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Coastal Maine: Etched in the heart

Glaciers carved it. Andrew Wyeth painted it. This rustic state's craggy coast is an ideal place to escape life's frenetic pace.

August 29, 2010|By Thomas Curwen | Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Southport Island, Maine — The Olson House is hard to find, but once you arrive, there is no mistaking it. We made a few wrong turns at first, my brother and his wife, my wife, Margie, and I. The four of us had had taken this day trip to the village of Cushing just three years ago, and you'd think we'd know the way.

We got directions — and suggest you do the same — in Thomaston off Route 1 at the Prison Showroom, a small gift shop that sells crafts made by prisoners of Maine's Department of Corrections.

Ten miles later, down narrow back roads cut through fields and woods, we pulled into the parking lot, and the Olsons' three-story clapboard farmhouse loomed above us much as it did for Andrew Wyeth more than 60 years ago.

Not everyone will want to make the trip. The seaside towns that extend from Brunswick to Bar Harbor are far more inviting than this 20-minute detour off the main drag. Never mind the fact that Wyeth memorialized the setting with canvases that are part of the canon, including his most famous one, "Christina's World." The Olson House is an acquired taste.

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Set on a slight knoll partially adorned by orange day lilies, it keeps its distance, aloof, monumental, almost defiant. Winter pounds the weathered wood; summer bakes it. Its rooms are forlorn, nearly empty, the floor bearing the faint impressions of stenciled leaves, the walls some ghostly patterned paper.

But its indifference is its appeal. The Olson House has a timeless quality, as if it exists at some intersection of past and present, a place that seems both permanent and ephemeral.

For almost 30 years, Wyeth returned to this spot. He savored the character of the house and the company of his friends, Christina and Alvaro Olson. "I just couldn't stay away from there," he said. "I did other pictures … but I'd always seem to gravitate to the house.... It was Maine."

Wyeth, of course, was lucky. He had a lifetime to discover Maine in the suspended moments that define the essence of this place — a breeze wafting through an open window, an oar lying on a stone wall, the far-off stare in a local's eye — but we had only a week.

Fortunately, we had a slight advantage.

Roots here

My grandparents came to Maine in 1926, renting a home in a town called New Harbor. It was here that my father spent his summers, playing the prankster, tipping over outhouses, shooting squirrels and sailing model boats.

My family was no different from most New Englanders who each summer traded the inland heat and humidity for the fog and the cool of the coast. These vacationers of late 18th and early 19th century — rusticators, they called themselves, an openhearted exhortation to the virtues of a rustic lifestyle — transformed the local economy when exports of granite, ice, salt cod and lumber began to fail. They made Maine the "Vacationland State" it is today.

But vacationland has its price. There is a frantic side to the economy as merchants try to wrestle a year's worth of living out of the summer months. They cater to out-of-towners, perhaps resenting them a little too, and play up an idea of Maine — lobster knickknacks, ol' fisherman tchotchkes, balsam air fresheners — that seems almost a parody of the life that once defined this region.

When New Harbor grew too crowded for my grandparents in 1941, they bought a cottage overlooking Pig's Cove on Southport Island for $2,000. Today that cottage is owned by my uncle, who is in his 80s and with the help of my aunt turns our visits into long-overdue reunions. We rent the cottage next to theirs (seven days, $1,300) and make ourselves at home.

With three bedrooms, one bath, our rental is a place of wonder, testimony to more than 50 years of its owner's comings and goings: shelves crammed with books and board games, mismatched antiques, circle throw rugs, appliances that should be in the Smithsonian, driftwood mobiles hung from the ceiling that catch the breeze through the open door.

In the mornings, we awaken to the put-put-put-put of the fishing boats and gaze out the window at lobstermen moving from buoy to buoy. With a hook and a well-practiced swing, they winch the traps to the surface, pull out the legal bugs — or sing out, "No keepahs herah" — and move onto the next.

At night, we sit on the porch and listen to a foghorn in the distance and the surge of the tide running through the rock weed. Lights of boats cut through the darkness; shooting stars sear the sky.

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