"Touring Western Maine: On the Trail of a King"
When most tourists envision Maine, the image is that of coastal fishing villages, rocky island resorts, and stately lighthouses. A visit to Western Maine, however, is a lake and woodland experience in a region dotted with real and fictitious sites related to novelist Stephen King. From Bridgton, where King raised his children, (a/k/a the town of "Castle Rock" in his stories) to Lake Kezar, where the writer vacations, one can drive the landscape and collect King stories by the blueberry bushel.
Stephen King hails from Durham, Maine, and is perhaps the state's best-known native son. Whether a King fan or not, a southwestern tour of the state offers attractions for everyone: snowmobiling and skiing at Sugarloaf or Sunday River, blueberry picking with the kids, romantic lakefront bed and breakfasts, and scenic steamboat rides on the Songo River Queen II. This is the place to canoe, go antiquing, or savor a warm bowl of the local chowder. Yet there is another story, part fact, part fiction, one told by King in his bestselling tales, and his neighbors and associates who are residents.
A tour of this woodsy, historic region takes one into the state's rich past as a logging center. Here, hearty men, many French Canadian, worked in logging camps from September to April, sharing labor, meals and folklore. This legacy becomes vivid if one visits the shop of R.J. Richard (on Rangeley's Main Street), better known as "The Mad Whittler." Richard, the son of a logger who lived to be 93, carves out a living making lifesize figures with a chainsaw. He'll induct lady tourists into his worldwide "Bunny Club" by giving them a miniscule carved rabbit. Rangeley Lakes also has a Logging Museum, where one may view artwork celebrating the woodsman tradition, hear "The Mad Whittler"'s colorful tour, and read scrapbooks and journals kept by those who worked the camps. Got the kids along? Ask your Rangeley innkeeper or hotel staff for a prime spot to pick blueberries, if the season's right. Antique and craft shops also abound.
A pleasant Rangeley surprise is a modernistic edifice dedicated to the life and work of Dr. Wilhelm Reich, an Austrian immigrant to 1940s and 1950s Maine who was equal parts Sigmund Freud and Nikola Tesla, proponent of a human energy discovery he called "orgone." Your tour will include the doctor's study, his technical apparatus, and rooftop observation deck. The man could sure choose a view!
While in the Rangeley Lakes area, dine at the Kawanhee Inn and Restaurant in Weld, a log-lined retreat where the young Stephen King worked as a dishwasher. Order a blueberry-filled dessert. From there it's a short drive to Naples, a lakefront town where King served as a kitchen hand for a defunct hotel called The Woodlands. There, the budding author met a Black cook who served as the model for Dick Halloran, the clairvoyant chef in "The Shining." The rest of the impetus for this tale was King's real-life winter stint as caretaker in the grand Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, built by one Francis Edgar Stanley. A must see for both King readers and auto-lovers is The Stanley Museum in appropriately named Kingfield. Once a schoolhouse, this white-columned edifice houses the vintage turn-of-the-20th-century cars that shattered land speed records. Museum founder Susan Davis will scoot you about town in an authentic steam-driven Stanley. For ski buffs, Kingfield means a visit to Sugarloaf; East Coast slopes don't get any better.
When you're hungry in Kingfield, repair to the stately Herbert Hotel, a restored throwback that was one of the first lodgings north of Boston with telephones (in the 1930s it had jacks at every table--still does) and air conditioning. Moving still further southwest, you'll come to Route 302 in Bridgton. This town is cast in fiction as "Castle Rock," which not only appears in King narratives, but is the name of the production company that gave us some of his novels as feature films. The Food City supermarket in the little mall at 119 Main Street was once the Federal Foods where King's surreal novella "The Mist" takes place. If you've read the story, the store is a dead ringer for what you imagined. Venture a bit north to Lovell, where King summers on Palmer Lane in the Lake Kezar area. This is the lake that Dark Score Lake, in his work "Bag of Bones," is modeled after. Now you're walking distance from where the writer was struck by a van in June of 1999--he has since donated ambulances to Bridgton's Northern Cumberland Memorial Hospital on South High Street. Want to see a real King hangout? Stop at the unassuming market Melby's on Route 35 in North Waterford. The locals call it Tut's, and the master of suspense frequents the joint.
A less morbid glimpse into La Vida King, if such a thing exists (this guy writes about killer cars and pets being run over, for a living), stay north into Bethel. You can lunch or play 18 holes at the Bethel Inn. Later, have a bite at Cho-Sun Sushi on 119 Main St. (yes, these small towns tend to feature a Main St.- welcome to the real U.S. of A). Owner Pak Sun Lane is a good friend of both King and his novelist wife Tabitha.
No trip to this region would be complete without a pilgrimage to Poland Springs. Once a Shaker village, the elite have flocked here to hobnob, golf, and partake of the healing waters since the 1910s. Tours of the buildings, grounds, and original water treatment facility are given (ask for Elliot Levy, the energetic preservation director). This is where Joseph P. Kennedy honeymooned with wife Rose, and where his sons learned to play golf (on a Donald Ross course). President Coolidge and Henry Ford were summer guests, and in 1965 Sonny Liston trained here for a rematch with a kid who had just been re-named Muhammad Ali. The imposing stone entrance is one of two buildings yet standing from the 1893 Chicago World's Fair (where the world first sampled hamburger, french fries, Aunt Jemima pancakes, and a Ferris Wheel with cars that seated 50 passengers). There is still a tiny Shaker community adjacent, and visitors may tour their former homes, meeting house, and shop at the gift store for memorabilia, music, and literature.
There, you've done it all: swam, shopped, steamed in an antique car, and snooped about for a legendary writer, and you never left Western Maine. You'll have your own stories to tell, and memories you'll treasure.