Finding Maine by way of Montana, Vermont and a friend’s voice

Many years ago, fresh out of college and a couple of years into my first job, I read the book First Person Rural, Essays of a Sometime Farmer, written in 1978 by Noel Perrin. After finishing the book I was convinced that one day I would go to Vermont, buy a 10-acre farm, raise chickens, buy some sheep, maybe even a cow, and live life on purpose. I write this today from my home in Starboard Cove, Maine.

I am here Downeast, but at that particular time in my life, a Vermont life was essentially all I thought and talked about. Perrin went on to write a total of four books, all commentaries on rural life, which I read. Each one fed my desire to learn as much as I could about farms and rural living and make this dream a reality.

In 1963, Perrin bought an 82-acre farm in Thetford, Vermont. At the time he was a 35- year-old professor of English at Dartmouth College.  Over the next 15 years, Perrin learned from the ground up everything farm life had to offer. Then he began writing about all of it, using a number of different formats. Mostly, Perrin approached a subject from a practical how-to, and then would sprinkle it all, from time to time, with broad philosophical commentary.

These stories would emanate from the everyday trappings of farm life. Perrin would showcase the good and the not so good, all of which was accompanied by humor and a graciousness that came from his writing. For me, Perrin’s stories lit an ember and fanned the fire of a dream to seek and find my own little slice of rural America.

Perrin died in 2004, so these interactions between professor, writer and sometimes farmer, with me, the reader and aspiring farmer, ceased. Over the course of the first few books, co-workers and friends took notice to my determination and lovingly chided my dream and me. I would receive gimmicky gifts, some useful, some ridiculous, but all in jest on this imagined life I would talk to them about. One Christmas I received from husband and wife co-workers of mine at the time a set of refrigerator magnets cut out of wood in the shape of sheep.  These friends of mine have since died, but their gift provides memories of them and my talks about Vermont.

And before all of this Vermont-talk started, there was Montana. When I was in the sixth grade I had this crazy idea that one day I would live in Montana. I am uncertain where this idea came from or why something like it would even decide to show up. I was a city kid, raised on the south side of Allentown. I played marbles, basketball and whiffle ball, rode a three-speed bike and the farthest I’d ever been away from home was a beach in New Jersey. Yet, I found myself, for whatever reason, drawn to big sky country and its remoteness to everything I knew. Why?

Photo courtesy Wendy Darling

Thinking back on all of this, I believe there was something innate in these visions of a life in Vermont and Montana. Thoughts of leaving and going somewhere remote, where independence was the rule, not the exception, somehow crept into me at a young age, sat there for awhile, got comfortable, and then aged like a fine wine until finally morphing into something more permanent — Maine.

“Go to Maine, it’s a wonderful place,” is what he said. This was a casual response to a serious question from a conversation with my boss at the time on potential vacation destinations. Tyson Sprandel then nonchalantly added with a serious look and a smile, “Go to Maine, you’ll never regret it.” I was recently married, had my first mortgage, my first car payment, so the expenses surrounding all of these “firsts” was not going to allow a Vermont dream to happen, at least not in the near future. So, heeding Mr. Sprandel’s words, I took his direction on where to go, stay and things to do, and so on. That summer of 1983, my wife and I headed to Maine.

Ultimately visiting Maine that long ago summer, and then, “finding Maine” in the years that followed and deciding to stay forever, is the result of my ingrained desire to be somewhere and live life on purpose. Maine was the only choice after all. One could say the place has that perfect blend of a Montana big sky and a Vermont green unspoiled landscape, without the covered bridges. And it has a shoreline that speaks a language as if dripping off an explorer’s tongue— come, find and stay.

In Starboard, there is a big blue sky and a magical body of water dressed in fog most of the time, with tall spruce trees nudging forward on a coastline of granite, shell and driftwood. I do not have 10 acres of farmland but twice that of wooded bliss to walk on and through from morning to dusk. I do not have a cow or goats but know where to find them if ever the urge gets too much. I do have chickens, which keep me and many friends loaded in omelets. I did try my hand at raising bees, which at the moment is in a holding pattern as I survey the carnage of two lost hives and determine where I go from here.

Life is not a riddle, I am sure of this. Life is a seed that is buried deep within each of us. It sits there biding its time, learning, growing, developing, until something or someone plants an idea— waters the seed if you will— and it suddenly sprouts, giving direction to find purpose. I found my life, my purpose, from the photos of Montana as a child to the stories of a Vermont farm life by a professor and sometime farmer and from the words of a friend who said, “Go to Maine, it’s a wonderful place”. I ultimately did, and in the words oft quoted by Perrin, “It will be no bad legacy to leave.”

RJ Heller

About RJ Heller

Having arrived here from Pennsylvania over four years ago, there has been plenty to learn and even more to observe. This place is different, but I mean that in a good way. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, I am a college graduate with a teaching degree, a business founder and seller, and a father of two children with my wife Stephanie; life has been full and somewhat adventurous, but finding Maine remains a high watermark in my life.