To Step Off the Map

If you live in New England, sooner or later you’ll have this experience: you’ll find yourself driving down a road you’ve driven a hundred times before and you’ll notice something is different. At first, you might shrug it off, but the idea will dog you until you realize something is wrong: something is there that wasn’t there before, a small detail like a sign or a tree, or perhaps it’s something bigger, like a house or perhaps a road that branches off the main drag which you can’t believe you never noticed before.

 

If you’re curious or perhaps just plain foolish, you might just backtrack and turn down that road to see where it goes. What harm will it do, you ask? And where that road takes you might just be to a place from which you can never escape,not because you’re lost and can’t get back to your starting point, but because once you turn around and finally make your hurried way back home, you can never go back, because when you try to return down that road or to that house, you discover, much to your chagrin and mounting concern, that there is no house and no one you know, I mean no one, has ever seen that road that branched off into that place you went. You might try a hundred times to find that road again, but it just isn’t there.

 

Sound like something out of the Twilight Zone? I know. Is it possible that things like this do happen? As the writer of these stories here at Strange New England, I’ve done a fair amount of research about the inexplicable, but stories about disappearing places? Perhaps this it the ‘glitch in the matrix’ kind of story that makes for good late night reading on Reddit.   Perhaps it’s more of a time slip tale? It’s as though once you’ve slipped out of one place and into another, you don’t even want to think about it, or the implications that it brings. I mean, all you have to prove you were ever in such a place or on such a road is your own recollection, and that can easily be discounted to fatigue, a trick of the light, or even a creation of an overstimulated mind.

 

Still, such a thing happened to my wife and I when we were first married over thirty years ago and to this day, we are both convinced that we were allowed a glimse of a place and perhaps a time, that does not exist, at least on any map we can find. And we wouldn’t be the first who found themselves in such a predicament.  No matter where you are on Earth there are GPS coordinates that will tell you exactly where you are and they are as close as your smartphone. You can save your location like a bookmark and return to it at your leisure.  But there might just be places that don’t show up on the maps, places the GPS satellites don’t cover and these places, if they exist, perhaps only exist in the geography of imagination.

 

What I’m about to tell you really happened. My wife, Victoria, and I, both experienced it and it continues to haunt us to this day. Perhaps the word ‘haunt’ is incorrect. It doesn’t frighten us when we recall what happened. When we remember it, we do so with longing and something else…I think I’ll call it hope.

 

We met in college in the early 1980s. I was living on campus in Orono and she was commuting from Dexter three or four times a week, still living with her parents. We had an immediate connection and within two years, we were married and living in a tiny apartment in Bangor, happy and looking forward to whatever came our way. We both worked during the week and though we had almost no money at all, we really were about as happy as either of us ever expected we ever would be. We had an old red Datsun pickup and on weekends, Vic armed with her State of Maine DeLorme Gazeteer, and I  would go exploring.  For you to understand the impact of this story, you must know that Vic has an excellent sense of direction. I can get lost driving home from work, but not Vic. She has a nearly infallible internal compass and can easily weave her way to a place using backroads and byways that appear as only dotted lines on the maps. Be it Boston or some small hidden Maine village whose name is tiny on the map, Vic is a keen pilot.

 

It was on a late August afternoon that we found ourselves sitting under a tree having a picnic with our friends, Thane and her future husband, James, in Newburgh, Maine, about twenty minutes away from our Bangor apartment. Situated halfway between Hampden and Dixmont, Newburgh is rural with mostly small houses and farms surrounded by wooded, rolling hills and farmland. There are many sideroads leading off Kennebec Road.  As the day wore down to dinner time, we decided it was time to head back into Bangor. With little else to do, we took it upon ourselves to take the ride slowly just in case any new path came our way that we could explore. There were hours of daylight left and we had no particular place to go.

 

We turned onto Kennebec Road and began driving back to Bangor with the lazy afternoon sun still high overhead. Vic and I both grew up in the country, she in Dexter and I in Caribou, and though we were now residents of Bangor, we were hopeful to someday find our own little place away from the hustle and flow of the city in which we now lived. We talked about it often, but only in a vague, in the distant future kind of way. We couldn’t afford to buy a used car, let alone a plot of land in the country. To that end, we often turned down back roads, especially if they were narrow and tree-lined and unpaved, looking for some prime piece of real estate in which to plant a dream. You never know where you’ll end up when you start down such a road. You might find a sheltered little village or at least an abandoned farm or two that you might be able to buy cheap and revamp into your own little paradise on earth, some place with only a foundation and perhaps an ancient orchard to tell us that people once lived there before the ravages of time caught up to them. We had little else back then except our dreams and each other, so it was a cheap adventure to go exploring.

 

“Here,” Vic said as we approached a road just barely visible until you were right on it. “Turn here. Let’s see where that goes.”  We were perhaps three miles from our friend’s house in Newburgh.

 

It was a narrow track with barely enough room for our truck, our tires vibrating to the dirt, sending a small cloud of dust behind us as we drove, erasing the world. The trees that lined the road were deciduous, not evergreen, with maples and birches predominating. There were no houses to be seen and telephone poles, either. In fact, there was little on either side of this road to indicate that anyone lived nearby. Such roads aren’t that rare in this part of the state. They are the rule, rather than the exception.  As we continued on for perhaps a half mile, we noticed the road rising as we made our way up the slope of a hill.

 

When we reached the top of that hill, what we saw was burned into each of our memories. Even today, thiry years later, we reminisce about it. Vic remembers the details better, with the eye of an artist, but without a doubt, we both remember the same place with the same details.

 

There was a field on the right just before the old white farmhouse. Across the road from the farmhouse was a traditional red barn with perhaps a small outbuilding or two. Another field to the left of the barn rolled out down the hill into what appeared like a long private valley. We could see no other houses either nearby or in the distance. I stopped the car because it appeared to us from our vantage point that the road ended right there, in front of the little house.

 

We sat transfixed, quietly taking it all in. Later we would each claim that this was our idea of a dream house, in a dream spot and that no other place we could ever imagine could be as perfect as this place. It was a small, two-story house with a white fence and flowers blooming next to the foundation, the kind of farmhouse you’d find in a hundred small Maine towns anywhere in the state. The medium sized-barn was well-kept and sturdy with one sliding board door, all closed. Whoever lived here took pride in appearances. It felt like home.

 

As we looked out over the field in the distance, we saw a green valley and a wooded hill beyond, looking southward toward Dixmont. It was a secluded spot, away from the world and we felt that in a very real way. There were no cars or tractors, just the buildings and the road and the view that seemed to never end. As we sat there, a nagging feeling of having to leave entered our minds, but we lingered nonetheless. I remember putting the car in reverse to turn around when Vic stopped me and asked if we couldn’t go closer to the house, to see what lay beyond. I said I didn’t think so. Were we trespassing? Yes, probably, though there was no posted sign and we had turned down this path innocently enough. We contented ourselves by soaking in the view for a few more moments before I backed onto the field, turned the truck around and left, catching my final glimpse of the golden afternoon in the rearview mirror as we rose over the top of the hill and made our way back to the Kennebec Road.

 

But for days we couldn’t get the thought of that place out of our minds. How often did we talk about how perfect it seemed, how a place like that…no…how that place would make a perfect home, a hideaway with a few acres where we could settle down and build a life together.  We knew we couldn’t afford a place like that, not yet, but we could dream, couldn’t we? For a week, we spoke of little else. The next Saturday we loaded a picnic lunch into the old Datsun and drove back to that place, this time to knock on the door and meet the people who lived in our dream house.

 

But we couldn’t find the road. At first we both laughed it off, amused that we could have missed such an obvious thing, but as the afternoon wore on, it became clear to us that we were searching frantically for something which, to be quite honest, wasn’t there anymore. But how could a road vanish? How could we be so wrong about its location when both of us distinctly could recall the entire series of events that led us to that place?  As the afternoon wore on and we had backtracked again and again to no avail, we shrugged our shoulders and found our way back home, completely stymied by the whole experience. We were sure we had seen it, certain that we weren’t experiencing some shared hallucination, but at the end of the day one thing was clear: we couldn’t find the road that led to the house that felt more like home than any place we had seen before.

 

Time passed. Life kept us busy enough and like most people when faced with the unexplained, we shrugged it off as our own mistake. Somehow, we had simply missed the turn. We had obviously not paid attention to detail, lost in the perfect moment we spent looking out into the field beyond the house and into the isolated valley below.  It was a small thing, really, and we had a life to build, but in the back of our minds, we always wondered.  As the years passed, we kept looking. No one we knew had any idea what we were talking about, not that we told many about our visit to the lost valley.  We scoured the maps, tried every back road and dirt path we could find, but to no end. That house and barn, that long valley, those forested hills beyond were nowhere to be found. When Google Earth came online, we made a point to scrutinize the imagery as closely as we could, expanding our search to miles beyond anywhere we had been on that late summer Saturday so many years ago.  That road, that house and barn, simply aren’t there.

 

We strayed off the map. It happens from time to time. It might have happened to you and you weren’t even aware of it.  How could you know, unless you were enchanted by something you saw and tried to find it again and found it gone, dissolved into the space between the atoms of the world, unavailable to you, ever again. What haunts my wife and I today, more than anything else, is the feeling that we were supposed to see that place, that it was no accident that we stumbled upon it. It felt like home to us, that much remains. Everything else is just a mystery.

 

If you’ve ever found yourself off the map and dare to share your story, please contact us at strangenewenglander@gmail.com. We’d love to hear from you and if nothing else, assure you that in the strange world of people and doings, you are not alone.

 

 

 

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