At the Park
By Stephanie Paterson
This essay explores Reid State Park in Maine.
I was hired as a laborer just out of high school at Reid State Park on the Seguinland Road in Georgetown, Maine. It's Maine's first state-owned saltwater beach and spans roughly 770 acres. To get there, you travel down Route 127, thirteen miles from Route 1. I used to tell friends, "After the Bath Bridge, hang a right at the Dairy Queen and you'll see salt marshes, cemeteries, the Georgetown Pottery Store and the General Store. If you miss the turn off at Flag Rock, you will end up at the wharf, one of the best spots for lobsters and steamers and grilled haddock sandwiches."
My job at Reid stays with me because I returned like a migrating bird every year for about twelve summers, the length of time that it took me to earn a B.A. and then an M.A. and then a Ph.D. It was a seasonal position that fit perfectly with my college schedule, running from early June to the end of August. In the winter months I read books and wrote papers. In the summer months I spent my days outdoors surrounded by woods and ocean.
Georgia Pinkham at the front gate knew my father when he was just a boy in Five Islands, Maine and she vouched for me. The General Manager, a giant of a man named Dalton Kirk, took a risk and hired me, all five feet of me. I didn't look like I had the physique to push industrial manual mowers on forty-five-degree angle parking lot islands, or haul rocks, or do eight hours of manual labor for forty hours a week, but I could. In offering me that job, they gave me a chance to learn what I could do physically.
I learned how to work on a crew and how to show up on time. I learned how to be responsible and move up the ranks from laborer to assistant ranger to public relations ranger. I learned how to communicate in ten-codes. I was given a new identity: "1464." I carried a radio on my belt and a typical conversation went like this: "1464 to 1465 (pause) 10-20?" In other words, "Where are you?"
I learned what my hands could do. I learned how to prep, and sand, and then paint or varnish buildings. I learned endurance mowing and weed whacking, and the daily work of sweeping, and cleaning, and disinfecting bath houses, and how to crawl down underneath a building to clean out sand traps. I learned how to build paths. I learned how to work with heavy machinery, like the chipper, or "chippah" as we say in Maine. I learned how to break big jobs into smaller doable jobs and also how a single job was comprised of so many different kinds of tasks. I learned how to talk to park visitors from all across the country and around the world. I learned how to trim trees, and cut back overgrowth. How to fix an ailing mower. How to put down asphalt and smooth it with a giant tamper. How to put up fencing in the dunes. How to dig with an old fashioned post-hole digger. How to lift and lower dam gates at the tidal lagoon.
I learned how to work in every kind of weather, which in Maine sometimes occurred all in a single day. I learned about what grows at Reid State Park and also the seasons of things and the wildlife: deer, racoons, chipmunks, osprey, eider ducks, seals, shorebirds. I learned about the ocean and its undertows. I adapted to tidal time and learned to sense when rain and storms were moving in. I bought an Audubon Guide to Wildflowers and learned the names of things: Bunchberry, Phlox, Rugosa roses, Yellow yarrow, Deadly nightshade, purple Fireweed. I learned what my body could endure. I learned how to push myself even when I felt exhausted. I learned that the body has deeper reserves than the mind knows. I also learned to take the sanctioned fifteen minute breaks and how important it was to give the mind and body a time-out.
Back then my checks came from the Bureau of Conservation. Now it's the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. In addition to our regular paychecks, we received a thirty-three percent discount from L.L.Bean. This was like winning the Maine lottery. A great deal of my paycheck went right back to L.L Bean, because I bought gear for the job — thick wool socks, hiking boots, sunglasses, and waterproof gear for the heavy rain days. Most days, I considered it a privilege to be paid to work outdoors in such a breathtaking landscape.
Even though I have moved three-thousand miles away, to the Central Valley of California, I have so many good summer memories that will live in me for all time. Because I inhabited that landscape of beach and woods and salt marsh so wholly, it's now alive in me. I have memories of clam digging on Little River, and canoeing down that same river when the tide was high. I spent hours exploring tide pools and collecting sea glass. I picked plump sun-warmed blackberries and ripe red raspberries. I learned about least tern and piping plover nesting sites. I walked Mile and Half Mile Beach probably a million times, some days several times a day, which taught my legs stamina.
On my off hours, when I wasn't picking up trash, or emptying garbage cans and doing "the dump run," or scrubbing toilets, or sweeping, I was reading on the rocks. I had perches all over the park. So many ocean-side nooks and crannies. I read on the rocky overlook of Griffith's Head staring out at Tern Island and over toward Boothbay Harbor. I read on the Todd's Point Beach rocks looking out at Seguin Island and the Cuckolds and Hendrick's Head. I watched for birds in the salt marsh. I burrowed my bare feet in the grainy hot sand. I fell in love with the changing light and began to take photographs of that beach and the surrounding woods, and my photography has turned into a lifetime hobby.
For sixty-six years local residents and tourists have been returning to Reid State Park to experience awe. I was listening to a talk not too long ago with Lani Shiota on "How Awe Transforms the Body." The thing about awe is that it opens up the opportunity to see the world in a new way. If the regular hurried pace of life induces the fight and flight response, a place like Reid State Park calms the autonomic nervous system. When I am there, I breathe differently. I breathe in the salty air, and point my face toward the sun, and listen to the gulls, and I stand at the top of Griffith's Head Rocks and I feel small in the larger order of things. I am reminded in this spectacular landscape where the ocean meets the land that everything is connected.
I venture to say Reid State Park has everything--island, ocean, beach, tide pool, lagoon, salt marsh, woods, and trails. The place has changed in some ways (new bath houses and more handicap accessible pathways), a shifting beach and dunes — but mostly it stays the same. And this constancy is one of the draws that keeps me and others coming back. The granite rocks remain. The steady tide remains. The Rugosa roses return every summer and bloom and turn into sweet rose hips you can nibble on. Part of the beauty of a park like Reid is the constancy--sure the light changes, and the weather changes, and the tide changes, and the wildflowers come and go, and the staff and visitors come and go, but this stretch of beach largely remains the same, and I am grateful to Walter E. Reid for donating the land in 1946, and grateful to Dalton Kirk who hired me in 1989, and grateful to the current staff and manager who protect this land, and grateful for memories gathered every summer over a lifetime. I continue to make the annual migration as visitor, tourist, devotee.
Stephanie Paterson grew up in Portland, Maine and now lives in Turlock, California where she teaches writing at CSU Stanislaus. She’s a hiker-writer-runner-quilter. Find her on online at https://athousandfibersblog.wordpress.com/ or on Twitter at @stephpaterson13.