“There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.”
A little over a hundred miles of Route 4 in Maine is a route I’ve traveled often for more than thirty years to and from the Rangeley vacation home we built ourselves. At the southeastern end it begins in Auburn, a bustling city replete with strip malls, gas stations, supermarkets, chain stores, fast food restaurants and car dealers. It’s a place for filling bellies and gas tanks.
Heading north from the city, the route gives way to one perennial tent sale then small towns with small markets, small gas stations, dairy treat stands and variety stores selling everything from pizza and groceries to bait, tackle and ammo. These places are the soul of this road.
As the road winds north and west, it narrows to a single lane in each direction, sometimes passing ponds and lakes and crossing bridges over streams and rivers. Occasional signs advertise camp firewood for sale, deer and moose crossing warnings, public boat accesses and acreage for sale.
Rural mailboxes become a common sight in front of old farmhouses, many of them white and some with rusting metal roofs. There are occasional crumbling barns and yards dotted with old cars settling into earth. Things aren’t thrown away or torn down; they remain as testaments to the past.
You’re reminded you’re heading into logging country by the acrid scent of working paper mills in towns like Jay and Livermore, the rumbling of logging trucks and small businesses like Mike’s Stump Grinding and Marble’s Wood Mill.
It’s farm country too as evidenced by a Farmers’ Union office, orchard stores, nurseries, alpaca-raising ventures, and venerable old structures like Farnsworth Farm in Farmington (1784). The building for Maine Sugaring Equipment and Supplies reminds you many Maine farmers produce maple syrup in the fall.
There are still lots of green fields and woods along the way but new building has brought in related businesses— Rocky Hill Landscaping, TSC Tractor Supplies, Peter Tyler Excavating and the tiny Maine School of Masonry.
Many of the small enterprises have names that reflect an old-time country feel, like On the Way Home Cooking, Carriage House Café and The Pleasant Past antique store.
But the road also passes some edgy places that hint of a wilder undercurrent, like Berserker Tattoo. The sign looks like a Manson family scribble and the name doesn’t exactly instill confidence you’ll be inked with steady hands. The nondescript Making Hour Place Your Place looks like a dance hall with few windows and gives no indication as to the nature of its business. Perhaps the word “Hour” gives a clue?
And then there are a few quirky places like Wilton’s Dutch Treat Ice Cream housed on a hill in an old-fashioned wooden windmill. Sit-n-Bull Trading Post in Livermore isn’t selling Native American goods but windows and doors, many of which are displayed on its lawn. Why they chose to evoke the storied Lakota chieftain is perplexing. Farmington’s Sizzle Tanning Salon seems to defy skin cancer warnings. The name makes me want to reach for the afterburn gel.
Shopping for clothing in this part of the world has a flavor all its own, catering to practical, sturdy wear for outdoor life and work. Fashionistas beware! Two iconic department store chains, Reny’s (“a Maine Adventure”) and Labonville, Inc. have stores along the route in Farmington. Reny’s also carries seasonal and household items for your camp. Labonville, Inc. also sells boots, helmets and forest safety equipment.
I’ve driven this route in all seasons and have memories of some hairy drives in raging snowstorms, frustrating slow drives behind locals not in a hurry, and drives learning where the speed traps are the hard way.
Some places evoke memories. I remember seeing the entrance to the New Life Pentecostal Church in Wilton swathed in crime scene tape when the pastor was murdered there. Crime happens even in peaceful places.
I remember our car breaking down in the pouring rain on the Crash Road bypass of Livermore and having no cell service. My husband ran to the nearest house to ask to use their phone to call AAA but came back, out of luck but laughing. No one answered the doorbell but he’d glimpsed someone streaking through the living room. To this day, we refer to it as “the naked guy’s house.” No matter. A phone was found at a nearby day care center and help arrived in due time.
I remember how, in our early days, we’d order building supplies in Strong (once known as the “Toothpick Capital”) on our way up and they’d put it on our tab, send the stuff to our site and bill us later. That kind of trust in strangers amazed us.
I remember buying our first woodstove for Rangeley at Northern Lights Hearth and Sports in Farmington. That baby has been a workhorse though many below-zero days and nights in the dead of winter and takes the chill off on cool mornings in other seasons.
I remember a few nerve-wracking hour-long ambulance rides from Rangeley to Farmington. Rural mountain and lake communities rely on the EMTs at North Star and they’re lifesavers.
The road remains familiar but the changes over the years have been slow but steady. It used to curve at Turner and go over a bridge by the white-steepled church. Today it’s a straight bypass. A restaurant in Jay where we stopped for a meal after our son’s prep school graduation is now the Jay Town Offices and Police Station and new wind turbines can be seen dotting the ridges between Jay and Farmington. The old Autobahn Hi-Performance garage in Jay has been renamed Bohemian Performance, making me wonder if a German owner sold to a Czech or if they’re just going for a more unconventional vibe. The G.H.Bass shoe factory was a Wilton fixture for 122 years and we used to stop at the outlet store nearby. However, at the end of the 1990s, it closed when the company opted for cheaper labor in the Caribbean. Though there are still a few Bass outlets in places like Freeport and Portland, the one on Route 4 is long gone. The old hospital north of downtown Farmington where they treated a ski injury to my knee when I was a young woman has become the Foothills Heights Apartment Community building and the new hospital is a modern and sprawling complex on the southern outskirts where the town has expanded. A brown wood building in Farmington seems denuded because it no longer has The White Buffalo Machinist sign hanging from it. I often wondered why this rare animal considered sacred to some Native Americans and featured on the state flag of Wyoming, was chosen for this local advertisement. One of the latest additions on this country road is an outlet in Turner for one of Maine’s newest businesses—Vacationland Cannabis Company.
Farmington is the last of the larger towns before the road heads into the mountains and it boasts a U. Maine campus and a festival celebrating hometown guy Chester Greenwood, inventor of earmuffs.
The road after that climbs, has some corkscrew curves, great mountain views and an Inland Fisheries and Wildlife office. After you pass through the tiny, ramshackle town ofMadrid (they pronounce it MAH-drid) and the roaring Smalls Falls, you enter what I call “the pass”and the beginning of the Rangeley Lakes National Scenic Byway.
The road climbs higher and edges the Sandy River, sometimes to the right and sometimes to the left. After you cross the Appalachian Trail and come to the highest point, there are several ponds and a small lake before seven-mile-long Rangeley Lake comes into view.
The town of Rangeley on the lake’s eastern cove sits at over 1,600 feet elevation. It has a main street with an almost western cowboy vibe and a sign stating it’s halfway between the North Pole and the Equator.
The last town you pass through on the lake, Oquossoc, has several restaurants, a general store and an Outdoor Heritage Museum.
Route 4 ends about a mile from Oquossoc at the rustic camps of Haines Landing on the shore of expansive Mooselookmeguntic Lake where you feel you’re glimpsing the untouched beauty of the early days of our continent.
I’ve spent a good chunk of my life traveling this route and agree with a billboard along the turnpike that states, “Maine. Worth a visit. Worth a lifetime.”