Train Hopping Millinocket, Maine
I woke up covered in a thick, wet, film of condensation from the crashing raindrops running rampant throughout the rough night, festering from the ambush of humidity. I glanced through the alcove of dripping forest at the dismal gray blotch of sky, blocking the sun with dark, puffy, storm clouds giving the façade of night. In three hours, I would interview for “gatekeeper attendant” at Baxter State Park Headquarters located behind the McDonald’s in Millinocket. The passion I once held for this position dwindled away completely, but I told myself I would see the interview through. So I packed up my gear and hit the road, walking up the hill on Highway 11 to the McDonalds.
With three hours until my 10:30 AM interview, I washed up in the McDonald’s bathroom, changed into Dockers dress pants and slipped on a black Polo collared shirt. From the mirror I looked like a spiffy professional ready for another day in white collar Corporate America, but on the inside I felt like another jackass, waiting to put on a charming act to get hired for a less-than-desirable minimum wage position. We all need to eat though and work puts food on the table so I obliged. I walked through the restroom swing door resembling a new man, freshly shaven, hair tied back in a bun, with fresh, clean, dress clothes and boots, ready to tackle this interview head-on.
I funded much of my travels from the Dollar Menu and today was no different, but my anxiety pushed me through the restaurant’s doors and across the street to the bench by the Save-A-Lot, counting down the minutes until my interview.
I felt nervous. I tapped my feet against the cement sidewalk, just ready to get this over with, when I noticed a woman with maroon French braids choking on a cigarette full of smoke by the ice machine next to me. Her rapid head movements and speech furthered her eccentricities, but as she rambled on I suspected substance abuse, meth in particular.
“You hikin’ the AT?”
“Nah, just waitin’ on this interview with Baxter State Park…I did hike Katahdin last week though.”
“Oh…oh…oh…I’ve lived here…my whole life…never made it up to Katahdin…it’s steep…it’s a long hike…I don’t think I could do it…I’m not in good enough shape…and I smoke…smokin’ is bad for ya…but yeah…I grew up here…been in Maine ever since I was a little kid…You’d think I would have hiked it at least once by now…I’m 35…”
“Yeah the park is greee…”
“I have a sister…but she’s crazy…she’s a fuckin’ crazy bitch…she’s all pilled out somewhere in NYC…I feel bad for her…I mean she’s got schizophrenia…and I used to use too…I mean…I don’t use anymore…no it’s been a while since I used…but I used…I used to anyway. You know my boyfriend wanted me to move back to Arkansas with him…I mean my ex-boyfriend…I mean we have a 12 year old kid together…and I was gonna do it…but I wouldn’t be doin’ it for myself…ya know…so yeah…here I am still in Maine…”
“Anyway good luck.”
I never got a word in edge wise, not that I really tried, but damn. I looked down at my phone and after five full days of bumming it in Millinocket, waiting for this job interview at the headquarters for Baxter State Park, I walked into the office with a look of defeat. I knew, without a car, they would not hire me.
Public transportation did not exist between Millinocket and the park and taking a taxi or hitchhiking to get groceries each week was not a feasible option. Despite the interview going well, I stooped my head low in a downtrodden state, upset about the five wasted days I missed wandering around, hitchhiking and riding freight trains. Instead of sulking, I hit the open road, walking down Highway 11 South before cutting into the neighborhood to reach Katahdin Avenue.
This time I would ride the wood chip train from Millinocket to Mattawamkeag (pronounced Mattawam-keg by locals) and not continue on into New Brunswick, Canada.
I wandered the tracks again, the ballast skittering underfoot, as I walked by an old, black, CP engine, slumped and rusted at its base into a dead track. The tracks behind the engine lay sprawled out curving northeast and southwest with freight cars coloring the steel in dingy shades of red and blue boxcars. Strings of empty and loaded lumber racks joined the manifest of boxcars, each painted with Graff or monikers from oil-based markers as I tramped onwards to the lone worker hut.
I looked down at the ballast and picked up a crushed plastic pen, joining the choir of old 90’s and early 00’s tags and monikers among the walls of the worker hut.
“The wood chip train can
Take you to Canada man
The wood chip train can”
The hut stood there like a metal framed shed, with streaks of rust oxidized to its façade. Broken glass lay scattered among the dusty inside floor and wooden countertop from its windowless shell. When I stepped inside the crammed space it smelled of mildew, but the lively presence of riders evolved through the scribbling of pencils, pens, and markers etched into the off-white walls.
The Great Northern Papermill Closure
I read heart-felt poems of the papermill closure from the 90’s, short, funny, witty poems of the town’s whore, riders spewing strong dislike for this “old cunt Harry”, among other monikers. It felt as if I knew these people, their smell, their faces and clothes, their persona, as if we all sat here together waiting for the wood chip train to send us off to Mattawamkeag.
Then the chasm of night slowly opened up in the sky as the sun pittered behind the horizon. Stars struck the ebony sheet engulfing a cloudless sky, speckling infinitely and vibrantly, like a dark sea of jellyfish. I wandered to the brook beneath the train bridge and sprawled out along the gravelly banks, resting my head upon my pack, and swatting the army of mosquitoes buzzing around me like a swarm of hummingbirds. Pulling my nylon body-bag over my head, I drifted to sleep with the lulling sound of rippling water at a constant flow downstream.
At 7 AM I woke to the sharp piercing sound of wheels puncturing the steel tracks, rumbling and rattling above me, as she creaked beyond the bridge. I threw my bedroll together sloppily, stuffing it in my pack and scampered up the steep slope of ballast, sliding backwards, shooting up rocks and dirt as I slipped up the slant to reach the tracks.
I watched her rear-end roll through the yard out-of-view and I ran. I ran fast. I ran hard. I sweat profusely as my lungs gasped for air and then she halted mid-yard. I stopped. My run whimpered to a scuffling walk and as I scanned her consist I shimmied up the sixth to last car, laying out like a starfish upon her heaps of wood chips, waiting for the sibilance of air to sound off.
Tendrils of gray clouds painted the sky in gloomy swirls. I knew my ride through the Maine wilderness would not compare at all to my first train out of Millinocket, but I did not care. I just wanted to leave. I just wanted the wind to touch my hair, the smell of pine to permeate my nose, and the sound of steel to crunch under tons of rolling wood chips as I sailed away to Mattawamkeag and soon she did.
She aired. She rolled and creaked out of the yard through the deep green coniferous forests, through the cerulean lakes in Norcross, by giant homes, along old beat-up tracks, putting along the speed restrictions to Brownville Junction at unbearably slothful speeds.
After working, she took her sweet old time, parking amidst the train bridge over the Pleasant River. I poked my head up over the bowed walls, watching the construction workers in bright yellow vests work on building the new bridge on Highway 11. The sun swallowed the once somber sky and the cool breeze of thick air shifted to undulating rays of sweltering hell.
I lay atop her load baking in the inferno of unforgiving heat, counting down the hours to her departure. One, two, three, four, and five hours trickled by, finally she hissed, jolting forward for a long, tedious ride, looping back up towards Mattawamkeag. She crawled through verdant desolation, squeaking by marshes, still ponds, and majestic lakes, creeping through small towns that disappeared in a glimpse.
As the sky faded, beckoning thick cool air, she sided four miles from the Mattawamkeag Yard and fearing I might end up in McAdam, I hopped off and started hoofing it down the tracks. I wandered by abandoned CP boxcars, with flaky, rusted red walls and weeds growing in orifices of accumulated dirt.
Frogs croaked. Crickets chirped. Mosquitoes swarmed me like a hive of bees, piercing my forearms with their needle-like fangs. I succumbed to their pestilence, and as I reached the train bridge before the Mattawamkeag Yard, the sky lit up orange, bowing across the horizon behind the silhouette of boscage with a river flowing through it. It looked like a cracked puzzle of ice wafers from the skewed lighting of sky, but instead of the water, my eyes caught the glint of steel tracks along the bridge, shining brightly, and I followed them straight to the roadway.
A Pan American front engine worked a string in the tiny yard while I charged my phone at an abandoned garage across the street. Knee-high weeds flailed with the wind in front of me as I slouched out on concrete watching colossal clouds pillow in the sky malevolently, but Mother Nature never churned over that night, she simply drifted further north. Freight cars clanked and clunk together and I scuttled to Green Road to infiltrate the yard.
The windows of her front engine sat still in darkness as I listened to her idling rumble. So I scurried across the yard, following the curve of track to the dense thicket of woods. Here I plunged into heavy vines and thorns, weaving in and out of the tallest of skunk cabbages, jiving under and over dead fallen logs and tree trunks until reaching the ballast. I crossed a string of loaded gondolas full of junk railroad ties and wandered to the main line.
Three Pan Am front engines attached to a string of loaded lumber, and sealed boxcars with gondolas and grainers towards her frontend. Naturally, I wandered to her rear hoping for a FRED, but nothing blinked or beeped. As my eyes drooped with the unfolding breath of night pricking at my naked face and hands with tender chills I unraveled my bedroll in an alcove by the train tracks, only to hear the sound of two horns and a freight train rolling down the main, picking up speed. Would I make it on that midnight train?
Abandoned Millinocket Steam Engines
And with that thought I wondered about the enriched history of Millinocket, Maine. My mind wandered to the depths of its abandoned papermill, to the abandoned steam engines nestled off in the woods, to the brook beneath the train bridge full of bass and fish, to the sweet little town that stole my heart. One day, I would have to venture back there. If for nothing else to explore the forests for those abandoned steam locomotives.