A state of pristine lakes, vast forests, pretty coastal towns, and a surfeit of seafood, Maine is the ideal summer-time setting for a U.S. road trip
A sandwich nearly spoils our holiday. We’ve just crossed from New Hampshire into Maine, entering a land of 1950s motels, seasonal soft-serve ice cream stands, miniature golf, and enormous RVs steered by spry retirees. Our spirits are high—my husband is relieved to have a break from congested Asian cities, and I’m eager for an all-American vacation in New England’s last real wilderness.
For the first part of our weeklong drive around Maine, we’re heading inland to join some friends at their lakeside cabin. But I’ve insisted that we take Route 1, a coastal road. My husband expresses his misgivings; he would rather stick to the interstate, which I dismiss as dull. In fact, I’m hell-bent on having a lobster roll and getting a whiff of the briny Atlantic.
Unfortunately, every other vacationer has the same idea and we’re soon mired in a tailback of SUVs, station wagons, and Winnebagos. A detour to glimpse the sea at Ogunquit doesn’t improve matters: the beach is filled with chain-smoking Québécois and menacing gulls, and the sky is steel gray. Back in the car, my normally patient husband grips the steering wheel, knuckles white, and asks me tensely, “Remind me again, what’s so special about this sandwich?”
It’s not just any sandwich. It’s the lobster roll at the Clam Shack in Kennebunkport, which has been serving rolls and every permutation of fried seafood since 1968. Sure, there’s a touch of the tourist trap and some serious self-aggrandizement: owner Steve Kingston won the 2012 Lobster Roll Rumble in New York and now refers to himself as “the King of the Lobster Roll.” But I’m undeterred.
Finally, armed with the desired roll and half a pint of fried whole-belly clams, we find a bench along the rickety balcony hugging the Clam Shack’s retail shop. The roll is solid; a one-pound lobster is cooked in fresh seawater, shucked, then lightly dressed in mayo before being piled onto a toasted bun. The real revelation, however, is the fried clams: crisp and greaseless, with that pure tang of the sea—the taste of childhood summers. A few clams later, my husband and I have made our truce.
Despite my Chinese heritage, I like to think of myself as a born-and-bred New England Yankee. My father chose to move his growing family to Connecticut after getting his Ph.D. in 1972, because, like any good Asian parent, he reckoned physical proximity to the Ivy League schools increased the likelihood of his children actually getting into one of them. Today, my father proudly calls himself a New Englander. Yankee grit and ingenuity and, above all, the Calvinist work ethic, made intuitive sense to him.
Yet compared to Mainers, we’re not real New Englanders. Long after the rest of the region turned to industry, Maine’s fortunes remained tied to the land and sea. And winters here are brutal, as the first English settlers discovered to their dismay—their 1607 colony, Popham, lasted only a year. It takes a certain type to survive Maine year-round. Still, ever since my parents packed us into our blue Buick station wagon and drove up to Acadia National Park one August, I’ve had a fixed notion that Maine is the place to experience the glories of an American summer.