Sitting in traffic on the highway, rushing to reach one's destination but moving nowhere, driving on Interstate 95 is perhaps the worst way to start a day in Maine?and yet, thousands begin their workday just like that.
Three hundred miles from beginning to end, Interstate 95 in the state of Maine provides, for millions of people, an essential route of transportation?and exquisite beauty, for those who care to look.
The Piscataqua River marks the border between New Hampshire and Maine, near Portsmouth. It is the third fastest-flowing navigable river in the world. For centuries, expert sailors and boating neophytes have been carried out to sea on its powerful current. "Piscataqua" is an Abenaki word that translates, roughly, to "a place where a river separates into two or three parts."
At sunset, the fading light glints off the shimmering, dark water as the sun sinks below the horizon. The sinuous river is particularly beautiful when viewed from the long, arching bridge that carries I-95 into Maine.
Traveling northbound, one is greeted by a sign right after the bridge: "Maine: The Way Life Should Be," it exclaims in block letters. The slogan rings particularly true after the exquisite sunset. The sign also rings true after passing through the "Live Free or Die" state where road maintenance and a certain spiritual emptiness both seem less than exemplary.
Interstate 95 runs northeast from one end of Maine to the other, through York, Kennebunk and Saco to Portland. Unlike along parts of 95 in other states where a strip mall on the side of the highway every few miles is de rigueur, one cannot see many commercial developments between Portsmouth and Portland.
Trees line the highway in Maine. In autumn, the colors are pretty enough to draw leaf peepers from around the nation. It seems as if one is driving through a giant quilt of orange, red and yellow that is gently draped over hills and distant mountains.
During the long winter, the only color on the side of the road is the dark green of scattered pines and hemlocks. When it snows, as it often does in Maine, the evergreen trees lining the highway are a chiaroscuro of muted shades of dense green and achingly pure white. The I-95 corridor is transformed into an exquisite winter postcard.
Passing the multitude of signs for various points of interest in Portland?the Jetport, the train station, sports arenas, etc.'95 slithers north where it intersects with 295, the road to Brunswick. Interstate 95 does not go directly to Brunswick, only to New Brunswick in Canada. But the border is hours away, even traveling well above the 65 m.p.h. speed limit.
Continuing northbound after passing Maine's most important city, I-95 passes Maine's most famous body of water, the Poland Spring.
Bowdoin's rival colleges are situated off I-95. Going northward, one hits Lewistown first. Known to many as the "armpit of Maine," stopping in Bates' hometown makes one wonder if, perhaps, the state slogan is false advertising. Before reaching Waterville, the pleasant town that Colby claims as home, the highway cuts through Maine's capital, Augusta. The next town?and the last one with a population of any real significance?is Bangor. Given what comes next on 95, it feels like the town is the last outpost of civilization. After passing through Bangor, I-95 meanders northeast through the desolate hinterlands of Maine?nary a car or sign of civilization can be seen.
This is not a bad thing though. There is peace in desolation, especially with the extraordinary views that present themselves between Bangor and Canada.
The highest point in the state Maine is visible from I-95 as it passes Baxter State Park. Mount Katahdin rises majestically out of the endless forest wilderness, its snow-capped peak clearly visible.
Watching Katahdin at dawn from I-95 is a breathtaking experience. The sky lightens from a jet black to a navy blue. Well before dawn for those at sea level, the sun hits the top of Katahdin. The snow at the top of the mountain reflects the light to create a truly exquisite site. That the peak of Katahdin is the first place in the United States
to see the sun every morning, adds in a unique way to the beauty of the dawn.
A few miles later, the town Houlton appears and then the border with Canada. To the north, miles over the border, New Brunswick Highway 95 connects to the Trans-Canada Highway leading all the way to Toronto and beyond.
To the south, I-95 hugs the eastern seaboard. It passes through 15 states before reaching its terminus in Florida, at land's end. Like the evergreen trees framing both sides of the Interstate, 95 stretches into the distance perennially.
Standing on the side of the road, the rising sun glinting off the snow-capped peak of Mount Katahdin, one cannot help but think that the journey is perhaps as fulfilling as the destination?wherever that may be.
Interstate 95 is not a bad way to start a day in Maine, after all.