, and drink the mineral waters since the 1910's. Tours the beautiful period buildings, verdant grounds, and original water treatment facility are given (ask for Elliot Levy, the energetic preservation director). This is where Joseph P. Kennedy honeymooned with Rose, and where his sons learned to play golf (on a Donald Ross course). Photos of the elite crowd exhibit walls. President Coolidge and Henry Ford were summer guests in an era when the wealthy insisted they only drank Poland Springs water. The stately stone entrance is one of two buildings still standing from the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, where the world first tasted hamburger, french fries, Aunt Jemima pancakes. In the small Shaker community next to Poland Springs, and visitors may tour their former homes, meeting house, and shop at the gift store for memorabilia, music, and literature.
Hiking, biking, presidential folklore, and all in the setting of America's favorite suspense stories. Go west, but do so in Maine.
Bijan C. Bayne is a travel writer and critic in Washington, D.C.
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