PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — It’s often been said that Aroostook County isn’t the end of the world, but you can see it from there.
There is a nugget of truth in that. Residents at the top of Maine are used to being out of the fray. And they’re proud of the pockets of stunning wilderness, expansive skies and rolling farm fields where it’s not at all uncommon to find a wandering moose or deer.
But the isolation has drawbacks. For all the pros — outdoor recreation, friendly people and farm-to-table food, to name a few — living in Aroostook means doing without some things that are common in other parts of Maine.
Here are five things you can’t get in Aroostook County.
A ride on a passenger train
Rail once moved more than lumber and potatoes in The County. The Bangor and Aroostook Railroad opened in 1895, connecting Aroostook to Bangor. In 1915, it connected with the Canadian Pacific Railroad, and in Presque Isle, the Aroostook Valley Railroad opened in 1910.
But with the financial impact of World War II and the rising popularity of motor vehicles, rail travel lost its luster. The AVR stopped carrying passengers in 1945, while the B&A stopped operating passenger cars in the early 1960s.
Though there have been occasional historic rides offered, County folk can only long for service like that of the Amtrak Downeaster, which runs from Brunswick to Boston and in 2019 broke its passenger record by carrying more than 570,000 people. A proposed new train would run from Boston to Montreal, passing through Bethel, Auburn, Portland and Old Orchard Beach — but nowhere near northern Maine.
It’s ironic to many that in an area known for its hunting, fishing, skiing and other outdoor opportunities, no one can buy from Maine’s foremost outfitter. Local residents wanting to purchase the state’s trademark gear and clothing in person must travel at least to Bangor, the closest outlet store.
In the retail world, The County’s isolation presents a conundrum: large retailers are put off by the low population here and encourage online shopping, yet online shopping was blamed for the demise of stores like Staples, Sears and Kmart that once called Presque Isle’s Aroostook Centre Mall home.
Not to say that L.L. Bean has no presence up north. When the Presque Isle Fish and Game Club hosts its popular Spring Sportsmen’s Show in the Star City, Bean’s Bootmobile and the company’s fish pond are among the most popular attractions.
In Aroostook, 25 percent of the population is older than 65, higher than the statewide average of 21 percent, according to U.S. census figures. Though hospitals cover some specialties, people aren’t likely to find specialists who treat illnesses often associated with older patients, like arthritis, kidney disease or even dermatologic conditions.
People often have two choices: wait for traveling physicians to hold local clinics or hit the road south to at least Bangor and sometimes beyond. And for those who have to travel for medical care, the costs can be exorbitant. Gas at around $4 a gallon is better than $5-plus a gallon, but then there are hotels and food. Just an overnight trip can cost hundreds of dollars for basic medical care.
The COVID-19 pandemic actually contributed to a partial resolution of the issue. The greater use of telehealth services during the pandemic indicated that in many ways, seeing a doctor via Zoom is here to stay. For specialty patients, older people or those who can’t travel, that’s comforting news.
Contrary to the opinion of a recent New York Post society columnist who dissed Mainers’ clothing choices of L.L. Bean jeans and flannel, most residents do have other things in their closets for different occasions.
But in The County, if anything says “dry clean only” on its care tag, people are out of luck. There’s at least a week’s wait for that service, because there are no dry cleaners anywhere from the St. John Valley through southern Aroostook.
The only recourse is to drop off items to be sent down state. Kelley’s Laundromat in Presque Isle, along with sites in Caribou and Houlton, accepts dry cleaning and sends it to owner Todd Hedrich’s Lewiston facility for processing.
Though Aroostook has several major coffee-and-doughnut chain locations, the ethereal Krispy Kreme franchise has so far eluded detection. For that reason, it almost seems otherworldly to County residents.
People on TV news and talk programs literally drool over them. Someone is always bringing boxes of the treats to work in popular shows and movies. Yet they remain just out of reach, unless they’re part of a school fundraiser, particularly since the company closed its two Maine locations in Auburn and Saco two years ago.
But in typical County self-reliance, local bakers wield weapons in this battle: recipes passed down through generations, some of which are found in stores and restaurants.
Sorry, Krispy Kreme. Even you can’t beat Grandma’s potato doughnuts.