Friday, August 18, 2017

Maine Misadventures (Alissa Grosso)

These days, for reasons that are not entirely clear, the majority of my extended family lives in Maine. None of them are from there. They're all from New Jersey. Before, any of them moved up there, in the summer before I started sixth grade, my parents decided to take us on a family vacation to Ogunquit, Maine. 

According to Mapquest it should have taken us less than six hours to reach our destination. It took us considerably more. I have been to Maine several times since this first trip, and I can assure you this is almost always the case. It's like some sort of optical illusion and is always further away than it appears.

Very early one summer morning, my parents, my sister and I piled into Mom's new Cherokee Chief to make our Maine maiden voyage. In an effort to save time, and break up the long (they had no idea how long!) car trip, my parents had decided that instead of eating breakfast at home, we would stop somewhere in Connecticut for breakfast. 

We were cruising along Route 95 in Connecticut when our stomachs began to collectively announce that it was time to eat, and so we began to look for likely places to stop, and then without warning traffic came to complete halt. This was not a slow crawl, we were simply stopped dead.

We waited in the car, but no one in the northbound lanes of the multilane interstate was moving. Then we did see some folks moving, but they were headed back in the opposite direction, making use of the grassy highway median. My dad decided this was a brilliant idea. After all, Mom's Jeep came equipped with four wheel drive and it wasn't too far back that we had passed an exit. So, he joined the  small stream of cars that was trying to make a break for it.

The police, though were arriving on the scene and quickly put an end to the retreat. Presumably some fortunate folks were able to make it back to the last exit, but we were not among their number. We were herded back into the stopped highway traffic, now a few hundred feet further back from where we had stopped before. 

Traffic remained at a complete standstill. Cars were turned off, and people began to get out of their cars and make the acquaintance of their new highway neighbors. News made its way back from the front lines. The reason for the traffic jam was an overturned tractor trailer carrying a load of swordfish steaks. It made our stomachs growl, even though no one in our car was particularly fond of eating swordfish. My family was not in the habit of traveling with snacks or water. So, we were starving and thirsty.

My dad stayed with the car, while my mom took my sister and I on a walk up the highway which had become a parking lot. We were, in our own weird suburban way, foraging for food. I think our hope was that we might find that just up ahead there would be some restaurant or convenience store that would be just close enough to the highway that we might be able to hike there and buy some food. We had no such luck. There was a Coca-Cola truck stuck in the traffic jam. Though many of the trapped motorists begged him, the driver refused to sell off any of his bounty. Eventually we returned to the car, empty handed.

The sun rose higher in the sky, and we began to wonder if we might spend the rest of our lives trapped on a highway in Connecticut. In all, we waited four hours in stopped dead traffic before the truck and the dead fish were cleared from the road. 

My sister, my dad and I on one of our other New England vacations.

I would like to say that the rest of our trip was uneventful, but this is Maine and traveling to it, is seldom uneventful. We did at least make it over the Maine state line without further incident, but shortly thereafter all hell broke loose.

Because of our four hour delay, we were running a bit behind schedule and were now stuck in the stop and go traffic on Route 1, that my father thought he would avoid by getting on the road super early. Looking out the windshield my mom saw what looked like smoke, and pointed it out.

My dad reassured her that it must be coming from the car in front of us. After all, our car was brand new, and my father pointed out, we were in Maine. It was the wilderness, and people drove all manner of beaters. My mom pointed out that it looked like the smoke was coming from our hood, and then my dad looked down and saw that the car's temperature gauge had shot into the red. There was some profanity as he maneuvered the car out of traffic and into a parking lot at the side of the road.

For the second time that day my mom was sent on a foraging mission. Dad told her to hunt down water and antifreeze. This time my sister and I stayed with my dad. When the car cooled off enough to open the hood and see what the problem was, it became clear that water and antifreeze alone, weren't going to do the trick. The radiator hose had a nice big hole in it. A few different people stopped to help, and eventually one of those helpers had some duct tape to repair the hose. 

Mom soon returned, too, in the back of a police car. It was all good, though. She had struck up a conversation with the cop in the convenience store when she saw that the name on his badge was the same as her maiden name. She told him our predicament and he gave her a lift back.

Eventually we made it to Ogunquit. Phone calls were made to the local Jeep dealership. As it happens, our car was subject to a recall, and they would be able to repair it, though they would need to order the parts to do it. We were lucky that the town was pretty walkable and even had a cute little trolley that drove around. For the week that we were there we relied on our feet at the trolley to get to everywhere we were going.

Mom's Cherokee was repaired in time for our return trip. It was a blissfully uneventful return trip. We were brave enough to attempt a few more trips to Maine in the Cherokee. They did not always go well. Later, as an adult I would end up driving some Cherokees of my own, they also did not take to New England travel. On the plus side, though, thanks to my 1987 Cherokee Wagoneer I became something of an expert at changing radiator hoses.

I know it's a bit late in the summer, but if you are planning a summer road trip to Maine here are a few tips that I have learned the hard way:
  1. Always eat breakfast before you leave. It's the most important meal of the day, and I know it's tempting to think that you'll have a nice, big breakfast on the road, but take it from me, plans do not always work out, swordfish steak trucks to do not always stay upright and you'll be thankful you had the foresight to eat a healthy breakfast when you are trapped on an interstate highway for hours on end.
  2. Bring snacks and water.  Even if you follow tip number 1, it's still a good idea to always have some snacks and plenty of water. That said, drinking too much water can lead to other complications if you do happen to get stuck in a four hour traffic jam.
  3. If you're going to Maine, maybe don't drive a Jeep. My experience has only been with Jeep's in the Cherokee line, so maybe you'll be safe in a Wrangler or a Patriot or something, but do you really want to chance it? I know it sounds crazy, but any Jeep I've ever drove or ridden in has not been happy about driving to Maine. I've traveled to Maine via Nissan Xterra, Plymouth minivan and Honda CRV without much fuss, just saying.
  4. Wherever you go, take notes. You never know, your travel misadventures might just make for an entertaining blog post at the least or, who knows, they could wind up being the inspiration for a movie. (Michael Arndt who wrote the Little Miss Sunshine screenplay was at least partly inspired by his family's own adventures traveling in a VW bus.)
Alissa Grosso's travel misadventures could fill a book, but she hasn't written that one yet. She is the author of the books Shallow Pond, Ferocity Summer and Popular. You can find out more about her at


  1. I have found that it always takes longer than it should to get to Maine, but I've never had (knock wood) a trip such as yours! Interestingly, my husband and I also got stuck on I-95 in Connecticut once, due to an accident that completely stopped traffic and had us turn off the engine for a while--no swordfish, though.

    1. I think after that trip we decided to never take 95 again and stick to 84, which can be hit or miss, too.

  2. Real Mainers have learned never to vacation elsewhere...We just go north or Down East. AND we're never hungry thanks to wild berries and fresh roadkill. (I live an hour north of Augusta)

    1. You're right on that score, Berek! My Mainer family members are loathe to leave the state - maybe they know what a chore it is to travel back to it!

  3. Agree: driving to and through Maine always takes longer than I think it will!

    1. Crazy, right? It's like some sort of vortex or something.

  4. I swear, you ought to write a memoir.

  5. On our family trips to NH, we got up a little early to eat a hearty breakfast, because on Long Island, you have to get up at the crack of dawn if you don't want to sit in traffic all day trying to get off the island. We always stopped at a McDonalds in Hartford CT, about the midpoint of the drive. We knew we were in foreign territory because there was mustard on the burgers! But though we weren't allowed to eat in the car, we did have candy, Necco wafers in particular (and yes, it was morning, but vacations have their own rules!).

    1. Yeah, I think the traffic concerns getting out of Jersey were why we left bright and early for that Maine trip. In Maine the McDonalds have lobster sandwiches on the menu, talk about foreign territory!