BELFAST, Maine — The first sign says, “Slow.” Then, about 50 feet down this back road in mid-coast Maine, there’s a second sign. It says, “Slower.”
I ease up on the pedal. That about sums up the rhythm of life in this part of Maine, which is about as far as you can get from L.A. and still be in the same country (and sometimes it feels like another one).
On this trip, I’m looking to go slower. Or maybe even go in reverse, to a bit of America that’s like a half-remembered dream — to a time when books cost a dollar, dinner at the drive-in was as fast as food got and an overnight suitcase was called a “possibilities bag.”
Sure, Maine has lots of fancy antiques stores and gourmet restaurants. But that’s not on the agenda on this trip. I’m in the mood for places where the floors creak a little.
It all starts earlier this summer in a town called Liberty, about half an hour from the coastal towns of Camden and Rockland, along winding roads that take you by old farmhouses, rolling pastures and sagging barns that look as if they may not make it through the next winter.
Not far away, there’s a town called Union. And Freedom. And Hope. There’s even a bumper sticker: Liberty — a bit south of Freedom and a bit beyond Hope.
There’s not much to Liberty. On one side of “downtown” there’s Liberty Graphics, which designs and sells cool T-shirts. Next door is the old Mobil station, complete with a perfect-condition Pegasus sign, even though it’s not selling gas anymore.
If I read the old pumps correctly, they’re frozen when gas was 49 cents a gallon. (Gas in Maine is still less than in California.)
Across the street is Liberty Tool Co., a three-story clapboard shop where the sexes keep to themselves like teenagers at a junior high dance.
The first floor is for the men: hundreds — thousands? — of vintage tools, most of whose uses I can only imagine. They’re laid out on tables, and guys hunch over them as if they’re at a record shop, pawing over the alphabetically arranged albums.
The next two floors are a vast grandmother’s attic filled with used books, almost-antiques and, here and there, tools that have somehow managed to make their way upstairs.
If you really want vast, you have to go about 45 miles up the coast to Ellsworth, maybe stopping for lunch on the way at a fantastic vegetarian restaurant, Chase’s Daily in Belfast. The back of the restaurant is a kind of mini-farmers market, featuring produce from the owners’ farm in Freedom.
There’s a bakery too, so make sure you get a treat for the road, and then keep driving. Look for the turnoffs for the classic coastal towns of Castine and Blue Hill, and the sign for Toddy Pond. (I’m never sure why, in Maine, sometimes things that call themselves ponds are bigger than things that call themselves lakes.)
Just a bit farther, and you’ll find the Big Chicken Barn, an immense vintage Valhalla that’s chockablock with bargain things of desire. You never realized how much you needed a couple of gauzy “Welcome Shriners” banners or a pair of crisscross wooden snowshoes or a camp stove that looks as if it’s from the ‘30s until you’ve walked through the doors of this building whose name gives you a big hint about its past.
Again, the floors are segregated, but this time by subject, not sexes. The first floor is antiques, the second used books. There may not be a better way to spend a cool, rainy afternoon in Maine than wandering the endless aisles of the Big Chicken Barn.
For the opposite in scale, head down the coast through Camden and Rockland to what may be my favorite used-book store: the Lobster Lane Book Shop in South Thomaston.
It’s a white shack sitting just a few feet from a piece of archetypal Maine coast, all rocky and woody and jutting into waters so cold, I’ve heard some lobstermen don’t learn to swim because hypothermia will get them first. But inside (think Tardis, if you’re a “Doctor Who” fan), it’s jammed with what the friendly owner guesses are 100,000 books.
It’s the kind of place where you have to hug the shelves if someone wants to get by you, a place filled with the musty smell of mildewed paper that’s a pheromone to vintage book lovers.
The prices are vintage too. Most books cost $2 or less. For that price, you can get that dubious-quality novel from the ‘40s just for the cool cover. And if you’re really lucky and hit closing weekend at the end of the summer season, everything is half off.
After walking out with an armload of books for less than 10 bucks, it’s time for a drive down the rest of the stunning St. George Peninsula, especially on a day when the sky is cornflower blue and the bright green of the grass and trees can make your eyes hurt.
If you drive all the way to the end — and you must — you’ll hit Port Clyde, a nifty fishing village. And even though the land ends here, you can keep going. The ferry leaves here for Monhegan Island, a famous artists retreat. (Think the Wyeth clan and Edward Hopper.)
Back on the mainland, the St. George Peninsula is studded with places touting the best lobster roll in Maine. My mom’s favorite: the Cod End in Tenants Harbor, not only for the overflowing lobster meat in the “proper” split frankfurter roll but also for the great old shingled building right on the water.
Even though I’m a vegetarian, I have to cast my vote for another lobster shack with a totally different feel. Keep heading down the coast. If you don’t mind standing in line, make a pit stop at the legendary Red’s Eats in postcard-come-to-life Wiscasset.
When you get to Brunswick, pull into Cameron’s Lobster House. (For eons it was called Morse’s. If you need to ask for directions, that’s the name people will probably know.) It’s a drive-in dream for anyone who loves midcentury Americana.
It’s set in the pines not far from lovely Bowdoin College, and it has a sign saying, “Lights on for Service” — and means it. When you decide what you want, you flick on your car lights and the waitress comes out to take your order.
Maybe the “hamburger royal basket”? (Flashback to scene from “Pulp Fiction.”) Or a lobster roll, complete with old-fashioned Utz potato chips? (Flashback to “Mad Men” and the Don Rickles-like character disastrously selling Utz snacks. Yes, Utz exists.)
Then, how about a little pre-"Mad Men” moment back in Belfast? There, the Colonial Theatre is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year by showing free flicks from decades past.
On a Monday when I was there, it was offering two from the late ‘50s: “Vertigo” and “Love in the Afternoon.” I wavered briefly, because it’s hard to top Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper. But it’s even harder to top Hitchcock at the height of his obsessive powers.
After two hours of watching Jimmy Stewart behind the wheel of his old coupe (and noticing that his arty pal Midge drives a sporty Karmann Ghia), it felt a bit odd to step out onto rain-slicked streets to see shiny new pickups.
But if I squinted a little, it wasn’t hard to imagine it was 1958. And life was just a little bit slower.