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Friday, September 14, 2007

Desert of Maine

The camel in this photo is not real, but the place is. The Desert of Maine, which because of the camel statue and the standard gift shop might make this seem a typical tourist trap. Typical it is not. And it’s more of a sand trap than a tourist trap.

Some years ago a contestant on the TV quiz program “Jeopardy” replied “What is the Desert of Maine?” to the answer of which is the most eastern desert to be found in the United States. At first he was told his response was incorrect, but after a commercial and a little adjudication, the contestant was vindicated and the answer was accepted. The Desert of Maine is an actual desert, even if there’s not quite 50 acres of it.

The area was the site of the William Tuttle farm in 1797, but after a couple of generations of overworking the soil, erosion wore away at the grassland and topsoil, and revealed a stubborn, shimmering spot of glacial silt. Long before Farmer Tuttle came along, long before anybody came along, the last Ice Age receded about 11,000 years ago and dragged a few levels of what would later be Maine with it.

Eventually, the silt was covered by topsoil and later forest. It lay there underneath for centuries, and finally poked through in Freeport, Maine. It began to spread, and that was the end of the farm. In 1919 the land was bought by Henry Goldrup, who cleverly turned the spot into a tourist attraction. The automobile was fast turning the family picnic into the family road trip, and Route 1 brought tourists to the little desert that could.

Today there are hiking trails, an escorted tram ride, activities for the kids, and of course, the gift shop. On the day of my visit, the guide suggested the desert would continue to spread across the eroding topsoil and one day reach as far south as Portland. If you want to see this fantastic phenomenon, you’ll have to wait a few tens of thousands of years. Be patient. No shouting, “Is it there, yet? Is it there, yet?” I hate that on a road trip.

If you do visit the Desert of Maine, remember it’s quite hot on a sunny day, as the minerals of the silt reflect the suns rays. It could be a pleasant 75 or 80 degrees on Route 1, but it’ll be in the 90s or even 100 in the desert.

Want to go? Visit the website of the Desert of Maine for more details. They are open only on a seasonal basis, from May to October.

Been there? Done that? Bought the T-shirt? Let us know.

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