You know you have crossed the border into Maine when the garden whirligigs at roadside stands are suddenly red lobsters with flailing claws. And when sun hats, windsocks, oven mitts and even bakery rolls are shaped like the gaudy crustacean.
Saltwater pounds crawling with lobster draw crowds to waterfront tables. Lobster T-shirts are everywhere.
The lobster fishermen of Maine are a resilient breed. They head into the surging sea all year long to set boxy traps marked with bright buoys. Pleasure sailors must take care to avoid getting tangled in the web of bobbing spools.
The land that is Maine is as stunning as the sea. Half of the state lies north of Montreal in a wilderness rarely parted by roads.
Eighty percent of the state is woods. The craggy coast with its deep inlets and islands measures 2,500 miles. And that's between Kittery and Calais, a distance of about 250 miles as the loon flies.
Local traits, such as self-reliance, sparse speech and wry humor, may relate to geographical isolation.
"Is it a good summer?" I asked a burly cab driver at Boothbay harbor when we came ashore in August.
"Don't know yet," he replied.
That reminded me of my first visit to the sprawling home store of L. L. Bean, which is open 24 hours a day in Freeport.
"What do you do here in summertime?" I asked a clerk who was showing me a parka.
"Well," he said slowly, "if it falls on a weekend, we go to the beach."
Maine is tolerant of summer visitors--whether you join in a hymn-sing at a white-steepled church or browse through yard sales strewn with antique churns and cradles. Warm welcomes await yachtsmen, from Christmas Cove to Sorrento.
But even long-term residency does not imply membership in this traditional society. A young Kennebunk innkeeper told me that she could not claim to be pure Maine, even though she was born just a block away. Her father's family had arrived in the 1600s, but her mother's people migrated from Rhode Island only a century ago.
The point was underscored by an obituary in the Boothbay newspaper: "Although not a native, Mrs. Williams resided here for 92 years."
Last August, after a week of sailing these down-east waters, I came up against the vagaries of weather. A thick fog over Eggemoggin Reach scrubbed our plans to sail from an anchorage near Deer Isle to the Camden-Rockport area, where I had an evening flight to Boston.
My pals snuggled in to wait it out. I boarded a dinghy for shore and got a ride to Bucksport. From there, I was assured, I could hire a taxi for the 40-or-so-mile trip.
That is how I met Louise Leonard, a rock-steady driver for the Alternative Cab Co. of Bucksport. Her station wagon is her taxi. It may be the whole fleet.
I piled into the back seat, my shoulders heavy with totes, and just missed landing on a foil-wrapped package.
"I'll take that up here," she said as she revved the engine. "It's fresh cukes and tomatoes for my lunch."
With that disaster averted, the rest of the trip seemed easy. We averaged 35 m.p.h. along the twisted, two-lane route of U.S. 1. Our conversation was polite and well-spaced. Louise never passed a car.
"What part of the country are you from?" she asked after half an hour.
Her eyebrows shot up when I said "California."
"I've been there," she said. "My sister lives in Sun City. Not much weather, but she likes it."
Louise shrugged. A typical State-o'-Mainer, she prefers the rugged outdoors.
"I may go fishin' after I drop you off," she said as we skirted Penobscot Bay. "My rod's in the trunk. Hope your suitcase isn't on top of it."
The roadside, posted with symbols of small businesses, looked like an endless garage sale. Among them were duck decoys, and, of all things in this bastion of Early America, spiral staircases.
Louise said that the staircase people cater to newcomers who convert tall Maine barns into summer homes and artist's studios. It seemed a more promising prospect than another hand-lettered sign's proposal: "Navajo Rugs Repaired."
Maine is bed and breakfast country. Blue arrows point down leafy lanes to cottages, farms and old sea captains' mansions that welcome overnight guests. Even modern accommodations have original names, such as The View With a Motel.
By the time we came to Mt. Battie and the green slopes of Camden Hills State Park, I was smiling at the cadence of Louise's speech. I knew where I'd heard it before.
"Have you ever seen that mystery program on Sunday night TV that's supposed to take place in Cabot Cove, Maine?" I asked.
"Can't say that I have," she replied.
"It's called 'Murder, She Wrote' and it's set in Maine, but they film it in Mendocino, California."
"You don't say," said Louise. "Well I'll be. Then the sun's on the wrong side of the ocean, isn't it?"
And not a true lobster in sight.