MILLINOCKET, Maine — On a chilly January Sunday evening, millworker Tom Picard eats the last carrots on his plate, pushes away from the kitchen table and begins a weekly ritual he never thought he’d have to endure.

It’s time to go to work, but there’s no work for him here in the once-great milltown he’s always called home.

Grabbing an insulated duffel, he and his wife stack up containers of leftovers and meals she has been cooking and freezing, which he’ll take with him. Picard bustles around, gathering other gear he’ll need for the next four days — his work week — 125 miles south of here.

Since he began working industrial jobs after his high school graduation in 1980, Picard has been laid off at least 10 times. Right out of school, he began working at the Millinocket Foundry and Machine Co., where he learned valuable skills, as well as the fickle nature of business. When orders piled up, he worked. When orders lagged, he repeatedly was laid off. During his periods away from the foundry, he would work temporarily at the Great Northern paper mill in Millinocket.

“I was a ping-pong ball for six years,” Picard says. He has worked welding oil tanks for trucks in Brewer, for public works plowing snow and a variety of other industries.

At one time or another — and sometimes, several times — he has worked at all the paper mills in the region.

Millinocket. East Millinocket. Lincoln. He loved working at all of them. But they’re all shuttered.

For the past two years, he has commuted between Millinocket and Waterville, where he works at the Huhtamaki mill, which produces molded fiber products that include Chinet paper plates and four-cup carriers, as a pipefitter and welder.

“I sure miss the days when I’d walk 15 minutes to work, carrying my lunchpail, then walk back home at the end of the day,” he says, shaking his head.

Nowadays, he leaves Millinocket on Sunday, drives two hours south to an apartment in Winslow, grabs a few hours of sleep, then heads to the Huhtamaki mill early the next morning. After four or five days of work, he returns home — another two-hour drive, this time heading north.

He’s not alone.

Robbie Plourde, his roommate, does the same thing. They’ve also got buddies commuting from the Katahdin region to mill jobs in Baileyville and Madison.

“That’s the new normal,” Picard says, citing a phrase he repeats often. “The new normal: We commute, and we rent.”

And each week, they leave their loved ones behind so they can put their hard-earned skills to work far from home.

“Don’t forget me,” his wife, Tammy Shorey Picard says, concerned her husband might load up his pickup truck without saying goodbye.

“I won’t,” he replies with a smile.

And he won’t. But first, there’s one more thing he has to pack up. It’s a grueling life he’s living, but he does treat himself once in a while. Like now.

“It’s the first of the month!” he exclaims, backtracking to the freezer. “I can’t forget my Thin Mints!”

One small comfort in a hectic life: Picard buys a case of Thin Mint Girl Scout Cookies once a year. Then he stores them in the freezer and celebrates each passing month by taking a single box to his apartment.

Thin Mints packed, he stops and kisses his wife, then wearily heads to the door.

After it closes and his wife can’t hear, he exhales.

“This is always the hardest part,” he says, softly, “heading down here every Sunday.”

Yes, this might be “the new normal.” And Picard is happy to have found a job he enjoys.

That doesn’t make it any easier.

The changing landscape

Over the past few decades, Katahdin-region mills haven’t been the only ones to fall. Head down the Penobscot River and the banks are littered with mills that are no longer. Old Town. Brewer. Bucksport. Across Maine, the story is the same.

From 2001 to 2014, Maine’s papermaking capacity dropped by 788 short tons — second only to Wisconsin’s decrease — as mills closed. And data from the Maine Department of Labor further illustrates that grim picture: In 2001, an average of 12,000 people were employed manufacturing paper in Maine. By the middle of 2015, that number had dropped to just 5,000.

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Recent closures have led some mill employees to commute to other mills, some far from home like Huhtamaki.

“Right now we have 11 employees [out of about 500] who travel an hour or more [to get to work],” Beth Drennan-Bates, the human resources manager at Huhtamaki, said. Of those 11, only three, including Picard and Plourde, rent apartments and stay in the Waterville area during their work weeks. Others from the Katahdin region, she said, were hired at the mill, then decided to relocate permanently and no longer commute.

Drennen-Bates said retention of those traveling workers has proven difficult.

“As many people as we’ve hired [when other mills closed], we haven’t retained them all,” she said. “Many people go back to their hometown former jobs or their hometowns just to be closer to home. It’s a very difficult situation.”

Moving to a new mill can be stressful, she said, and when a worker has been employed, as sometimes happens, for decades for one company, it’s hard to make the transition.

“To make that change to a brand new place, a brand new job, where you have no seniority, it’s very tough,” she said.

Drennen-Bates estimated 30 employees have been hired from closed-down facilities. Of those, just seven remain employed at Huhtamaki.

Julie Rabinowitz, director of policy, operations and communication at the Maine Department of Labor, said lengthy commutes are becoming more normal, even outside the industrial sector.

“There’s some of that [commuting] not only in the paper industry,” Rabinowitz said. “There’s people who live in southern Maine and commute to Boston. There are people all over the state who commute to Bath Iron Works.”

Her department is among the first on the scene after paper mills shut down. Its Rapid Response Team scrambles to provide resources to hundreds of people who suddenly find themselves in the job market. While Picard says the skills he developed through a string of professional stops allowed him to move forward, haltingly, without retraining, others have used that training to transition into other jobs.

When more than 500 workers lost their jobs at Bucksport’s Verso mill in 2014, the Rapid Response Team was there. Today, 86 percent of those who lost their jobs are either re-employed or undergoing training for new careers, Rabinowitz said.

That retraining and re-employing effort can become more difficult in other situations, Rabinowitz said.

Picard understands that better than most. He says workers in towns such as Lincoln, which has several smaller towns surrounding it, have more options for potential employment that are unrelated to the mill. In addition, he says, towns like that are more prepared to deal with the loss of even a major employer. Millinocket was essentially a “company town,” with the mill serving as the catalyst for all other business that existed. Head west after leaving Millinocket, and there are no neighboring towns with their own businesses and industry. Instead, there’s miles and miles of forest.

“Look at Millinocket,” he says. “We’re at the end of the road.”

Why not move?

Life at “the end of the road” can be remarkably rewarding, Picard says. And that’s one big reason he doesn’t want to leave Millinocket.

He loves spending time on nearby lakes, and enjoys the fact that within 10 minutes of leaving his driveway he can be in the woods, hunting.

But he admits the weekly commute — and time away from his wife — is hard to deal with. Others have suggested a seemingly simple alternative to his dilemma, which he rejects.

“This is what people can’t understand. They say, ‘Why don’t you just sell your house and move down [to the Waterville area]?’” Picard says. “Here’s the deal with that: I’m going to be 55 in March. I’ve got eight more years to 62. I want to retire. And if I sold this house today, I go down there and buy a house … guess where that mortgage is carrying through? My golden years. I’m going to be paying a mortgage, down there, after I retire. You can’t do that.”

One problem that faces people like Picard: Millinocket is shrinking, and was well before the former Great Northern mill was sold several times and closed for good in 2008. The mill in East Millinocket followed suit in 2014.

According to U.S. Census data, the population of Millinocket was 7,657 in 1980. Over the next three decades, it shrank to just 4,466 in 2010, the most recent year for which data are available.

The shrinking population is clear throughout life there. For instance, when Picard graduated from high school in 1980, there were 186 in his graduating class. According to the Millinocket superintendent’s office, 54 students graduated from Stearns in 2015.

Likewise, Millinocket’s economic health has taken a beating. According to Trulia, a real estate tracking website, the average listing price for single-family homes in the town during the last week of 2015 was $51,865.

Shorey Picard, Picard’s wife, is a real estate agent. She said that while homes — especially well-maintained ones that are occupant-ready — are selling, the market has slumped significantly.

“I’ve seen homes, a ranch, selling for $65 or $75 [thousand], but back along we might have gotten $95 [thousand] for it,” she said.

Still, Picard is committed to staying in Millinocket, so he continues to do what he’s done for nearly two years.

He commutes. He rents. Then he returns home for the weekends.

Not that he counts those days away from the mill as days off.

The work never ends

It’s 3:35 a.m., and Picard digs into a bowl of Apple Cinnamon Cheerios. His shift at Huhtamaki officially starts at 6 a.m., but he’ll clock in at 5 a.m., then work an hour late, finishing his four-day work week with 48 hours — unless he takes a day of additional overtime, which he tries to do twice a month.

“This is my day,” he says, as he watches the TV news and prepares to head out into a dark winter morning. “I brush my teeth, eat my cereal, and off I go.”

That, at least, is the plan. Being that far from home — and his wife — he knows the plan can change at any time.

“It’s difficult, because I worry about her being able to maintain the home,” Picard said. “There’s been a couple of times where something has happened and she’s called me during the day. I’ve had to stop, get out of work, and drive all the way to Millinocket to fix the problem, then turn right around and get back down here.”

Picard isn’t alone.

“There’s many, many, many people in the state of Maine, and many, many of my former co-workers who are dealing with this struggle, day in and day out,” he said. “I have it a lot better than some of them.”

Still, he admits that when he returns home at the end of a work week, his work’s not done.

“It’s nice to get home, [but] it’s always playing the catch-up game,” he said.

Lawns need to be mowed. In the winter, although Picard has a plow clear the way for his wife when he’s not there, there’s still shoveling to be done after snowstorms when he returns home. Repairs need to be made. The couple said they make special plans to go out to eat when Picard returns, and during the summer they look forward to spending time in their boat on a nearby lake.

“I try to get most of [the work around the house] done in one day or a half a day so I can spend time with my family and my grandkids,” Picard said. “It’s a lot of catch-up, but it really makes you appreciate them that much more when you do get to see them.”

His Winslow roommate, Plourde, said being away from home can be a drag.

“It sucks,” said Plourde, who lives in Enfield with his wife and two school-age children. “You’ve got to do it, so that’s what you do.”

Plourde said commuting to a job for two years has essentially eliminated any free time.

“Basically, for the last two years, it’s been no hunting, no fishing,” Plourde said. “All that stuff’s gone.”

Grateful to still have a mill to go to

The life’s not ideal for the commuters. But Picard is thankful for his latest opportunity, even if talking about his employment past frustrates him.

He has the layoffs memorized, you see.

One year, five minutes before his shift ended on Christmas Eve, he learned he had been laid off from Millinocket Foundry and Machine Co.

His father died the next day.

Twice more — on Dec. 26 and Dec. 27 of other years — he lost jobs during the Christmas season.

“I hate Christmas,” he said. “I love Christmas, but it’s a love-hate relationship. It’s always something bad that happens on Christmas. … I don’t like to dwell on stuff like that. I try to focus on the positive.”

But even the positive memories can be tainted by frustration.

“Everywhere I’ve worked, I miss,” Picard said. “But you can’t hold that inside of you forever. You’ve got to move on. Change is inevitable. You’ve got to roll with the changes. Some people can deal with it, and some can’t.”

Picard says he’ll continue to be uneasy until he retires. But he’ll keep doing what he’s doing as long as he has a job at the mill.

He’ll wake up early. Stay late. Commute. Make the time he gets with his wife and family count. Hope for the best. Prepare for whatever comes. Stock up on Thin Mints.

Keep finding a way to move forward, no matter what happens.

That, after all, is the new normal.

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John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...