I learned to drive motor vehicles in a driver’s education class during my senior year of high school in Maryland. I still use some driving skills that were in the book we used for that class--like never hitting the brakes and slowing down fast or continuing to hold the gas pedal down to accelerate while going over a bump or pot hole in the road. I am a much smoother than average driver. I had to learn a lot of other skillful driving techniques though when I moved to Maine and became a bear hunting guide shortly after graduating from Dundalk High School in 1968. I learned to drive Northern Maine style during the winter of 1968-69.
The very first time that I found out my driver’s ed class hadn’t taught me all that I needed to know to drive the way that they do up there in Maine was when I went to my first dance in Maine, over to Island Falls. I drove over there from Patten in my father’s big Ford station wagon. I had one local Patten country kid riding along with me on the way over and a whole carload of fun loving country kids with me when I drove back to Patten after the dance.
When I went around the first curve on the way back to Patten from Island Falls, one of the guys riding with me said that I had taken the curve all wrong. Naturally, I replied that I had taken it just like I was supposed to. And I had taken that curve just like a driver is supposed to in suburbia, but not on a country road. When another guy piped in and agreed with the first, I thought that it was joke they were going to play on the new guy in town who was also a newly licensed driver. But then the girls in car all began to heartily agree with the guys, so I figured that it was true. So I asked them what I’d done wrong.
The first guy told me that the curves up there were all banked like the curves on a professional race car track, and that as long as a driver can see that there are no other vehicles coming at them in a curve that the way to take the curve is to go up high on the bank then drop down into it and the curve will do the rest.
They all talked me into to going back and driving through that curve again. I did and sure enough the car was sort of sucked into the curve nice and comfortably as I dropped down into it and across the double yellow line into the other lane. Ever since then, I have used that driving technique many, many times. It was normal driving to the Mainers, but often scares the living daylights out of other people who are riding with me on country roads when I take them curves high and swoop in low like that.
When I was learning how to drive like a native Mainer, I lived with my Aunt Martha and Uncle Finley Clarke at Katahdin Lodge and Camps, which was about eleven miles north of Patten. My uncle taught me most of what I needed to know about safe but swift driving on those roads in Maine. I say swift, because them Mainers usually drove faster than the posted speed limits.
Some of the rules of that type of driving which my uncle taught me were:
I also learned to drive four wheel drive trucks all over Northern Maine. I drove them in all kinds of weather, and on every type of old, overgrown, rutted, muddy, flooded by a beaver pond, and/or quagmire of a logging road and on those roller coaster like dirt, gravel, or tar country roads.
When we Katahdin Lodge hunting guides drove four wheel drive trucks off road, we did it as smoothly and with the least impact on the woods roads that we could skillfully accomplish. We had to go back in there off road again several times a week to check on our bear baits and take paying hunters in there, so we did not want to tear up those already rough and sometimes muddy roads, like you see four wheelers do at off road driving and mud race. Because, on our future trips down them rough roads, we didn’t want to be bounced all around inside the cab of our truck and we didn’t want to bust up anything on our truck’s under chassis.
About the only off road driving technique taught to me by my uncle, and other top notch Maine drivers, that I can effectively share with you in print is that once you drive into standing water which is over the top of your vehicle’s tail pipe you never decelerate your engine’s RPMs. If you do the water will be sucked up into the tail pipe and stall you out. It takes a steady foot on the gas pedal to make it through standing water OK, my advice to you is don’t try it unless you’re in a medical emergency type situation.
I only got stuck twice in the snow up there during that winter of 1968-69, but one time it was on the hard packed snow out at the side of the road in front of Putt Gerow's tiny country store at Knowles Corner, and old Putt had just laughed lightly, shook his head slightly, then the old woodsman came out and showed me how to ease a vehicle out of a spot like that. I never got stuck in the mud though, and we had some genuine quagmires to drive through at times. And never once did I have a problem driving at the fast and sometimes furious pace required to get things done my uncle’s way. Ask anybody who was up there then, they'll tell ya.
I never would have made it through all those wild and crazy driving situations if I hadn’t been an open minded young man who listened to the advice from my uncle and other highly skilled Northern Maine drivers when they taught me some serious driving skills and techniques that the average driver never learns.
The most hellacious driving that I ever did up there resulted from the time that I was out in Katahdin Lodge’s back yard working, on a Wendsday afternoon during the early Fall season of 1969, when good ole’ Uncle Finley came storming out of the Lodge after me.
Fin started yelling extremely viciously at me about not picking up some 55 gallon drums of bones and fat for bear bait earlier that day from Cyr Brother’s slaughter house and meat packing plant in Caribou, Maine, which I had never been instructed to pick up. I had never gotten bones and fat off of them before on my weekly Wendsday morning trips up there, only 55 gallon drums of guts and heads for bear bait.
There was some other guy who had always gotten that stuff before, and he went to a lot of the slaughter houses in Maine to collect their bones and fat for rendering down proposes. That guy kept the truck that he used to do those pick ups in a garage right next to Cyr Bros.. He was a long time business associate with the Cyr Bros.; he may have even been related to them in some way. Caribou is a very small city, so he at least likely knew the whole Cyr family for their entire lives. Cyr Bros. wanted to maintain that long time, good relationship with the guy, so they had not wanted to give the bones and fat to Finley.
But Finley was an extremely selfish person at times, and he wanted that bones and fat for himself. Cyr Brothers also had a wholesale food delivery service that sold the Lodge most of its meat, canned goods, paper goods, etc., so Finley had used the threat of ending that lucrative, for them, business relationship as leverage to bully Cyr Bros. into giving him their bones and fat. And according to Fin’s story of how hard it was for him to talk Cyr Bros. into letting him have the bones and fat, Fin had put a lot of pressure on them for the privilege of getting their bones and fat. He mercilessly screamed that story at me, out there in the Lodge’s back yard on that early Fall afternoon, about his effective, bullying, business maneuvers.
The bones and fat came out of a different part of the packing plant than the guts and heads did, but Fin had never instructed me to go to the separate loading dock for that section of the plant to pick up the bones and fat. He didn’t want to hear that fact though on that, miserable for me, Wednesday afternoon. I only stated the fact twice before I gave up, backed up, and headed on over towards one of the Lodge’s pickup trucks to go drive north in and pick up five lousy, partially filled 55 gal. drums of bones and fat.
There were tears of deeply disturbing emotional pain and mental anguish, and from immense, overpowering disappointment at my aunt and uncle and at family life, that were welling up in my eyes. The immense weight of the oppressive pile of my Uncle Finley’s and Aunt Martha’s bullshit that they had heaped upon me daily while I lived and worked at Katahdin Lodge had squeezed a few tears of pain and anguish out of me. My mouth tasted extremely bitter, and my face felt quite tense and drawn tight. But the awful site of tears on the tense, pained face of his nineteen year old nephew and dedicated employee did not dissuade my uncle from his self serving aggressive bullshit. As far as I know, Finley K. Clarke never in his life admitted it when he was wrong. And I don’t believe that his wife, soul mate, and business partner Martha Clarke ever suggested that he do so.
The very most dismal part of this situation is that while he was screaming at me, I was aware of the fact that bones and fat were the least effective bear bait that we ever used. There was a slaughterhouse in Houlton where I picked up bones and fat, along with the guts and heads, every Friday. Bones and fat don’t give off nearly as much bear attracting stench as rotting guts do. The bears often grab a bone to take down into the woods away from our bear baits and where the hunters can’t get a shot at them. Bears like to loll around on the forest floor for hours while chewing on bones and licking out the bone marrow, which is a very tasty, wholesome food to some animals.
As I was getting into the pickup truck, I looked my ever loving uncle straight in his lying face. The look on my face did stun him slightly and knock some of the self righteousness off his mean mug, he turned his face away to the side slightly and averted looking me straight in my eyes, but he kept yelling at me aggressively with his unwarranted rage. The last thing that he said to me was, "Get in that g**damned f**kin’ truck and get your g**damned f**king ass up the road as fast as you can!"
I sat into the driver’s seat of the pickup truck, pulled the seat belt on, even though we never wore them, and tightened that belt up snug. This here tried and true, wild and woolly Northern Maine trained country road driver was about to do his thing like he had never done it before. It was seventy-one miles on the odometer from Katahdin Lodge to Cyr Bros. in Caribou. I ef-ing flew up that road at top speed.
That road is mostly Rural Route 11 North. It is about as thin a stretch of tar as is allowable for a two lane black top road. From the Lodge, it goes northward up and down hills and around curves for the first six miles through sparsely populated country, then it hits a stretch that has no homes or businesses on it for thirty-five miles (again, on the odometer, I checked it all out one time). The woods on both side of that part of Rt. 11 are thick, wide, and full of wildlife that may cross the road at anytime. There is one part of that stretch of road which kids called the ‘hump-de-dump’, because it has a series of short humps and drops. At thirty-five miles the road goes into the tiny Town of Masardias, and I had to bring it down to speed limit; I never raced through any town because it ain’t right; and then I had to slow to a near stop at some railroad tracks, then accelerate up a hill. Then it was hot damn git-it-on country road time again for awhile, till the road reaches the small Town of Ashland. That town has a blinking red stop light at the start of its two or three city block long Main Street, and a stop sign at the end of the street. At the stop sign I turned right and went on my way in an easterly direction. Then I took a left at the second left, I believe it was, and kept on truckin’ real damn fast and in the groove. There was a serious, 90 degree right curve on that part of the road, not a right turn, a well banked curve. Remember, they bank the curves up there like they do on professional race car tracks, and as long as there are no other vehicles coming towards you at one of those curves, you take ‘um high then swoop in low and the hot dang curve sucks ya’ right into the groove. Further on up the road it has one more sharp curve that isn’t so well banked. Then it’s a bit more country road to Cyr Bros. at the outer edge of Caribou.
I knew every hill, hump, dip, drop, curve, and wildlife crossing on the road from the Lodge up to Cyr Bros. and eggsactley how to take each one at maximum speed. I was about as safe as could be, but I was sure enough one wild dude behind the wheel of any vehicle when driving up there on those crazy roads. Ask any of the Lodge’s paying bear hunter who rode with me in 1969, they’ll tell ya’.
My safe driving sure as hell scared the be-jeezus out of a few paying bear hunters each week when they were my passengers in one of the Lodge's pickup trucks, and they hadn't yet gotten to know that I could definitely handle driving a truck on them roads at those speeds. Then sometimes a couple of fun loving, thrill seeking, city guys, who were at the Lodge on a bear hunt, would egg me on to git-it-on at top speeds when I was just tooling along conversing with them nice and relaxed like while driving at mere high speeds.
For the next Wednesday morning, following that previous Wednesday afternoon when Fin had bullied me into driving real fast to go get the bones and fat that he had bullied Cyr Bros. out of, I had to get up earlier than everyone else at the Lodge. I had to go get our weekly issue of bear bait from Cyr Bros. earlier than on previous trips there. I had to be at Cyr Bros. before their usual bones and fat man came to get his truck from the garage next door at 7 AM in the morning.
I had my own little, two bed, sleeping cabin out in the Lodge’s front yard, (door yard to you Mainers) but there was no alarm clock in it. When Fin and Marty told me that I had to wake up at five AM on Wednesday to go get the bait, I asked for an alarm clock; but they said, "No, you’ll just oversleep. We’ll set ours and come out to wake you up." But they overslept on every single remaining Wednesday morning till I left to go to visit my family in Maryland before I entered the U.S. Army.
On every remaining Wednesday, Marty came running out of the Lodge shouting my name to wake me up over there in my cabin at the last minute before I’d be too late to get to Cyr Bros. before the bones and fat guy got to his garage. I did see the guy pulling out of his garage at 7:04-06 AM and onto the Cyr Bros. parking lot one Wednesday morn as I pulled on outa’ there.
Those Wednesday morning trips were the most hellacious driving experiences of my life. I had to get up that road lickety-split, or face Finley’s wrath and Marty’s ability to make my life miserable by the way that she spoke to me or about me to others when I was there and by just the way that she looked at me.
Because I had made every one of those 71 mile trips in just under an hour, my two none too caring and concerned relatives knew very damn well what the speeds were that I had to drive at. To average over 70 MPH required me to hit speeds of 85+ MPH for a substantial portion of the trip. There is only one short section of the road where I could hit the flat-out-pedal-to-the-metal-absolute-highest speed that the six cylinder 1968 or 69 Chevy pickup truck which I was piloting would go. And I can still find that section on a map. It has a smooth rise in elevation that curves slightly to the right and then goes down in elevation a bit as it straightens out where there is a wetland to the left. The way I approached that section was to envision myself being flung from one of those ancient type sling shots that biblical David slew Goliath with, and as the truck rocketed around that curve and shot through that straight section I’d always glance down at the speedometer with a death defyin’ little grin on my kisser as I sucked in the thrill of seeing that needle tickling the 100 MPH mark.
I deeply enjoyed those experiences of driving on the edge like that. It was quite personally satisfying to me. It felt like I was driving on top of the world when I was in complete control of all that fast moving heavy metal on a lonely, dangerous country road.
To maintain the intensity of that complete control, you must be completely in tune with everything around you.
First off, you have to ‘read’ the road just ahead in continuous split second increments, like a hungry hawk chasing a song bird through the trees reads the patterns of the upcoming tree branches. You need to catch sight of any other vehicles which are traveling that road when they are as far in the distance as possible, because those vehicles will be disappearing into the lower down sections of road then suddenly reappearing in the higher elevated sections of the road. There is the moving wildlife to be on the lookout for—you need to develop a sensible rhythm of continuously glancing into the wood’s dark edges along the sides of the road in search of deer, bear, humongous moose, and any smaller critters what might wander onto the road.
A person’s mind and body must ‘wear’ their vehicle like a snug fitting glove; you must feel and carefully listen to every nuance of the truck’s rapid movement on the road, including the truck’s engine, the tires, and all its other straining parts, because any failure of any part could mean instant disaster. And wear your seat belt tight and snug, because to drive so precisely at those hellacious high speeds means that any movement of your body from the G-force of the inertial of the high speed ride and you might not be able to keep your body, arms, hands, legs, feet, head, and eyes in the exact positions that on the edge driving requires for your survival.
Like I said, I had to get up that road lickety-split, cause Marty didn’t ever come wake me up in time to drive normally. So there I was on every one of those early Fall of 1969 Wednesday mornings, just before 6 AM, yanking my pants on, jumping into my work boots and cinching them up real quick, stepping into my shirt as I hustled on out to the pickup truck without eating breakfast--not even a piece of toast, no cup of tea to wake me, no time to brush a tooth, and one morning I had to argue my way into the Lodge for a quick slurp of water. Then it was into the driver’s seat of the truck, on with the seat belt, then snug it up tight, crank up the motor, no time to warm it up, pull out of the driveway, lock into the groove, and Rock ‘n Roll baby, Rock ‘n Roll!
When Marty woke me up late like she had, that left me just about an hour to get from the Lodge in Moro Plantation up to Caribou, and I made it every single time—71 freakin’ miles on the odometer. I averaged over 70 MPH during each trip over two lane black top country roads, and through two towns where Fin had instructed me to slow down to the 25 MPH speed limits there and to come to complete stops twice so that no state cops sitting in their kitchens having their morning coffee would come after me. But as I said, slowing down while driving through a town is the right thing to do.
During the whole way up the road to Masardis there was rarely another vehicle on that road. I might pass one coming South, but I passed none heading North and weren’t nobody passing me except one of those super superb, native Northern Maine drivers who could out drive me just a tad bit better any day of the week; but they woulda’ hada’ had a bigger motor under their hood than mine to pass me on those Wednesday mornings.
If I had wrecked on one of those top speed trips, it most certainly would have killed me instantly. If not, it would have been awhile till I was found, and then longer for the ambulance to come from who knows where, and then the ride to a hospital many miles away was going to be a long one too. And as I have intimated, I was driving eggsactley on, precisely on, right on the edge.
On one of those mornings, Fin and Marty’s close friend Wayne Birmingham had passed the Lodge in his pickup truck so soon after I had pulled out of the driveway that Marty hadn’t made it back into the Lodge yet after hustling my barely awake butt into the truck and on outa’ there.
Later that day, Marty asked me, "Did you see Wayne this morning? He went by right after you left. I mean right after you left, I hadn’t made it back inside the door yet and he drove by beeping and waving to me." "No, I didn’t see him." I calmly replied.
It was obvious that she didn’t believe me, as she said, “Oh, come on now, he was almost right behind you, your tail lights had barely made it around the curve out front when he went by, and you know the way he drives."
I looked that hard hearted bit, witc, excuse me, I mean, woman straight in her screwed-up-tight-and-lookin-at-me-like-I-was-lying-through-my-teeth face and very coldly stated, "No."
And I was disgustingly aware that she would check my story out and ask Wayne about it as soon as she got a chance to.
Wayne Birmingham had taught me a few of the Northern Maine driving skills which have helped me out a lot during my life. He did not pass me that morning, but then he didn’t see me up there to wanna’ go and try to pass me, because I was going at maximum speed, and he was only driving at his normal 15-25 MPH over the speed limit speed. Wayne did have a slightly more powerful motor in his truck, and he was as good a driver as they go up there on those country roads, but I honestly can’t say one way or the other whether he would have been able to pass me that morning. He’d a sure enough have tried, just for the pride, if he’d have seen me up there flying along at that speed, the race wouda’ been on, but he never saw me. Woulda’ made my day if he had tried to race past me, whether I beat him or not--woulda’ been fun.
On my third Wednesday morning of this set of wild trips, I forgot about that 90 degree well banked curve up past Ashland for a few dangerous seconds, right when I was coming up on it. I was a bit too settled into the routine on that near-fateful morning. I knew the road from the Lodge up to Cyr Bros. like I knew the smooth, curvaceous, oft caressed by me, delicate lines of my girlfriend’s body. But I was way more tired than usual on that weekly bear bait run. Those two factors had lulled me into complacency. I was tooling along nicely at top speed, but I hadn’t woken all the way up yet.
On that Wednesday morn, I was still tired from the previous night when we guides had three separate bears to go out into the woods to track down and retrieve after it got dark; so we hadn’t returned to the Lodge till almost midnight. I wasn’t tired from just that night’s hard work, but from working all day and into the night everyday, except for about a half-day on Sundays, because the Lodge had a good number of early Fall season bear hunters staying there. During that period of time I never had any time off during the day, evening, or night till I laid down to go to sleep each night just before midnight. I was so worn down on that Tuesday night that was I darn near staggering when I walked from the Lodge’s dinning room over to my sleeping cabin, after weakly masticating and sluggishly swallowing only about three or four mouthfuls of food from the late night meal served at the Lodge for the hunters and us guides. I was too tired to even eat on that night. I normally had such a real good, healthy appetite from working all day and into the night at the Lodge that my aunt and uncle liked to call me "The Bottomless Pit" (but that had more to do with the fact that they wanted to make a point of all that I ate so that they didn’t have to feel that they owed me a salary for all of the hard work that I did for them).
On the two previous early morning bear bait runs, there had been a sweet looking high school girl strolling back and forth beside the road, looking very thoughtful and introspective there in the soft, hazy, morning light, near that serious 90 degree curve while she waited for her school bus to come pick her up. She was only a year or two younger than me, and we had waved to, smiled at, and briefly flirted with each other each time I passed by her. When passing her, for her safety, I had always slowed down from the maximum speed attainable without crashing. But she wasn’t there on that third morning, and as I briefly wondered where she was and glanced about to make sure that she was in no danger from my high speed driving, it threw my train of thoughts off balance enough to make me forget about the highly skilled, concentrated actions required to make it through that upcoming curve at maximum speed without an untimely visit to the undertaker’s back room that day. Holy O’ Jeezus! I hit the beginning of that curve in a split second, I mean millisecond timed fury of skillful driving technique. While I was tapping down precisely on the brake pedal, zeroing in on the only line of travel that could get me back into the groove again and through the curve safely, glancing down at the speedometer to see it going down just under 65 MPH, I peaked over my left shoulder at a line of telephone poles which followed the section of road I was on and then the poles went straight off into a field there instead of around the curve, and in my mind’s eye I saw my truck with me in it flipping over and over again into and through the first pole then through the wildly splintering second pole and almost till my truck and I either went through the third pole or came to an abrupt, dead stop right up against it. I dexterously held onto the steering wheel as if it were my very life, my racing mind wedged itself back down into the groove again, and my eyes locked onto the groove, and then way up that curve I went and zaaawoooom on down into the bottom of that tight curve and on out the other side right dee-fruck’ in dee’ friggin’ groove baby. Right in dee’ grooove mon’. Right in the groove.
Shewweeee! What a ride!! Ya’ shoulda been there with me. You’d a loved it.
During the past 30+ years, whenever I’m telling anyone my stories about my Maine adventures, the people listening to my wild and crazy tales always think that tracking wounded bears at night without taking a firearm along with me was the most dangerous part of those experiences. That is not so.
The driving was absolutely the most dangerous part of the job. We Katahdin Lodge hunting guides drove over the speed limit ninety-some percent of the time. I typically drove more than 100 miles each day--including on my days off from work when I was just a happy teenager running around the country side with other happy teenagers.
When I was in the pilot’s seat of one of the Lodge’s trucks, I felt perfectly comfortable averaging 10-15 MPH over the posted speed limit, but if my uncle was riding with me I had to fly along those country roads at 15-20 MPH over the limit most of the time. That extra 5-10 MPH meant that I couldn’t hardly ever relax at all during the driving, because I wasn’t as highly skilled at it as my uncle was.
Those Maine-iac drivers had taught me well though, I assure you that I was very safe to ride with most of the time. Well dang it now, nobody's perfect.
I always enjoyed the challenges and the satisfactions of making it from point A to point B to point Z all day long without a mishap while using those finely honed driving skills of mine to be that safe at such high speeds on those rough roads. But, it was still the most dangerous part of the job.
David Robert Crews