Review of ‘North Country, A Personal Journey’

North Country, A Personal Journey
By Howard Frank Mosher
Houghton Mifflin

"Anyone who wants to take a trip as badly as you do will find a way to take it," a Gypsy fortune-teller in New York City told Howard Frank Mosher.

Sure enough. That year, 1993, Mosher turned 50. He decided to "celebrate" with a "midlife adventure"; he would drive alone from Maine to Washington State, the radio wailing country music, his fly rod in the trunk, and explore the northern borderlands.

Mosher, a novelist, lives along the border himself, in Vermont's remote Northeast Kingdom, where roads are mostly empty except for logging trucks and beat-up tractors, and signs warn of moose. A local opera house has its stage in Quebec, its seats in Vermont. So Mosher knew the borderlands. But he wanted to see more, to set out for the wilder places.

Just before he left, Harper's rejected his latest story. Too old-fashioned, said the note, "with its traditional beginning, middle, and end." That required exorcism. Mosher reflected, "as I nailed the note to the side of my own weathered and disused barn at home and blasted the living hell out of it with my shotgun, what a sorry end this pellet-riddled scrap of paper was for a tree that may once have shaded a trout brook or a deer run."

He begins at Lubec, Maine, a town expiring with its sardine industry. As one old-timer says, "Who wants to open a can of oily old sardines when they can get a Big Mac anytime they wants?" It would become a theme of North Country, Mosher's book about his trip: "All my life I've been haunted by disappearances," he writes. He finds old border industries gone--as is the case in North Dakota's gouged-out land, where coal used to be--and no farms. But the old culture lingers, ignoring the boundary. As a Maine man tells him, "I don't see any border, do you? Just a beautiful country with a river running through it."

Most of the borderlands are so empty that Mosher finds his radio is producing little more than static. But he meets many fishermen, his coreligionists, from a 90-year-old Thoreau-quoting Maine guide to a drying-out alcoholic newspaperman bleakly fishing Washington's dam-tamed Columbia River, who looks as though everything his blue eyes alight on offends him. "Naturally," writes Mosher, "I liked him immediately."

In Search of Semi-Lost Realms

Mosher also finds I'll-do-it-myself-ism, like the Quebec bush pilot, massive as a Mack truck, who knows how to get his floatplane up from ponds "too small to take off from": hitch the plane to a shoreline spruce with a stout rope, "rev up the engine until the hawser hums with the tension, then pull the slipknot and use the plane's lurching leap forward as momentum to take off." Mosher discovers semi-lost realms, like Maine's border-straddling Madawaska Republic, settled by French-Canadians hounded from their Acadian homeland by the British, and a Minnesota town called "Food Gas Grocs Beer" because nothing remains but a store with that sign.

Mosher's book is a webwork of borderlands vignettes. There is the politically conservative Duluth businessman who nevertheless sports a Sierra Club bumper sticker because of a waterfall where he has long camped. "If the preservationists can save that waterfall for another forty years, God bless them," he says. In Pembina, North Dakota, Mosher makes the acquaintance of a winning stock car racer, an 18-year-old girl who has christened her wheels "The Brat Is Back."

Borderlanders regard government dubiously, Mosher finds. He gets rebellious himself, after a turn down an attractive lane in North Dakota leads him to an unmarked ICBM silo, where an Air Force sergeant hassles him. In Idaho, Mosher finds that the antigovernmental streak has attracted extremists. One man, shirtless, arms tattooed with swastikas, a pistol in a shoulder holster, announces that he is there to get away from things. Mosher asks him what. "Nonbelievers," the man says. "Schools. Government. Taxes. Electricity. The devil. . . . Writers like you." The next day, fishing in Idaho's border mountains, Mosher comes across a menacing bowman in camouflage and circles through the woods to escape the mysterious hunter.

But many of his encounters are poignant. Signs plead, "Our Town Needs A Doctor." He meets two rugged smokejumpers who feel unwelcome in their Washington borderlands hometowns because they are a homosexual couple. There is the cowboy pining for the city woman who jilted him and the retired Blackfoot sheriff who spent much of his career helping wayward kids find themselves. Mosher's trip ends at Blaine, Washington, where he meets two crabbers, a man and his teenage son. Nineteen years ago, the man flew in from Fiji, a penniless immigrant. "Now I have a wonderful wife, four great kids, a house," he says. "And next month I'm buying a salmon trawler."

What Mosher discovers on his trip is his own borderlands life--"walking the mountain each day of the year, visiting with friends, fishing for brook trout, watching a pickup baseball game on the village green, sitting quietly in the evening with the person I've loved for thirty years and more, reading a good old or new book, writing a new story. . . ."

And so Howard Frank Mosher drove home. And wrote a book.

Richard Wolkomir, a frequent contributor to Smithsonian whose recent articles include a history of flags and a look at the science of soil, writes from his own north-country household in Vermont.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.