A "For Sale" sign stands outside a home on Webster Avenue in Bangor in this file photo. Credit: Bridget Brown / BDN

I forget what the conversation was about, but I remember it happening just after my wife and I moved here to live the proverbial “the way life should be.” Someone said to me: “You wouldn’t understand because you are a person from away.” I asked: What’s a person from away? He looked at me, smiled and said: “You are. You are a PFA.” I smiled back, shrugged my shoulders and we continued on with our friendly conversation.

A “person from away” is not a Mainer. Succinctly, it meant I was not born here, nor were my parents. The degree of lineage may vary from coastal towns and cities like Portland, but the result is the same — I will always be a person from away.

Why does this descriptor not irritate me? Growing up in Pennsylvania I do not recall people born elsewhere as being “from away.” Why here, why Maine? What I’ve learned after spending time here is that Maine’s essence comes from the deep interconnectedness of its people and the communities those people built over time.

In 2003, we purchased our home here Down East. During the summers, we rented to visitors looking to experience what I still call the “real” Maine. Before that first summer rental I asked a Maine friend of mine about an old access path through my property. He told me it was an old trail that fishermen would use to get their gear to the shoreline. It was somewhat overgrown, but he said not to be surprised if a 4-wheeler makes its way out from time to time, trying to save time by taking a shortcut.

My inclination was to be proactive and proceed with signs and a closure of some sort. My friend immediately scolded me by telling me that is not the way it’s done around here. He then repeated something I learned as a kid while in the woods at a YMCA summer camp: Know where you are by learning the lay of the land. I listened to my friend then and am better for it today.

While home prices here surge due to increased demand, a bevy of homebuyers is flocking to Maine. The proof is in the parking lot outside the grocery store and in the aged “For Sale” signs now gone from front yards up and down these coastal roads. This is, in large part, as much due to the pandemic as it is to the remote natural beauty and — in some people’s minds — the perceived safety this area’s isolation can provide.

But there is something else that arrives when people from away unload trucks of furniture. They bring preconceived notions and habits to their new home. I did. It’s a human tendency we all have. And I get that. But Maine is different. It’s not perfect, but in my book, it’s pretty close. So here are a few thoughts for those contemplating a move Down East.

First, get to know the place by spending quality time interacting with the people who have grown up here. Be observant, be respectful and learn the lay of the land before even contemplating owning a piece of it. Listen to the locals, and when you think you’ve got it, listen some more. Experience how they interact in good and bad situations. See how they solve problems and how they help one another. And, most importantly, learn how they let someone know when that’s not the way things are done here. 

Then, ask questions. Be open to learn things that are relevant when it comes to becoming a part of this place. Know that Maine’s history and culture run deep. Social ties of residents passionately drive life in this remote place with many families here having not ventured far from their roots. For some, they have lived in the same town, the very same house, as did their ancestors. It is a system of life that developed over time from a mutual shared experience that harbors unwritten rules of engagement for a life they only know one way to live. Something I read some time ago summed it up nicely: “Being a Mainer then, does not just designate residency. It denotes a state of mind, a shared experience which can only be understood through meaningful engagement with culture and community.”

Any place can be uniquely beautiful, but it’s the people who have lived there all their lives that are the caretakers. Mainers know what they’re doing, and you — the vacationer, the new resident, even the one-time visitor — are here because of that. So, contribute whenever possible and however you can; Mainers will accept and respect ideas, especially when they foster that same sense of place they hold dear.

Every day my interactions in sight and sound sustain me to the next day. For the unexpected will occur, people will cross my path, they will ask of me and I will ask of them, and together we take care of this community and respect each other in the process. I may never be a Mainer, but I am happy to be a part of and contribute to what makes this place so special.

RJ Heller, Down East contributor

RJ Heller is a journalist, essayist, photographer, author, an avid reader and an award-winning book critic who enjoys sailing, hiking and many other outdoor pursuits. He lives in Starboard Cove.