As winter doldrums come and go and February moves into March, I remember the time a friend came to visit me in Down East Maine.
It was his first trip to the area, and shortly after arriving he commented on the drastic change in the air and light. Paraphrasing, he said: “The air here is so refreshing, and the light is brighter. Everything here seems so different, even the shadows appear out of sorts.”
Driving up the coast that day, my friend also was dumbstruck by the homes he saw along the way. Seeing the large homes of wealthy captains from the bygone era of fishing to the small, barebones coastal houses of working-class Downeasters, we mused at the visual contrast between the two. We tried to imagine the lives that were lived in them when they were first built. Many of these homes are now owned and cared for by either people from away or steadfast Mainers true to themselves, staying even truer to a place.
That contrast still was evident when we pulled into Eastport, the easternmost city in the U.S. My friend was as impressed with the buildings as my family was back in 1999, when we first visited, especially the large red brick buildings on Water Street. They were relics then and remain so today.
If you stand on Water Street, across from the tall buildings constructed after a major 1886 fire, you will see them catch and hold the sunlight. Behind them, blue water swirls, gulls glide by and the salt air dances in a light mist over everything. Shadows slowly crawl across the face of the buildings, making it all a living canvas. It’s like staring at a Polaroid waiting for the colors to rise and embrace, make a photo and tell its story. Eastport is a city of brick, light and shadow.
Up close, these buildings are like soldiers standing guard, all while protecting a past that seeps brine and gives a wonderful glimpse into yesterday. Many of the buildings today serve dual purpose: living space on the upper floors and retail, gallery and working studio businesses conducted at street level.
I remember the very first Independence Day my family celebrated in Eastport. It was 2012, and the city was abuzz in celebration. An Eastport Fourth of July is an event steeped in pride, passion and history. It is a day of community, old days and old ways, marching bands, police, firemen, fireworks, crazy games, bagpipes, food and, of course, red, white and blue.
All of this within a city that is first in the nation to welcome each sunrise and never takes it for granted, welcoming Mainers from across the state to share in the holiday. Standing on the curb as a thousand smiles floated by was magical. We were all children that day, and I remembered the lyrics of a Randy Newman song coming to me as we celebrated:
“They’re comin’ down the street, They’re comin’ right down the middle / Look how they keep the beat! Why, they’re as blue as the ocean! / How the sun shines down! How their feet hardly touch the ground! / Jolly coppers on parade.”
This place is different every time I visit. A store closes, the space is for rent, and then another business opens and offers a new place to stop in and sit a spell. It’s a city as pliable as clay, a breathing work of art in constant motion. And yet, the people are always the same, friendly, caring and tough. In this place that sits far away from the world’s noise, the people who call it home rely on each other and, in the process, make it their own. The people of Eastport remain true to this place.
The city has transformed itself after the decline of the fishing industry into a creative place for artisans, writers, musicians, photographers, sailors and landlubbers to live and work. Here, there is always a breeze riding the back of huge tides that sweep the shoreline, and if you wander out onto the pier, don’t be surprised if a stranger invites you to fish for mackerel right then and there. It has happened to me. And if you’re feeling bold, you can stand on the shore, pick up a stone and try skipping it across the water to Canada.
Eastport is a place that is diverse, friendly and fun. From statues of a bigger-than-life fisherman and an unusual mermaid, to Down East and Passamaquoddy cultures, music, food, and arts via the Tides Institute.
There are sights and sounds of a working pier, stone-ground mustard, whales, nature portraits and photographs, a diner named WACO, fishing boats and scallop draggers. There are New Year’s Eve celebrations featuring a sardine and maple leaf, pretend-pirates in September, people who open their homes during storms (some serving cookies), the Coast Guard, a record-setting whirlpool, lighthouses, and the country’s most easterly published newspaper.
It is the most easterly creative place in the country with people dedicated to preserving its past, its present, and making a future for people like me to come, visit and possibly stay. All of this and more happen every day, while Canada looks over its shoulder wondering, “What’s next?”
RJ Heller is a journalist, essayist, photographer, author, an avid reader and an award-winning book critic who enjoys sailing, hiking and other outdoor pursuits. He lives in Starboard Cove.