How is Aroostook County like Outer Space?

 

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Six years ago this week, I drove my boss’s car to research a story on McCain Foods, which manufactures French fries and purchases a third of Aroostook County’s potato crop. Much of it ends up in fast-food restaurants like Arby’s and McDonald’s.

My boss had a sweet little Toyota Camry, with cruise control, a good CD player, and over 200,000 miles on the odometer, which he drove all over the state for business. I drove up alone, as our photographer had other assignments to do before meeting me at the McCain factory in Easton.

Even in the middle of a Maine summer, the interstate was utterly uncrowded. I rolled along on cruise control for an hour, gliding past the occasional car going slower and allowing the faster ones to pass on the long stretches where I could see for a couple of miles and there might not be another vehicle in sight. Even the trucks seemed few and far between (though McCain, as I was to learn that day, sends out 30 to 40 trucks a day full of processed potato product, and if they aren’t on the Interstate, where are they?).

From Houlton, I followed U.S. Route One north. A few years ago, a professor at the University of Maine at Presque Isle put together a group of volunteers to create a scale model of the Solar System along the 40-mile stretch between Houlton and Presque Isle.

Most such models are compressed, because the planets are tiny compared to the distances between them. Not this one. It was created before the demotion of Pluto, which is about the size of a crabapple and sits in a display case in the Houlton visitors’ center.

The other planets are on posts along the side of the road. It’s easy to miss Neptune and Uranus, each the approximate size of a beach ball, if you aren’t looking for them, but Saturn, just past the town of Mars Hill, is fairly striking. Each planet is nearly twice as far from the Sun as the next one in (except for Mars and Jupiter, separated by the asteroid belt); the distances between them steadily decrease as you approach Presque Isle. A partial model of the Sun is squeezed into a building at the University. It’s necessarily huge, because the Sun contains 99% of the matter in the Solar System.

The scale is one mile per astronomical unit (An AU is the average distance between Sun and Earth). Thus Earth is a mile from the university, and Neptune more than 30 miles south. Long highway miles pass between the outer planets. The inner planets go by in an eyeblink.

It’s a fabulous physical demonstration of the size of the Solar System, and it can only be appreciated by car. Oh, I suppose you could do it by bicycle, but it would be a long day, and you would have to get the bicycle up to Aroostook County in the first place.

Car congestion is hardly a problem up there. Everybody drives, even the kids. Those too young to get their licenses tool around on ATVs. The distances are too great and the population too sparse to live any other way. The car makes life in Aroostook County possible, and people think nothing of jumping on the nearly empty interstate and driving two hours from Houlton to Bangor for a day of errands and shopping. Bangor’s bigger than anything they’ve got up there.

But Aroostook County is not typical of the country as a whole. It’s more like the solar system, with a few outposts amid vast spaces. Public transportation isn’t needed or wanted. Driving in a sparsely populated area is necessary and uncomplicated. But we can’t make policy for everyone based on the needs of remote rural areas.

On a side note, the management people at McCain Foods told me that rail transport was crucial to their business. Much of their cooking oil arrives from the Midwest by rail. A spokesperson at McCain confirmed that this is still true six years later. Better and more efficient rail service would enable them to ship product by train as well. Though there are timing issues with perishable potato products, any upgrade to rail service in northern Maine would translate into a better bottom line for one of the area’s largest employers, and an improvement in the area’s economy overall.

Even in remote areas like northern Maine, spending money on alternatives to cars and trucks makes good, long-term sense.

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