Why I Rarely Revisit Ellsworth…



I borrowed Lisa’s car recently to drive to Ellsworth, my old stomping grounds. The occasion was a family lunch, with three sisters, a cousin, a cousin-in-law, and two cousins once removed.

Although Ellsworth is only 24 miles from Bangor, I don’t get there much, because it almost always requires use of a car. But we were coming from Bangor, Bar Harbor, Blue Hill and Dedham, for an hour or two in the middle of the day, and Ellsworth seemed a logical central meeting place.

In Ellsworth I had one of my first jobs, at the Ellsworth American, and was paid for my words for the first time. A few years later, I worked for the Bangor Daily News bureau there. Ellsworth is where I got my driver’s license after three tries (despite acing parallel parking every time), and my first traffic ticket.

I returned to Ellsworth briefly in 2004-2005, to write for the Ellsworth Weekly, the short-lived second newspaper in a one-newspaper town. The last car I ever owned died in Ellsworth, at the garage to which it was towed after blowing a head gasket.

The road between Bangor and Ellsworth is frightful. Every year seems to bring one or two terrible accidents. It’s fraught with passing lanes over poor-visibility hills. In some stretches it’s a superhighway, in others a two-lane country road. It’s the main route between Bangor and Acadia National Park. Speeding drivers compete with lumbering RVs and commercial trucks.

And yet there’s no reliable way to travel these 24 miles other than over this treacherous road. You can go around, through Eddington and Otis, but it’s much longer. You can get up really early in the morning, drive (or bicycle) out to the Odlin Road parking area, and catch the Jackson Lab bus. I have done this: six dollars round trip to Bar Harbor. It’s the only way to get to Ellsworth and back in the same day without using a car, but you have to be ready to board the bus at 5:15 a.m.

West’s Transportation runs a daily bus serving Ellsworth and Washington County. It leaves Ellsworth at 12:25 p.m., arrives at Bangor’s Concord Coach terminal at 1:10, and departs at 3:10. Downeast Transportation runs a bus on Mondays and Fridays, but it’s primarily geared for shoppers coming to Bangor from Ellsworth. Both buses are useless for anyone wanting to make a day trip the other way.

On the day I drove it, construction crews were out paving a section of the highway. The road has been periodically widened and improved over the years, but it’s still dangerous.

Of all the traffic corridors in eastern Maine, the Bangor to Bar Harbor route, which includes Ellsworth, cries out loudest for innovative, future-oriented transportation. Imagine if tourists could fly or bus to Bangor, take a light-rail train to Bar Harbor, explore Acadia by bicycle and boat and the Island Explorer bus, all without using a car. Widening the road only invites more cars, and inevitably, more carnage. We must focus instead on long-range solutions that reduce the number of cars on this busy route.

A few weeks ago, I suggested that the proposed extension of Interstate 395 was throwing good money after bad. I received a slew of critical comments. Several readers said that I-395 and the Veterans Remembrance Bridge relieved traffic in Bangor and Brewer when they opened nearly 30 years ago, and continue to do so today.

Perhaps. But Maine is still undeveloped enough that car congestion is limited to problematic pockets: the lower section of the Maine Turnpike, Route 1 through Wiscasset and Camden, and the approaches to Bar Harbor centered on Ellsworth. But eventually, any area will reach a saturation point, beyond which there is no way to build roads fast enough to keep up with the subsequent increase in traffic.

At what point do we say, “Enough is enough,” and begin to look beyond the simple and ultimately impossible approach of building more and more road capacity? At what point do we resolve to take the money thrown at road construction and put it toward more beneficial and sustainable solutions?

We had lunch at a small eatery within walking distance of the Ellsworth American office and the revitalized Grand Theater. Several buildings were vacant, including the old Grasshopper Shop and long-ago Willey’s Department Store. But despite its commercial strips that were already garish a generation ago, and the challenges of running a sidewalk business in this age of drive-thru windows and parking lots, Ellsworth seems to be making an effort on behalf of its historic downtown. It’s a surprisingly pleasant place to hang out.

I might visit more often, if I could get there without a car.

America Is a Drinking Country With a Driving Problem


Graduation and tragedy go together like Romeo and Juliet – only the modern story usually involves cars. Every year, American communities bury promising youths cut down on the cusp of adulthood by the deadly mix of alcohol and automobiles. Sadly, this is not news.

It’s so not news that all fifty states have had a legal drinking age of 21 since the late 1980s. In 1984, Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which mandated that 10 percent of federal highway transportation funds be withheld from states that failed to comply. Within four years, all of them did.

Anyone who has raised kids knows the anxiety of sending them out into the world in cars, especially in the teenage years, when enthusiasm trumps experience. Parents often organize supervised, alcohol-free graduation parties. Sometimes other parents offer an alternative approach.

And that is news, because you usually find out about it after said parents have been arrested. It’s usually someone with a large house and backyard, and the first rule is that all attendees hand their car keys to their hosts. No one is allowed to leave until the next morning.

It is illegal both to furnish alcohol to minors and to provide them a place to drink. But when you think about it, what could be more responsible? Alcohol-free events are great, but some kids are going to try booze. And why wouldn’t they, given that alcohol advertising is all around them, and beer companies sponsor their favorite sports teams and musicians?

My own early experiences with alcohol were punctuated with puking and next-day regrets. I am far from alone in this. We recognize that inexperienced drivers can’t immediately be turned loose on the road, and thus driver’s ed has become something of a national institution. But why is there no “drinker’s ed?” Is it realistic to expect young people to abstain until they are 21, and then drink responsibly thereafter?

It seems to me that a supervised gathering, from which no one is allowed to drive away, provides an opportunity for kids to imbibe without putting themselves and others in danger. Absent such opportunities, kids will do their drinking away from parental supervision, often in cars, too frequently with tragic results.

I do not mean to ignore the very real problem of alcoholism or the daily carnage of drunk driving. Alcohol and driving don’t mix – period. I have heard friends argue that the .08 percent blood-alcohol level is too strict, that a small person can exceed the legal limit after a couple of drinks. I’ve heard others assert that their reaction time after two beers is still better than that of a sober 75-year-old. I have heard still others complain that organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving killed the local bar scene by pushing for stricter laws with lower limits.

I buy none of these arguments. Bars should be located in walkable downtown communities, not out on lonely country roads. If you weigh 100 pounds and want to have a drink or two with dinner, don’t drive afterwards. And most drivers think highly of their own driving skills, which the false bravado of an alcohol buzz does nothing to discourage.

America is a drinking country with a driving problem. Both drinking and driving are so deeply imbedded in our daily lives and our popular culture that it’s impossible to entirely avoid either. If you choose not to own a car, you’re still going to need a ride from time to time. And if you choose not to drink, you’re more likely to be drafted by your friends as their designated driver.

Certainly, excess alcohol consumption ought to be discouraged, at any age. I applaud programs that help alcoholics abstain. But we tried prohibition once, and it didn’t work. It doesn’t work any better with today’s 18-to-20 year olds, who are adults in every other area of the law.

It’s commendable to combat drunk driving through legislation. But the laws tend to focus more on the drinking than the driving. Some people ought not to drink, but some people ought not to drive, either. Anyone with more than three drunk driving tickets deserves permanent license revocation. Those who continue to drive after that should spend long terms in jail – for the protection of everyone they might otherwise encounter on the road.

And here’s an even more sensible suggestion: lower the drinking age and raise the driving age. Make 18 the age of majority for both high-risk activities. High school kids don’t need to drive, and college students don’t deserve to be treated like children. A more mature approach to the twin problems of drinking and driving might result in a safer society for all of us.


You Can Get There From Here By Bus


Earlier this week, I took my first bus ride of the season from Bangor to Rockland and back. In the summer I ride this route a lot, because Rockland Harbor is where I moor a small sailboat.

The bus is uber-convenient, perhaps by coincidence as much as design. At any rate, it suits my purposes perfectly. On a weekday morning, I can take a Community Connector bus from near my house to the Concord Coach station on Union Street. The coastal bus leaves promptly at seven and pulls into the Rockland ferry landing before nine. From there it’s a short walk to Main Street and a smashing breakfast at the Rockland Café, and another short walk to Hamilton Marine, the public landing, and the harbormaster’s office.

The public landing and adjacent park host the big events of the summer: the North Atlantic Blues Festival, the various boat shows, the annual Maine Lobster Festival. From here, it’s a short uphill walk to the train station, and the end of the line for Maine’s only passenger train north of Brunswick.

In the off-season, Concord Coach runs one bus a day each way up and down the swath of coast between Portland and Bangor. It stops in Searsport, Belfast, Camden, Rockland, Waldoboro, Damariscotta, Wiscasset, Bath, Brunswick, and Freeport. I can spend the day in Rockland, get on the return bus at 4:15 pm, and be back in Bangor at six.

Between Memorial and Columbus days, a second bus leaves Bangor at eleven, and gets to Rockland at one. A late bus leaves Rockland at 9:30 pm, and pulls into Bangor just before midnight. You can take either morning bus, spend a day in Rockland, go sailing, have dinner, and take the late bus home. You can have a drink with dinner and not worry about driving.

There are a few glitches. I can’t take a Community Connector bus home from Union Street at six because the two bus schedules don’t overlap on that end. And they don’t overlap on Saturday morning, when the first Community Connector bus leaves downtown at 7:15, after the Concord bus has already left.

Still, I’m fortunate and thankful that a convenient way to travel between Bangor and Rockland exists at all. It doesn’t work so well in the reverse direction. If I lived in Rockland and had to spend a day in Bangor, I couldn’t do it by bus without staying over night.

I could go to Portland, though – just as I can from Bangor. Another bus leaves the Concord Coach station at seven every morning, an express that touches at Augusta and stops in Portland on the way to Boston and the world.

This bus is usually more than two-thirds full. I’ve used it many times. The coastal bus might have two or three passengers. The most I’ve ever seen get on in Bangor is seven. On some mornings, I’ve been the only one.

The bread-and-butter of the route is the section between Rockland and Portland, particularly serving the Bath-Brunswick area and Bowdoin College. When I get off in Rockland (five minutes after the first ferry departs for Vinalhaven – another missed opportunity), there’s usually a crowd waiting to get on.

If public transportation in these parts of Maine is to proliferate, supporters – even those who own cars – must demonstrate that it will be used. An opportunity to do this exists around the many summer events on the coast. Bangor-area residents attend the blues festival, for example, but how many do it by bus? It’s much more convenient than driving. You don’t have to navigate tourist traffic on Route One. You don’t have to find a parking space. You don’t have to buy gas. You can leave early or stay late. A round-trip ticket to Rockland is only $34; it’s less to Belfast or Camden, which hold numerous summer events, too.

But people coming to summer events in Bangor have little choice but to drive. I hope that this will someday change, as more people discover the convenience and cost savings of public transportation.

If you haven’t taken the Concord Coach for a day on the coast, or to Portland for a Sea Dogs baseball game, I recommend it. The trip is comfortable, convenient, and cheap. You can read, write, use your computer, or doze if you want – none of which you can do behind the wheel. And you’ll be removing one car from the traffic mix, making yours and everyone else’s day just a little bit easier.

Take Me Out of Town to the Ballgame



Because of interleague play, the Boston Red Sox and the Atlanta Braves (formerly the Milwaukee and the Boston Braves) have become rivals. Last week, the Red Sox played their last two games at Turner Field, the 20-year-old downtown ballpark the Braves are vacating after this season for a taxpayer-funded spread in the suburbs.

I was in the kitchen when the Red Sox TV announcers started in on the topic of traffic. The new ballpark will be out of the reach of public transportation. Everyone will have to drive. They commented that Atlanta already suffers some of the worst traffic in the nation. But the bulk of the fan base is in the suburbs, they said, and that’s where the ballpark will be.

I’ve never been within a hundred miles of Atlanta. But I’ve seen a lot of games at Turner Field. When I moved from Maine to San Diego in 1983, cable TV was young and channels were few. Ted Turner launched TBS in 1979 and CNN in 1980. Turner, the former America’s Cup skipper known as Captain Outrageous, also owned the Braves, who were perennially terrible. But the nascent field of cable TV gave the team a national audience, years before ESPN and the saturation sports coverage of today.

Because I liked baseball, I watched, and became familiar with the players as they stumbled their way through one losing season after another. I also watched the Padres, Dodgers, and Angels on local channels. This was multi-market Southern California, and the Red Sox were many miles away, where they could no longer hurt me. (Or so I thought, until Game Six of the 1986 World Series.)

I bring up all this history, because by the time the Braves got good, I’d come to sort of like them. Throughout the 1990s, the Braves were the team to beat. And in 1998, the San Diego Padres did just that, besting them in six games to win the National League pennant.

It took me longer to warm up to the Padres. The credit goes mostly to Tony Gwynn, whose Hall of Fame career overlapped my sixteen years in San Diego. They played at Jack Murphy Stadium, later renamed Qualcomm Stadium, at the confluence of three freeways in Mission Valley. It was built for football, and had all the soul of a barracks. You could take a bus there, and later the trolley (when it was extended to the stadium for a Super Bowl), but there was no way to walk, and it was surrounded by an oceanic parking lot. Atlanta, in contrast, had a downtown ballpark.

The two cities have since gone in opposite directions. San Diego has built a beautiful, pedestrian-friendly ballpark down by the harbor. Atlanta has built a driving-only ballpark out in the suburbs, to which the Braves will move next year, dragging their fans in their cars behind them.

I’m not keen on public financing of sports facilities for big-league franchises, but I voted for the San Diego ballpark initiative, because I thought the plan was visionary, especially for car-obsessed Southern California. The ballpark is right on the trolley line, walking distance from the waterfront and downtown hotels. New pubs and restaurants have sprung up around it. There’s a neighborhood feel now, similar to the vibe around Fenway Park.

I moved before I could see a game there, and the Padres have had mostly bad teams since 1998. Gwynn retired after the 2001 season, and died of mouth cancer in 2014. A statue of him, frozen in the left-handed swing that produced 3,141 career hits (pi times a thousand) stands outside the new ballpark. On warm summer evenings, fans begin to gather outside the park several hours before the game; in the offseason, people come just to hang out on the grass near Gwynn’s feet.

But what of summer nights in Atlanta, when the Braves are home? The team is terrible again; the tomahawk chop chant has (thankfully) fallen silent. Ted Turner no longer owns the team; he has not been majority owner since 2001, coincidentally when the Braves stopped winning pennants. The 77-year-old mogul broke his silence recently to say that he wouldn’t have moved the Braves to the suburbs, citing the tradition of live baseball in downtown ballparks on summer nights.

The Braves are now owned by Liberty Media, the corporation that purchased them from Time-Warner in 2007. And like so many corporations that helped pave the way for the automobile’s takeover of America, they’ve moved to the suburbs. It’s a regressive move, and a regrettable one.