Every summer, the town takes us by surprise. We crest the hill on Route 4, catch our first view of the lake, and descend into an unlikely enclave of commerce: the Pine Tree Frosty, the video store, the Laundromat, the hulking building of the Rangeley Inn. Who would expect to find expect this vibrant lakeside village deep in the heart of the western Maine mountains?
We’ve been coming to Rangeley for ten years now, for a week or so each summer, and the drive through town always generates the same kind of anticipation. We feel as if we are returning home and can’t wait to get there.
As we drive down Main Street, we check the storefronts to see what’s changed. Three years ago, Rangeley lost the pharmacy. Before that, the hardware store and soda fountain. Several restaurants have come and gone, but look, the bookstore’s still going, the movie theater is showing Spiderman. Nancy’s Gifts has closed, but the parking lot of the Alpine Shop is full. The library has expanded its hours. The new Moose Alley bowling alley is open for business. We’ll go there on a rainy afternoon.
After passing through town, we head up the hill on the other side of town and turn on the Mingo Loop, drive past the golf course, and turn off onto the dirt road that leads to North Camps. Our cabin, the Silver Doctor, is the same one we stayed in last year, with the same furniture and the same view of the lake from the screened-in porch. At the main lodge, Henry the parrot squawks as always. Sonny, the owner, is not here, but he’s still alive andwill return by Friday. His son Fran, who runs the place now, tells us that the lakeside campfires will be on Monday and Thursday nights, as usual. We’ve come prepared with our marshmallows, Hershey bars, and scary stories to tell around the fire.
During our Rangeley days, we do the same things every year, usually adding a new twist or variation. We wake up and drink coffee on the screened-in porch or on the dock. We sit in the sun and read books and swim. We take the kids tubing on the lake. We play whiffle ball in the grassy field and pretend to play tennis on the mud court. We mix cocktails that we never drink at home. After dinner, we watch the red glow of the sunset behind Bald Mountain, and the moon rise over Saddleback.
At least once, we pick blueberries in the lush fields at the Wilhelm Reich Museum. Back at North Camps, I make blueberry pie. We swim some more.
We explore. One day, a canoe trip, on the Kennebago River or somewhere new. This year, we canoe down the Chain of Ponds, up near the Canadian border, and one of the easier legs of Benedict Arnold’s arduous 1775 expedition to Quebec.
Another day, we go for a hike, sometimes to a new mountain and sometimes an old favorite. This year, we drive north from Oquossoc village to climb Mount Aziscohos, a lonely summit off Route 17 which some say has the best views in all of Maine, of more than 25 lakes and endless green forest. With binoculars, we can see the docks of North Camps.
We like our civilization and make many required trips to town: to the IGA for groceries, to the Red Onion for pizza, to the library to check out favorite books, to the Ecopolagian Nature Store to browse and lounge in the swinging chair on the porch. By the week’s end, some are concerned that we might miss a visit to Pine Tree Frosty. But the weather is fabulous and we squeeze in our ice cream after an afternoon at Cascade Stream Gorge, where we jump from the cliffs into a deep pool of freezing water.
I have only skimmed the surface of Rangeley, (I haven’t even mentioned the fishing) but reading what I’ve written, I’m exhausted. How can we possibly do all this and not be? Where do we find the time? Partly, we are on vacation, so we are removed from many of the daily obligations (although we still have meals to cook and, without a dishwasher, the dishes pile endlessly in the sink). But here, we are liberated from our screens: our computers, our televisions, and other devices, our multiple emails and postings. We lack smart phones and don’t regret it. If we must check our email, the library is open Tuesday to Saturday.
This year at North Camps, several of the cabins are empty. Business has been down all summer, a sign of the ongoing recession, and maybe also of changing tastes in vacation. North Camps is rustic; the furniture is old. In some kitchens, the linoleum may date from the Depression. Many travelers want their surroundings to look shiny and new and to come with WiFi and cable television. In judging this book by its cover, they miss out on experiencing the richness of the story.
The kids roam free, devising their own activities, jumping off the docks and playing Apples to Apples in the new pavilion by the lake. They stay up late to finish books. They bait fish hooks and fall off rafts. Technically, my son could play with his Nintendo DS – we do have electricity – but during our Rangeley days, he puts it away without protest.
Our week at North Camps is a reasonably-priced vacation, a bargain even. But what treasure we find in these days of alternating activity and pure laziness.
As an operation that’s been in the family since the 1950s (and which dates back to the 1890s), North Camps will hang on unless the owners decide to close it down and sell this prime lakeside property for the millions that it’s probably worth. We worry about that possibility but Fran tells us not to, because North Camps is their family’s special place, and they have no intention of selling it.
What changes will come to Rangeley over the next year? Will Books Lines and Thinkers Bookstore remain open? Will the Lakeside movie theater still be showing movies? Can we count on the breakfast at the BMC Diner? What I see as economic decline may just be part of the usual struggle to keep an off-the-beaten-path mountain community going. Compared to the 1950s, when Rangeley’s many grand lakeside hotels closed down in a matter of years, the ‘decline’ of today may just be a blip in a pattern of recurring small blips. I hope so.
I imagine moving to Rangeley, maybe buying the Main Street bed and breakfast that was on the market for several years and which now appears to be in new hands. I’ll swim every day in the lake in the summer, ski in the winter at Saddleback, and get to know the locals sitting at the counter of Moosely Bagels. I’ll help to organize the Library Gala and volunteer to serve on the town’s Economic Development committee. And soon my days will fill with emails and meetings and commitments, just like my life back home today
Then again, maybe not. There’s something to be said for having a relationship that is committed but not deep, consistent but not completely connected, because it offers the opportunity for the disconnection so hard to find in our lives today. Next year, I think we’ll stay two weeks.