In 2016, I planned out our trip to Maine. After spending a few days in the Bar Harbor area seeing Acadia National Park, we would drive to Baxter State Park to summit Katahdin, Maine’s highest point and the northern end of the Appalachian Trail. My research soon showed me that Baxter was much further away than I originally thought (it’s north of Montreal in Canada), and that there aren’t many towns near there. The nearest one is Millinocket.

Also not a lot roads near there

Okay, great! I promptly Googled Millinocket, expecting to find motels and things to do. Instead, what came up was this.

A little more reading revealed that Millinocket was in Maine’s “Great North Woods” with a primary industry of logging, but that a sluggish demand for newspapers had caused the town’s major paper mills to almost completely shut down. For much of the twentieth century, the town was booming and you could get a car loan simply by saying you worked in the mill. However, by 2011 there was 22% unemployment. (There was a brief boom in 2012 when paper demand spiked to print “50 Shades of Grey”. Seriously.)

We booked our trip. After seeing Acadia, we drove north to Millinocket on I-95. Exits got further and further apart, often 40 miles or more, and there were few other visible roads or buildings. The giant, wide road had little traffic, and much of it was logging trucks.

A Millinocket landmark

As we entered the town, we passed the first of the two former mills, now owned by a start-up Thermogen and converted to produce wood pellets (“bio coal”) instead of paper. It looked new.

The town featured a lot of closed businesses and “For Sale” signs. There was a tourist office for the people who came for the state park and the Appalachian Trail. We definitely felt out of place with our new Japanese car and New York license plates, but everyone was friendly. Although park visitors and AT hikers bring business to the town, there was a controversy about a proposal to turn some of the land adjacent to Baxter State Park into a National Park. Some residents approved, saying it would bring jobs, while others thought it would bring unwelcome federal intrusion to their area, and restrictions on how the land would be used. The ultimate result (a few months after our visit) was Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, from a gift by one of the founders of Burt’s Bees.

We enjoyed our trip to Baxter and Katahdin. After our hike, we had a nice dinner at a surprising luxury restaurant outside of town and returned to our motel. It was nearly empty. During breakfast the following morning, I overheard the owner at the next table discussing terms with a possible buyer.

I’m writing about this now because it was 2016, another election year, and Millinocket was full of lawn signs. The residents had watched the rise and fall of their town, and it was clear that “Make America Great Again” was a deeply relevant message to them. I won’t share my many political opinions here. What struck me most about our visit to Millinocket was that it is just a different world from the one I live in. I’ve been comparatively fortunate. It’s worth trying to understand.