North Country: A Personal Journey through the Borderland

North Country: A Personal Journey through the Borderland

by Howard Frank Mosher


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North Country: A Personal Journey through the Borderland by Howard Frank Mosher

Howard Frank Mosher embarked on a journey following America's northern border from coast to coast in search of the country's last unspoiled frontiers. What he discovered was a vast and sparsely settled territory largely ignored by the rest of the United States and Canada; a harsh and beautiful region populated by some of the continent's most independent men and women. Mosher brings the remote North Country vividly to life, and reflects on the powerful characters he has encountered in his own life and how this land has shaped his life and his books.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780395901397
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 06/08/1998
Pages: 274
Sales rank: 788,543
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.62(d)

About the Author

HOWARD FRANK MOSHER is the author of ten books, including Waiting for Teddy Williams, The True Account, and A Stranger in the Kingdom, which, along with Disappearances, was corecipient of the New England Book Award for fiction. He lives in Vermont.

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Notes from Route 2

In the old days Hortons Bay was a lumbering town. No one who lived in it was out of the sound of the big saws in the mill by the lake. Then one year there were no more logs to make lumber.

— Ernest Hemingway, "The End of Something"

5:30 A.M. Irasburg, Vermont. I strike off from my home in the Northeast Kingdom on a clear dawn in late August, which also happens to be the morning of the first hard frost of the year. Caught off guard, as usual, I left my car outside last night, so I have to scrape the windows all the way around. Frost, with September still a week away! Yet, so far from discouraging me, the early freeze-up — it's severe enough to kill our tomato plants — seems fitting, emblematic of the harsh territory I'm about to visit.

6:00 A.M. St. Johnsbury, Vermont. I pick up U.S. Route 2 thirty miles south of my home and head due east, into the rising sun, toward New Hampshire and Maine. Route 2 stretches most of the way across the North Country to the Pacific, and during the next six weeks I'll bump into it here and there from Maine to Michigan to Montana, like an old friend. For the most part I'll use it as a kind of unofficial southern boundary; in general I'll stay much closer to the Canadian border. Still, in New England, Route 2 passes through quintessential North Country, including many of the same deep woods and big rivers my father and uncle and I passed on those early fishing trips to Canada. And glory be, I'm nearly as excited now, forty years later, at the beginning of my cross-country odyssey, as I was then, though at the same time I can't shake the feeling that here in the North Woods of New England, I'm witnessing — like Nick Adams in the Hemingway story — the end of something.

7:00 A.M. Near the New Hampshire state line. For one thing, it's the end of summer, always a reflective time for me. Look at the roadside flowers: tall pink fireweed (the ubiquitous late-summer flower of North Woods clearings from Maine to Washington), goldenrod, asters, and here and there in swampy patches back from the road a soft maple turned red as fire for the fall just ahead. The farmhouses are weathered a November gray, gray as the granite outcroppings in the surrounding fields. The barn roofs, still sparkling with the first frost of the year, have a wintery look, steeply pitched to shed the two to three hundred inches of snow that falls annually in these mountains. The long, linked chains of sheds known as "North Country ells" connect house and barn so that on January mornings when the temperature plummets to forty below zero, farmers can walk from kitchen to milking parlor without stepping outside. Many of these places are abandoned now, the fields behind them overrun with wild redtop grass and alders and clumps of poplars and birches. The self-sufficient family farm has become an anachronism in northern New England just during the thirty years I've lived here. When at last I spot a small herd of Jersey cows headed from barn to pasture, I can't help feeling that this last working dairy farm for ten miles in either direction, where there were once thirty or forty, represents the end of a tradition and a way of life.

8:30 A.M. Up into a steep cut through New Hampshire's Presidential Range, past black-water bogs fringed with jagged necklaces of ice, past a sequestered backwater broken by the ring of a single rising brook trout (reminding me how drastically the brook trout fishing has fallen off in such places over the past three decades), into a region of vast clear-cuts: totally denuded hillsides that look as though they've been subjected to weeks of saturation bombing. I stop briefly a few miles farther along to watch a logging operation in progress. The early-morning woods is filled with the savage whining of two leviathan red-and-orange tree-harvesting machines clipping sixty-foot-tall spruces and firs off at the base like giant flowers. From the treeless bank of a nearby stream comes the ungodly blast of a chipper, louder than a 747's engines at full throttle. Its whirling knives are reducing full-grown trees to hundreds of thousands of fragments the size of your thumbnail in sixty seconds flat, spitting them out in a steady river into the backs of eighteen-wheelers to be rushed to generating stations to fire boilers to manufacture electricity to power, among other things, the colossal papermaking machines, as long as football fields, at Groveton and Rumford and Skowhegan, which convert these wood chips, millions upon millions of them per day, into newsprint and paper towels, toilet tissue and Kleenexes, schoolbooks and, very possibly, the stationery for the rejection letter I received from Harper's two weeks ago informing me that a recent story I've written (set in this very countryside) is "too linear and old-fashioned, with its traditional beginning, middle, and end" to be published in their magazine — causing me to reflect, as I nailed the note to the side of my own weathered and disused barn at home and blasted the living hell out of it with my shotgun, what a sorry end this pellet-riddled scrap of paper was for a tree that may once have shaded a trout brook or a deer run.

10:00 A.M. Maine, somewhere between Rumford and Skowhegan. Though the temperature is close to seventy and there isn't a cloud in the sky, I can't seem to get away from winter. More than a few of the farmhouses still sport brown wreaths on their doors, left over from last Christmas. RFD mailboxes are mounted on long wooden planks uptilted like seesaws or swing from chains attached to yardarms six feet off the ground, to permit snowplow blades to pass beneath; and a state road crew is already out stringing up snow fencing. Listing, bullet-pocked drive-in theater screens no technicolor feature presentation or titillating coming attractions have flashed across for years, or ever will again, slump into lots overrun with Canadian bull thistles and steeplebush and yellow-flowering mullein plants five feet tall; but what are the coming attractions for these half-forgotten, out-of-the-way mill towns I'm driving through, with their semiabandoned main streets running quickly into the interchangeable edge-of-town commercial strips that the boarded-up downtown stores have defected to? Is there any future for small towns in America's North Country, or are they, too, doomed to go the sad way of the last, endangered small farms and big woods? I'll look into that, too, over the following weeks and yes, if necessary, celebrate the diminution of our northern frontier. For above all I'm determined to make this intensely personal journey one of exuberance and affirmation rather than lament and nostalgia. So hurrah for the disused boxcars sitting doorless on grassy sidings off defunct spur lines under bone-dry wooden water towers baking in the hot late-summer sunshine, hurrah for the thirdhand trailers slouched in clearings cluttered with junk and battered pickups, hurrah for the tiny emptying-out mill towns and abandoned farms throughout this vast North Country that I'm about to celebrate, in celebration of turning fifty.


Jumping Off from Lubec

A sardine, me b'y, is a juvenile herring, no more, no less. I've netted tens of millions of 'em in me time, but these days the bottom's fallen right out of the sardine market. Who wants to open a can of oily old sardines when they can get a Big Mac anytime they wants?

— Elisha the double-ender, Lubec, Maine

In the middle of the afternoon, Lubec loomed suddenly out of the blueberry barrens ahead of me, a cluster of houses and abandoned sardine factories shouldered together on a lofty rock promontory jutting into Passamaquoddy Bay, with the Atlantic Ocean just beyond. Perched on its adamantine cape, the town reminded me of the remote Newfoundland fishing outport where my wife and I spent a summer during the late 1960s — a town right out of E. Annie Proulx's novel The Shipping News.

I parked my car in front of an empty warehouse next to the American customs station at the west end of the bridge connecting Lubec with Campobello Island, New Brunswick, and started down along the waterfront — a little unsure of how to proceed but eager to see what I could see. To my immediate right, the hulking, empty sardine factories jutted out into the bay on rotting piles a good twenty-five feet above the brackish low tide. To my left the town clung precariously to the steep side of the point. From the waterfront, the crowded houses, nondescript sheds, and tiny stores occupying one or two rooms of people's homes reminded me more than ever of a Newfoundland outport, though the little stores in Lubec today all sell videos as well as beer, cigarettes, and a few staples, and cold cuts instead of cod tongues.

It was out of one of these establishments that the old man materialized, abruptly and apparition-like, with a black watch cap on his head, a six-pack of Budweiser under his arm, and a grim expression on his face.

"Beautiful day," I ventured.

"I'd call her a weather breeder," he said in the tone of a man voicing strong disagreement.

"Weather breeder?"

"Aye. A sunny, dead-calm day before a hell of a blow." He squinted out over the bay and nodded with satisfaction. "She's a-coming, all right. Us'll get a big storm by morning at the latest."

As we fell into step, I introduced myself. "Name's Elisha," my friend said, thrusting a beer into my hand. "Around here, they calls me Old Elisha. Old Elisha the double-ender."

I looked at him inquiringly.

"Spawned of Canadian parents in the U.S. of A.," he explained. "Making me a dual citizen. See this rock?"

Elisha had shifted gears so fast that it took me a moment to realize that he meant the cape that the town had been built on.

"Well, this rock just keeps on a-going down, down, down beneath the sea. You can step right off the edge of town into two hundred feet of freezing salt water, and that's all, she wrote, down you goes to Davy Jones. Point being, in Lubec there's nowhere for the incoming tide to go but up. Swoosh! In she rushes like a steam locomotive coming at you full throttle. In my time, I've seen the tide here run thirty-one feet high."

Elisha's voice throbbed with grisly rapture, as though, with luck, Armageddon itself would begin right in Lubec with a thirty-one-foot tide.

When I told him that Lubec was the jumping-off town for my cross-country trip, he said that at one time it had been a jumping-off town for the whole world. Lumber, cod, halibut, haddock, sardines, salmon, blueberries, and potatoes went out of the harbor on three-masted schooners for ports around the globe. There was plenty of work here, too. As recently as the Second World War, Lubec had ten sardine sheds working round the clock. But like everywhere else, times here had changed. These days you couldn't scare up a halibut or a haddock in the nearby coastal waters to save your life; the cod had been fished nearly out of existence; even lobsters weren't as plentiful as they'd once been. Sardines were still available in good numbers, but the bottom had fallen out of the market.

"Fact is," Elisha said, "in me own lifetime I've seen Lubec go from a prosperous seafaring port to a dying little fishing village. I hopes for the best, me b'y. But I expects the worst, and I've rarely been disappointed."

As we stood together on the dock, watching the tide turn and sipping our beers, I asked Elisha what made Lubec different from any other small town in Maine — a coastal village down around Portland, for instance. "That's easy," he said. "It's the people."

"What's different about them?"

"Stubborn-minded!" he replied with delight. "We wants to keep our own high school even though they's only ninety kids left in town to go to school there. We wants our own waste management system, which is to say dump. Above all we wants to work for ourselves. Pick blueberries out on the barrens, cut a little firewood, pull a few lobster traps. Anything to work for ourselves. We're stubborn, b'y! Us are the stubbornest people on the face of the earth, which we've had to be to survive at all. And unless the high tide washes Lubec right out to sea some fine morning, I expect we'll be right here hanging onto this old rock and being stubborn for a long time to come."

The onset of fall has always stirred deep childhood memories in my mind, and traveling north along the Maine coast and the Canadian border on U.S. 1, late in the evening of this first fall-like day of the year and the first day of my trip, I found myself thinking of the fall day when I was ten years old and about to cross an important border in my life. I was walking up the steep hill of the tiny upstate New York village of Chichester, near where I had been born and grown up, to say goodbye to my uncle and aunt, Reg and Elsie Bennett, because like Lubec in the 1990s, Chichester was dying, and my family was moving away. The local furniture factory had closed for the last time, and there was no town nearby with a school for my father and uncle, both teachers, to work at or for me to attend.

Tucked off in the northern Catskills, near Rip Van Winkle territory, Chichester was a typical North Woods village that could as well have been situated two hundred miles farther upstate on the Canadian border. From the early 1800s until the Depression, it was a company woodworking town. Then in the late 1920s the company began to fail, and in 1939, three years before I was born, the entire town, including the furniture factory, houses, store, spur railroad, and thousands of acres of surrounding timberland, was parceled out and sold at a public auction in a single day. Since then there had been two or three attempts to reestablish the furniture business, but recently the factory had closed again, this time for good.

Just across the deserted street was Chichester's empty company store, its Salada Tea sign aslant in the window, gathering dust. Beyond the store I passed one abandoned house after another, the beautiful scrollwork under the eaves rotting away, and only a faint hint here and there, in sheltered corners, of the gold paint that had once made the whole town glow in the sunshine like a northern El Dorado. I passed the empty house of Chichester's beekeeper, Oat Morse, whose bees, it was said, always swarmed on his chimney to tell him when a friend or neighbor had died. Next door was the sagging, abandoned home of Old Grammy Moon, the town witch, who could keep a candle stub burning all night long and could make a can of yellow-eye beans walk right off her table just by frowning at it. Then the empty place of my friend Lennie Miller, with whom I had combed every square foot of the surrounding mountains for ginseng, blackberries, brook trout, and flddlehead ferns.

Just up the hill from the Millers' place was the village school where my uncle Reg Bennett had begun teaching when he was sixteen, and the mountain lane that my father and uncle and I would drive up in Dad's old Ford to hear the Red Sox–Yankees games on the car radio. And, just beyond the lane, my aunt and uncle's place.

Uncle Reg came out on the porch to greet me. "Hello, Howard Frank." (He always addressed me as if I were a man, using my full name, to distinguish me from my father, Howard Hudson, and my grandfather, Howard Leroy.) "Let's walk up the mountain."

From the mountaintop where I'd spent so many happy evenings listening to those baseball games, we looked down at what was left of the town. Not a soul was in sight on the long, steep street. My uncle shook his head, then just stood silently beside me for what seemed like a long time. "Howard Frank," he said finally, "Chichester was a great town to grow up in, to live and teach in. Now it's a dead town. If Oat Morse were still alive, his bees would swarm on his chimney today."

"What can we do about it?" I said.

He thought for a minute. Then he said, "You like to write stories. Write a story about Chichester someday. Sometimes," he said after pausing again, "sometimes, telling the story of a place is all you can do to preserve it."

Now, as I sped on into the fall night, toward the big woods of Aroostook County, I found myself wondering who would write about the dying little fishing village of Lubec, Maine. Someone should, while there were still a few left who could remember when it was a community.


Excerpted from "North Country"
by .
Copyright © 1997 Howard Frank Mosher.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Canoeing the Boundary Waters,
The Northeast Kingdom,
Food Gas Grocs Beer, Minnesota,
The Coldest Spot in the Lower Forty-Eight,
Notes from Warroad,
The Northwest Angle,
Notes from the Red River Valley,
"The Brat Is Back",
Entering the Plains,
Another Side of the Kingdom,
The Veterinarian and the Visionary,
Notes from the North Dakota Prairie,
A Close Brush,
Notes from the Medicine Line,
The Ballad of John Olson,
Jake Blodgett, Logger,
Outlaw Coulee,
The Bullrider and the Outlaws,
The Ghost of Wallace Stegner,
The Writing Life,
Notes from the Milk River Breaks,
A Honeymoon in Shelby,
Jimmy Black Elk,
On Setbacks and Windfalls,
The Blackfoot, the Maverick, and the Mountie,
Two Disappearances,
A Fishing Idyll,
The Last Best Place,
Boundary County,
Notes from the British Columbia Border,
Surviving in Survivalist Country,
The Upper Columbia and Bill Bingham,
The Inferno and the Desert,
A North Country Love Story,
Crossing the Cascades,
Turning Fifty in the North Country,
Notes from the End of the Line,
About the Author,

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