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A Pilgrimage to a Maine Island within the Footsteps of John Steinbeck


“All I knew about Deer Isle was that there was nothing you possibly can say about it,” Steinbeck wrote. I got down to do my very own investigation.

A young man watches the sunset from a public park near Stonington on Deer Isle, Maine.
A younger man watches the sundown from a public park close to Stonington on Deer Isle, Maine. (Greta Rybus for The Washington Publish)


A number of months in the past, whereas performing some spring cleansing, I discovered a big, black-and-white poster of John Steinbeck, promoting a Library of America assortment of his work. I had no thought the place this poster had come from or how lengthy it had been there, however I had the sensation I’d stumbled upon a talisman. Impulsively, I tacked it up on my wall, proper beside my writing desk. Steinbeck had been an early hero of mine, and I used to be now within the technique of ending my first e-book. It appeared proper and even comforting to have him glowering down at me as I labored, difficult me to stay as much as the beliefs he’d as soon as modeled: simplicity, directness, an abiding love for humanity in all its imperfections.

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I hadn’t thought of Steinbeck in many years, however as a younger man I’d learn all of his work, and now I pulled a few of these dusty previous buddies from my bookshelves. Amongst them was “Travels With Charley in Search of America,” printed in 1962 — a piece of autofiction in regards to the author’s cross-country highway journey in a camper, accompanied by his canine. As I began rereading, Steinbeck’s phrases resonated from the get-go. “I found that I didn’t know my very own nation,” he writes, outlining the explanations for his journey. On the highway, Steinbeck despairs on the waste created by our compulsive consumerism and laments the best way our pure surroundings is being slowly poisoned by plastics and refuse. “We have now overcome all enemies however ourselves,” he writes. All of this appeared related at the moment.

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However the largest early shock for me was that Steinbeck’s first main cease on his journey was not someplace instantly west of his then-home in Sag Harbor, N.Y., however approach up on Deer Isle, Maine. That truth had vanished from my reminiscence. He explains that his “buddy and affiliate” Elizabeth Otis (really his agent) was a longtime customer there and had urged him to go: “When she speaks of it, she will get an other-world look in her eyes and turns into fully inarticulate. … All I knew about Deer Isle was that there was nothing you possibly can say about it.”

After he’s been, he finds that he agrees along with her evaluation. “One doesn’t must be delicate to really feel the strangeness of Deer Isle,” he writes, noting that the place “is like Avalon; it should disappear if you find yourself not there.” Steinbeck had a lifelong obsession with Arthurian legend, so this was no informal reference. His e-book “The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights” could be printed posthumously in 1976, and Avalon is central to these tales — a magical island recognized for its therapeutic powers, and the place the place Arthur is taken after he’s wounded in battle.

I wished to see what, if any, a part of Deer Isle remained from Steinbeck’s journey, although I knew I wouldn’t be the primary author to decide on “Travels With Charley” as a departure level for exploration (nor even the primary for The Washington Publish; Rachel Dry did so in 2011, specializing in his cease in Fargo, N.D.). I, too, felt disconnected from my nation. The concept of getting out to see an element I used to be unfamiliar with — particularly one which had left Steinbeck flummoxed to explain to his satisfaction — compelled me to pack a bag.

A dramatic, high-arching bridge over Maine’s Penobscot Bay connects the mainland to Little Deer Isle, then a causeway (replete with postcard-worthy views of glittering seas and large, chunky Marsden Hartley-like rocks) results in the island itself and its two major cities: Stonington and Deer Isle Village, which have a mixed year-round inhabitants of about 3,000.

My first cease on the island was a spot known as 44 North Espresso, within the village of Deer Isle. Fortunately for me, Jimmy Cook dinner — the Isle’s not too long ago retired UPS supply man — occurred to be standing on the counter as I positioned my order. Cook dinner is aware of all the things about everybody and launched me to a gradual stream of regulars lined up for the store’s espresso (roasted proper right here) and native pastries.

Cook dinner, 60, moved to Deer Isle 36 years in the past. A former union chief with the Teamsters, he’s good-natured and sardonic. “I wished to come back right here as a result of I knew I wouldn’t get misplaced,” he defined. After I talked about that I’d been impressed by the truth that Steinbeck had begun his “Charley” journey right here, Cook dinner’s response was considered one of disbelief. “You’re kidding me!” he mentioned. “John Steinbeck got here right here?” After I quoted what Steinbeck had written within the e-book in regards to the strangeness of Deer Isle, Cook dinner didn’t miss a beat. “You possibly can’t clarify it to anybody, this place. You simply can’t. You must really feel it.”

As we moved to a bench outdoors, Sam Ostrow, who’s lived right here since 1988, obtained pulled into our dialog. “Isolation is one thing we get pleasure from,” Ostrow instructed me, extolling the island’s virtues. “You’ve not heard quiet till you’ve been right here in the course of winter.” Then the UPS truck handed by, prompting Cook dinner to scrunch up his face in a mock grimace and vigorously wag his center finger on the driver. The ring of straightforward laughter stuffed the air. The solar was vibrant overhead, the breeze crisp and clear. It felt good to be right here.

Ostrow, 76, is co-president of the Island Nation Membership. Golf equipment, by definition, are locations the place some folks belong and others don’t, however he insisted that there wasn’t any sense of elitism or entitlement on Deer Isle, and little battle round class, standing or ideology. “We don’t do politics right here. And it’s not about cash, both. It’s about working exhausting and being good.”

Even so, the place was not fairly paradise. “We have now our share of issues too,” he mentioned. The nationwide opioid epidemic, for instance, had not spared the island. And, as Megan Dewey-Wooden, the espresso store’s 38-year-old co-owner, identified, “Maine is the oldest, whitest state in America.” Within the wake of George Floyd’s dying and the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, a Little Deer Isle resident had displayed an indication that learn “White Lives Matter.” A noose had been hung close by. “That was uncommon,” Ostrow mentioned. “Folks have been upset.” The police obtained concerned and the noose was eliminated, however no expenses have been filed. “You see, we’re like all over the place else,” Ostrow mentioned caustically. “We simply have a greater view.”

“You possibly can’t clarify it to anybody, this place. You simply can’t. You must really feel it,” says Jimmy Cook dinner, who moved to Deer Isle 36 years in the past.

Herbie Carter joined us, a lean man with a sly grin, sunburned squint and twinkling eyes. Carter, 76, was headed residence to make a giant pot of chowder for his daughter. “Folks from away make up extra of this island now,” he mentioned. “Was once everybody knew everybody right here. Now I do know one-tenth of the folks!” In fact, the native definition of “from away,” I discovered, meant anybody whose dad and mom had not been born right here, and even that may not be sufficient. A lot of these born right here after the publication of “Charley,” 60 years in the past, could possibly be thought-about “from away.”

One one that definitely match the definition was Liz Leuthner, who’d not too long ago opened Deer Isle Yoga Studio throughout Most important Road, a stretch that additionally options a couple of artwork galleries. “On an island, folks must get alongside,” mentioned Leuthner, 56. “It’s one of many issues that drew me right here.” Only a few nights in the past, she instructed me, considered one of her storefront’s home windows had been damaged throughout a parade. “Somebody got here by the subsequent morning and mentioned, ‘I broke your window, and I’m going to make it proper.’ And so they did.” She mentioned she feels that benign, unseen forces are at work on the Isle. I hadn’t mentioned a phrase about Avalon.

Within the heart of Stonington is the city’s opera home, in-built 1912. Its distinctive inexperienced facade is highlighted by a daring, all-caps painted signal that reads, unapologetically, “OPERA HOUSE.” Along with housing the island’s skilled theater firm, the venue hosts stay music, comedy and movies. “Once you go to the Opera Home within the winter,” Sam Ostrow had instructed me, “it isn’t actually to see films. It’s to see if persons are nonetheless alive.”

Opera Home Arts’ government director, Tony Adams, instructed me that — whereas the corporate repeatedly casts actors from away for its productions — some locals had cried foul when the group not too long ago put in Cait Robinson, a local of Brooklin, Maine, as creative director. “Why can’t you rent somebody from right here?” they’d wished to know. (Brooklin, residence to the household of literary royalty that included Katharine and E.B. White, and the not too long ago departed Roger Angell, is 15 miles from Deer Isle.)

Steinbeck described Stonington as having “the very best lobsters on this planet”; at the moment, Hugh Reynolds, 50, runs one of many busiest lobster issues on the wharf. “It may be just a little barbarian right here,” Reynolds instructed me. “You bought plenty of clans — households that go approach again. It’s far more calm today, however you used to have folks taking pictures at one another out on the water, chopping one another’s strains, issues like that.” After I talked about Steinbeck’s line about “strangeness” to Reynolds, he set free a giant, boisterous snort. “You would say that, yeah! One time I noticed a cow consuming a Michelob Gentle on the aspect of the highway!”

As a result of industrial fishing tends to be worthwhile right here, and since it’s typically a household affair, with younger males repeatedly dropping out of faculty to comply with their fathers onto the boats, “you bought lots of people with very low training and really excessive earnings,” Reynolds mentioned. When there’s little to do within the offseason, this has typically contributed to the sorts of drug abuse that Ostrow had talked about (and presumably helped to gas the island’s once-thriving brothel trade).

Reynolds was not the one entrepreneur in Stonington. “Ninety % of the folks listed below are entrepreneurs,” Max Katzenberg mentioned once I met him on the newly reopened Harbor Cafe on the principle drag. The 34-year previous is a former co-owner of the foodie vacation spot Olmsted in Brooklyn, N.Y., however Deer Isle had been a favourite place to go to, and when he’d gotten wind that this native “greasy spoon” (as he known as it) was coming available on the market simply because the pandemic hit, he and his then-pregnant spouse, Chloe, seized on the chance to get out of Dodge. Katzenberg has retained a lot of the eatery’s longtime workers and didn’t fiddle with its down-home taste, savvy strikes that helped him to be accepted by the neighborhood right here. Earlier this yr, he reopened one other beloved native joint, Dennett’s Wharf, in close by Castine, and managed to lure considered one of his former Olmsted cooks as much as plate decidedly extra upscale fare than what’s being slung at Harbor Cafe.

Steinbeck does plenty of easy camper cooking in “Charley.” When he does cease for meals, it’s primarily to eat at a diner, the place he finds it as unimaginable to be served a foul breakfast as it’s to discover a palatable dinner. There’s no telling what he would have manufactured from the type of delectable meals I ate at Dennett’s — or at Aragosta at Goose Cove, the island’s solely luxurious vacation spot for vacationers, which options positive eating and in a single day lodging in plush, retrofitted cabins. Although locals partake of its fairly priced happy-hour fare on weeknights, the outpost’s centerpiece is a sublime tasting menu showcasing the creations of chef Devin Finigan. (Her pedigree consists of stints at French Laundry, Per Se and Blue Hill at Stone Barns.) The meal I had there, which included foraged mushrooms, seared sea scallop with seaweed, and creamy polenta with peas and flowers — all domestically sourced — was some of the lovely I’ve skilled in current reminiscence, the meals seeming prefer it had sprung instantly from the ocean, the solar, the air and the land of Deer Isle.

Steinbeck spent just a few nights on Deer Isle, however I nonetheless thought there is likely to be some native satisfaction round his go to — a commemorative plaque, a “John Steinbeck Method,” a minimum of a Steinbeck sandwich someplace. But it was nearly as if he’d by no means been right here. I felt positive there’d be some enthusiasm for his go to on the Stonington Public Library, however the oddly unfriendly man on the entrance desk didn’t even lookup from his pc display screen once I talked about the topic, and claimed to know nothing about it. Fortunately, his counterpart again in Deer Isle Village, Nina Woodward, lit up once I talked about that Steinbeck had began “Travels With Charley” right here. “That is precisely the form of factor we needs to be celebrating!” she mentioned. Although the library didn’t appear to have a duplicate of the e-book, she was decided to rectify that.

My final, greatest hope, it appeared, for locating some hint of Steinbeck was the island’s historic society. On the day I walked in, a half-dozen ladies, all volunteer docents, have been engaged on numerous tasks. The primary one I talked with appeared nonplussed by my mission, however her colleague Lee Fay instructed me that, sure, she remembered listening to that Steinbeck had visited her grandparents on their farm when he’d come by way of.

A hubbub ensued, as Fay and her colleagues started speaking to 1 one other, trying by way of recordsdata, pulling out copies of native newspapers and checking for leads. Most of them appeared upset to assume that such an eminent writer had written about their island and nobody had bothered to inform them. They have been now attempting to make up for it. “Absolutely I by no means met such ardent people,” Steinbeck writes of the inhabitants of Deer Isle. “I might hate to attempt to power them to do something they didn’t wish to do.” It was a sentiment echoed by Tony Adams on the Opera Home, who’d instructed me: “Folks right here will do something you ask them to, and nothing you inform them to.”

“Okay!” Fay mentioned excitedly, passing me her telephone. “That is somebody who remembers assembly him right here!” On the road was Linda Stratton, who’d been in highschool when Steinbeck visited. She wished to inform me about it and mentioned she’d be proper over.

I now talked about to the docents that the one Deer Islander named within the e-book was Eleanor Brace, who’d owned the guesthouse the place Otis had stayed and the place Steinbeck had parked his camper. “Wait a minute,” one of many ladies supplied. “I believe I do know what home that’s.” It turned out that Brace’s niece, Brenda Gilchrist, lived there now. Gilchrist is 93, and Fay known as her to see whether or not I might come over and take a look.

When Stratton arrived she had me comply with her to the spot the place she’d shaken the writer’s hand. She remembered “voicing an opinion to him about one thing he’d written” — which she now regrets — however her eyes nonetheless sparkled with girlish marvel on the reminiscence of assembly the nice author.

Then it was on to seek out the Brace cottage. Marnie Crowell, a buddy of one of many docents, had secured permission to deliver me by Gilchrist’s home with the caveat that I used to be to not reveal something about its location. I adopted Crowell, and over the subsequent 40 minutes we engaged in an almost-farcical sequence of three-point turns (I counted a minimum of 10) as we regarded for the home — however then there it was, on a stately, secluded waterfront, nestled within the bushes.

Gilchrist was there to greet us. Although she had not been right here to satisfy Steinbeck, she not solely knew about his go to however had written about it herself in her 2012 memoir, “Waltzing With Bracey.” She had a duplicate of the e-book prepared to indicate me, and he or she humbly opened it to the web page the place she writes in regards to the visitor cottage the place Elizabeth Otis had stayed, the porch the place Brace and Steinbeck had sat and talked, and the driveway the place he’d parked and slept within the camper he’d named “Rocinante” (for Don Quixote’s horse). It was thrilling — thrilling to be the place Steinbeck himself had been, to face in the identical driveway, to stroll into the identical home, to look out on the identical waters and sandy seashores that he’d regarded out on. To search out his footprint, finally.

However what of the Deer Isle magic that Steinbeck and others had alluded to? I saved listening to about it, however I wouldn’t expertise it for myself till I adopted a small yellow painted highway signal pointing towards one thing known as Nervous Nellie’s Jams and Jellies, a couple of miles off the principle highway. I figured I’d discover some jars of native preserved fruits right here, and certainly there’s a retailer on the property that sells these and different objects. However what I instantly understood was that these items have been inappropriate totally. Surrounding the store in each course, and protecting many acres that stretched into a big wooded space, was an alternate actuality, in contrast to something I’ve ever seen. “Nellieville,” because it’s known as, is the brainchild of artist Peter Beerits. And if Deer Isle can certainly be in comparison with Avalon, then Beerits is its Merlin.

Technically talking, what Beerits has created right here is likely to be known as an artwork set up, however such a time period appears woefully insufficient. Somewhat, it’s like an invite right into a dream, and strolling into it’s like being in a sequence of three-dimensional work — like really being inside artwork, in a approach that immersive theater gestures towards however by no means actually achieves.

It’s a ghostly, sprawling sequence of constructions, sculptures and scenes. There are tableaux devoted to Wild Invoice Hickok, to the captain’s cabin of the Flying Dutchman, to a Southern juke joint Beerits as soon as visited in Clarksdale, Miss., and — sure — to King Arthur. There’s a three-story picket church with a ghostly pieta residing in considered one of its pews, and a reconstructed Maine basic retailer containing most of the authentic’s precise furnishings and options. The entire of it’s like stepping right into a time machine that goes in each instructions without delay: to the not-so-distant previous of analog America and to a post-apocalyptic, post-human world that appears to reside within the collective unconscious. The scope and breadth of Beerits’s imaginative and prescient burns with the type of unbridled creativeness I affiliate with epic fiction, its layers of particulars, historical past and trivialities combining to provide an impact of giddy otherness.

There are not any directions for easy methods to have interaction with Nellieville, aside from some fundamental tips about conduct whereas on the grounds — no audio guides, no map, no place to begin or finale. It’s left to the viewer to determine what it’s, what to see and easy methods to see it.

Beerits, now in his 70s, has been steadily including to it over the previous 4 many years. “Youngsters appear to understand the place as a result of they like stuff that’s scary and so they know they’re protected,” he instructed me. I used to be hard-pressed to consider something in America proper now that conjures up the combination of humor, hazard and hair-raising weirdness I felt strolling by way of it. It was the identical form of feeling I get once I take into consideration issues just like the Donner Celebration tragedy, the misplaced colony of Roanoke or the disappeared artist Connie Converse — none of that are represented right here, per se, however whose tales appear a part of the identical material Beerits has used to sew collectively his world. Beerits didn’t dispute what Steinbeck had written in regards to the otherworldly feeling of Deer Isle. “There’s an edge right here,” Beerits mentioned, his impenetrable gaze not in contrast to the best way Steinbeck had described the residents of Deer Isle as having “aught behind their eyes.”

As we spoke, the spruce and oaks surrounding us soughed within the breeze. I requested Beerits what it felt prefer to stay on Deer Isle. “Somebody as soon as requested me what it might be like if I had some horrible accident with the hospital so far-off,” he mentioned, “and I instructed them that it might be fantastic, as a result of when the ambulance got here I might know the folks in it. They might deal with me.”

Beerits was born in southeastern Pennsylvania. He studied artwork on the Faculty of the Museum of Positive Arts in Boston, then had his personal gallery in Portland, Maine, ultimately deciding on Deer Isle within the early Nineteen Eighties. He started making his jams and jellies merely as a option to assist his creative follow, which concerned repurposing discovered objects for the sculptures and buildings that grew to become Nellieville.

“At first I simply began taking stuff residence from the dump as a result of I cherished it, not as a result of I wished to make one thing out of it,” he mentioned. “I availed myself of assets that have been right here, from an America that has vanished all over the place else.” In one of many notes posted in Nellieville he writes: “The essential factor is that the fabric has a soul, a historical past; that it carries just a little scrap of delusion. I need the wooden to come back from a 200-year previous sawmill, the aluminum to have dings and put on marks, the patina that comes with age. I might not be comfortable if I needed to make sculptures out of stuff I bought at Residence Depot.”

If “Travels With Charley” tells us something, it’s to ignore the plain, to hunt out the sudden, to stay curious, to comply with our intestine.

After I expressed disbelief that he could possibly be making such very important work in digital obscurity and supplied that it needs to be given a platform for a lot wider publicity, Beerits gently smiled. “I’ve no connection to the artwork scene at the moment,” he mentioned. “I got here right here to let go of all that. And I’m at peace with it. Folks come across what I do, and so they get pleasure from it. They inform me tales about what all of it means, and that’s very satisfying for me.”

Outdoors of the store, Nellieville isn’t monetized in any approach — one other factor that separates it from branded, modern America. There’s no admission cost and no time restrict on how lengthy guests could keep. Beerits does promote the odd sculpture to individuals who like them, however I rapidly realized the insensitivity of my suggestion. Nellieville’s genius, like the very best sorts of stay efficiency, resides within the alchemical response that takes place when it interacts with its supposed viewers, and there’s no museum that would include its feral spirit. It’s precisely what it must be, and will solely be, proper right here.

If “Travels With Charley” tells us something, it’s to ignore the plain, to hunt out the sudden, to stay curious, to comply with our intestine. Solely once I unconsciously obeyed these maxims did the thriller of Deer Isle reveal itself within the type of Nellieville. Right here, finally, was Steinbeck’s superb strangeness, a spot that should disappear if you find yourself not there.

Howard Fishman is a author, composer and performer primarily based in Brooklyn. His e-book “To Anybody Who Ever Asks: The Life, Music, and Thriller of Connie Converse” might be printed within the spring by Dutton Books.


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