Reed Plantation Town Assessor Nicole Collins has traveled the world. Credit: Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli / Houlton Pioneer Times

REED PLANTATION, Maine — Nicole Collins has lived in cities, hamlets and villages around the world, but chose to settle with her husband, Rigger Collins, on 104 acres in a small Aroostook County community barely two years ago.

No matter where this newly elected Reed Plantation assessor lands, she first sits back and watches. The Air Force taught her that, she said.

“You have to learn what the neighborhood is about so you’re not offensive, number one. Let them talk about you amongst themselves because that’s what they are going to do and eventually people will be curious enough to say ‘hello,’” Collins said, sipping espresso with coconut sugar. “You have to give them time.”

It took a journey that started in Canada and through several countries before the couple found their peaceful new home. They hope to change ideas about gardening and draw people to the small town of 126 that they are learning to love.

During Reed Plantation’s annual town meeting in April, the retired Air Force master sergeant, who was deployed to Iraq and Kuwait and was awarded the Bronze Star for heroism, was elected in a 12-to-6 vote. Collins replaced retiring assessor Mitch Lansky and will finish out his two-year term, she said.  

People think she will speak up for them, Collins said. She easily talks about town issues and challenges like the school assessment coming in at just over $90,000 for a town of 126.

“The well is going to run dry and we will be just like Drew, becoming an unincorporated territory,” she said.

One thing she’s trying to change, conversation by conversation, is the all-too-common references to how things were in the past.

“Well, that was 40 years ago. What about today? They are looking backward, but who is supposed to be upfront looking forward?” she asked. “The young people are who I am looking for. They have a good idea or a very very good idea of what they want but are not always sure how to get there.”

Collins joined the Air Force at 17 and retired in 2012. Initially, she was a crew chief aircraft mechanic on C130s, but was medically disqualified after six and half years due to hearing loss. Her military duties changed to communications, which covered everything from tapes for the nuclear program to building web pages, she said.

After retiring in 2012 having spent 24 years in the Air Force, Collins went to Keiser University in Florida, graduating summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in business.

When things started to change politically in the U.S. around 2015 and 2016, she and her husband decided it was a good time to sell their Florida home and leave the country for a while.  

The thing about traveling is to go a month at a time, Collins said. In 2016, they spent a month in Canada, then went to India. A diagnosis of Crohn’s disease pushed her to study alternative healing, and the couple journeyed across India to The Isha Yoga Center, an ashram about 20 miles west of Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, a major industrial city in southern India.

They traveled to an ayurvedic medicine center in Kerala, a state on India’s tropical Malabar Coast, staying for a few months with a local family to continue Collins’ ayurvedic education and treatments.  

They left India for Japan, where Collins’ oldest son was born, and spent a month in Osaka, she said. From there they went to Hawaii, where her other son was stationed at Schofield Army Barracks on Oahu.

Back in the U.S., the couple bought a home in Ohio. They next traveled to Portugal, where they spent a month in Setchubal and a month in Lisbon.

They returned to the States and explored Maine, and that’s when they found their way to their Reed Plantation home and decided to stay, putting to use their ecological knowledge from their travels.

Eventually, the couple plans to become net zero, Collins said. They already have solar panels and are building a large domed greenhouse to grow strawberries, melons, herbs and other tropical fruits using aquaponics.

The greenhouse gazebo is built for nor’easters, she said. They want to see if their soil will support ground-to-air heat transfer to heat things in addition to portable solar panels.

Collins believes Maine needs to have something that draws tourists to areas like Reed Plantation. She talked about popular learning vacations where visitors learn how to farm, garden or log.

“We have to build that destination,” she said.

Collins plans to add another dome for people to stay in and perhaps learn how to grow things in the greenhouse. She would also love to build a pond and make it attractive for wildlife, she said.

For now, in her new town role, she said she is still listening and learning.

“I make a space for people to approach me and talk to me,” she said. “And I need to make myself available for the citizens and find out what they need or what they have to say.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story listed the wrong branch of the military service Nicole Collins learned from. She served in the Air Force.

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Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli

Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli is a reporter covering the Houlton area. Over the years, she has covered crime, investigations, health, politics and local government, writing for the Washington Post, the LA...