The Saddest, Loveliest Place on Earth

Location study: Millinocket, Maine 

Millinocket Maine is a place hardly anyone has heard of– in New England or elsewhere. Not exactly surprising; anything north of Bangor is essentially the middle of nowhere. This is a place where the speed limit is 70 and highway is divided by honest-to-god mountains in places. Once upon a time it was the home of the Great Northern Paper Company mill, but it stopped running back in 2008. These days, there’s no reason to be there at all unless you’re headed to Baxter State Park, a place not without it’s own controversies.

Why is this place worth writing about, besides a eulogy? Simply: I love it, and I want more people to know about it before it slips away entirely.

I ended up there because three years ago, my dad proposed to my sister and I that we go camping and whitewater rafting together. It would be the first family trip since my parents separated when I was thirteen. Once we’d dipped our toes in the relatively tame Kennebec, we decided the next year we’d graduate to the Class V Penobscot four hours north of us.

The Kennebec is a great beginning river, and because of that it’s the most popular commercial rafting river in the state. The town it’s located in, The Forks (pop. 35) receives a good amount of tourist attention particularly because it’s proximity to Portland and Boston. The Penobscot, however, is located over five hours from Boston in the Maine interior.

The drive into Millinocket from I-95 is perhaps the dreariest I’ve ever been on. First is the trip through Medway and East Millinocket, where the streets are lined with signs advocating “National Park YES” or “National Park NO.” It’s obvious that the whole area is quietly dying, though the people who live there are still just as wary to outsiders as they’ve ever been. That includes me and my family, lousy southerners, but we can blend in well enough. It also includes well known runners like Scott Jurek, who broke Baxter Park rules by publically drinking and received exactly no pity.

Unemployment fluctuates between 13-20 percent in the area. Yet still, throughout its profound hardship, it is undeniably beautiful. Coming over a crest in Millinocket means a jaw-dropping view of Mt. Katahdin, Maine’s highest point at 5,267 feet and the traditional end of the Appalachian Trail (though that, too, has been up for debate as of late).

I have admittedly not seen much of Millinocket besides the home base of Three Rivers Whitewater, the superb mom-and-pop style rafting company we’ve used for two years now. What I have seen is a run down commercial area, campgrounds, and woods. On rafting day, the drive to the Ripogenus Gorge and the Maine Electric Dam takes you up the Golden Road, a private highway for logging trucks built supposedly for a million dollars a mile all the way up the Canada. It’s also where American Loggers is filmed. Go figure. It’s unlikely you’ll spot a moose (I never have) in the daytime ride, but looking is a distraction from the turbulent hour ride.

Rafting down the Penobscot is phenomenal. Firstly, it’s fun as hell and compared to other class V rivers, relatively safe. What I mean by that is all the rock in granite, so you can’t get sucked under if you fall into the river– which will probably happen at least once. Secondly, on one side of the river is Baxter State Park, and the other is the Allagash wilderness, just north of the 100 Mile Wilderness section of the Appalachian Trail. There’s the shadow of Mt. Katahdin, Bald Eagles, the whole works.

If you live in any other part of the country, Millinocket is most likely nothing like anywhere you’ve ever been. It is the epitome of perfect, beautiful melancholy. A full sky of stars bordered by the trials of a struggling town. Robert Frost would love it.

In August of this year, they tore down the mill. I saw the cranes. I come from deep working class families– my dad grew up in a mill town very much like Millinocket and worked at a tannery in high school. It was like– watching something. Sometimes the words won’t come, and that’s all I can say about that.

If you ever have the time, please, take a trip to Millinocket. While you still can.

For the data on Millinocket I heavily use Wikipedia and this Portland Press Herald article. If you want to know more about the state of the town, I definitely recommend it.