A boy runs across lobster crates in Camden, Maine in this 2011 file photo. Credit: Christopher Cousins / BDN

As another Fourth of July approaches, it feels a little extra special given our slow climb out of a pandemic.

The careful thought and preparation that goes into this celebration and others throughout the year in many Down East towns reveals a certain essence both of local people and of coastal Maine.

Independence Day celebrations are plentiful and as varied as the landscape across this great nation. Given today’s political uncertainties, fast moving news stories, tweets and a perceived general uneasiness with it all, I look forward to slowing down a bit to take part in a celebration with people looking to enjoy the moment in a safe, sometimes historic, and always inviting place.

When this time of year rolls around, I think about the first time I was asked to snap a few photos of the beloved lobster crate races in Cutler. Being from Pennsylvania and at the time somewhat new to life Down East, I had no idea what a lobster crate race was all about. In my mind I pictured something like soapbox derby: hastily designed carts with wheels, fashioned from old wooden lobster crates, sitting on a hill with children in them waiting for gravity to take hold.

So there I was, pulling into Cutler without a hill to be seen or a cluster of kids in carts to be found. But as I drove into the central village, I saw people gathered at two piers. They were connecting wooden boxes together with rope creating a long line of crates in the water.

I stopped and watched as people helped each other slowly pull the crates across the harbor from one pier to the other. I called down from the top of the pier, “Why is this being done?” An older man looked up and I could see his eyes smile under the brim of a salt-crusted hat, “It’s all for the kids,” the man says. “Young and old run across these boxes in the spirit of fun, it’s what we do on days like this, and we’ve been doing it a long time. It never gets old and I think all of this, today, keeps us young.”

A little while later, as I watched people run across, each crate sinking one after the other as their feet plunged down, I thought to myself: maybe these crates are like life. Everyone participating is trying to catch a piece of their childhood, or perhaps, trying to hold on just a little bit longer.  No matter the reason, the activity, the smiles and laughter, the good-natured silliness filled the air. And for just a moment it seemed that for everyone there, life’s uncertainties were forgotten and placed aside, if ever so briefly.

And I felt the essence of why this place is so special. People coming together year after year, doing something together, something they love to do, in memory of both time and place. It is a feeling that is rejuvenating and exciting all at the same time because it is a shared experience.

This feeling is only palpable if you look for it. Down East towns, such as Cutler on this day, absorb moments like these and give them back, year after year, to those looking for them. Sometimes they are there in the eyes of an old man stringing crates together or in the laughter of a small child watching an older brother or sister run the crates, in the splash of someone falling in the water, in the laughs that quickly follow on land and on sea. The essence of a place is real, and it is made more so, if one takes the time to look, listen and enjoy.

So, when everyone is out celebrating the birthday of our nation with fireworks, barbecue, parades and patriotic salutes, I will smile knowing I can sit on a pier Down East and watch young and old run across lobster crates floating in water, trying their hardest to stay dry or simply be young again, knowing the real prize is something much bigger than all of us. It is the freedom to be able to take time, come together, laugh, make memories and, in the end, say thanks.

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.