Students of the Route

By Jen Hirt

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Finalist | 4th Annual Contest in Nonfiction

I have been able to omit needless words since 1919.

   — E.B. White

Rocky Maine beach

I. Low Tide, Flye Point Peninsula, Downeast Maine

It’s a Viking-vast ocean, cold as starfish shadow. Tide pools claim their shores and barnacles drain a crispy suck of a sound. My Labrador gulps saltwater and gags and recovers and takes more. Neither he nor I are from this land—we know a shallow murky river back home. The sandbar that was submerged when I arrived at my cottage now stretches to a rock big enough for two tilted pines and then islands, distant, reachable, maybe. The tide is a new and exciting event; I’m now seven years into south central Pennsylvania and before that a fierce five years in the Idaho mountains under the wilder stars and before that a few wasted on the Iowa plains. That my access to walkable land will for this week change twice a day is more exciting than the mail or a paycheck or pizza night. So I walk out and east. Land six feet wide is lapped by water so clear my heart asks to abandon that mine-silted mid-Atlantic river. The dog sets his compass to gull bone and drips saltwater from every edge of his pedigree. Small shells, sort-of-sand, rocks. Snails. Snails eating barnacles. When I’ve walked so far out that I can’t see my cottage on a hill on the peninsula, I remind myself that I don’t know when the tide will come back in, or how fast, so I stop. The same sun all my life sets but it’s new now and for that I’ll head to land. I will pause in a meadow to eat blueberries tinywild as childhood. The dog will chase a cat into a collision of trashcans as if Maine is for murder and then he will be leashed. Morning, I’ll open nine windows in my two-room cottage and scramble eggs on a hot plate older than America. I’ll wonder how to read the tides. I can’t ask the Internet. There is so much I don’t know.

Foggy Maine harbor

II. Elements of Style: An Encounter at E.B. White’s Grave, Brooklin, Maine

I’m trying to focus a silhouetted photo of the caterpillar crawling topside on the tombstone. There are two small stones on the marker, I don’t know why, and they are in the way. Everything is not cooperating. Then a black SUV rolls in and out step three older people in khakis and blast-shield sunglasses. The woman doesn’t say hi but looks at the dog and tells me that White’s granddaughter has just edited a collection of his dog essays, and I should buy it. Dog essays? How did I not know? I watch my dog wage war on the deerflies and regret that all I’ve read of White is his chapter in Elements of Style with its list of reminders which I put into PowerPoint slides for my college students. The man snaps photos and I don’t think he sees the caterpillar. The third gentleman, the driver, tells me he knew White’s son, a carpenter in the world-famous boatyards of Brooklin. Since he’s from Maine (and I’m not, given the Pennsylvania plates, to which he says, “You have Pennsylvania plates,” as if I have some explaining to do), he wants to know how I knew about the grave. “,” I reply. All three erupt into that shocked laughter reserved for encounters with different generations. They’ve never heard of such a thing and they ask me to repeat it, which I do, not without embarrassment, but it’s the truth and E.B. White would want me to sail that boat right on to their rocky shore. Then the woman picks up a small stone and places it on top of the marker. The caterpillar, I notice, has made the wise decision to leave completely this world where there is such a thing as She turns to me and says, “Jews put stones on graves. To let everyone know we were here, to pay our respects. Not a lot of Jews visit this place,” and she gestures around the small cemetery where within view no other tombstones have little rocks balanced on top. Then they amble to their SUV and pull wide around my out-of-state plates.

How did she know I wasn’t Jewish and that I had no clue about the new collection of dog essays? How did she read me that well, while we all stood over E.B. White’s grave? How is it that I’ve become so easy to read when part of my profession is to read? I’m so perplexed that it’s not until dinner that I realize I forgot to consider the big tree by the grave. I have to know what it is. I head back. Oak.

III. Stop Here For Maps: Deer Isle and the Tennis Preserve

Downeast fog promises adventure. I understand why Stephen King wrote The Mist as I drive the Deer Isle Bridge with its sea-stone green spans into the hazy unknown that will include a visit to something the guidebook calls the Edgar M. Tennis Preserve. Directions are on the vague side of simple—take “Tennis Road off Sunshine Road,” but my map shows only a forking route 15. Just as I’m about to stop for directions, Sunshine intersects on the left, which makes it the best road on the planet. It’s made narrow by a midsummer forest which is small but formidable, the underbrush pushing the definition and considering how to canopy the lane. Past an EMS station (an ambulance in a woodshed), Tennis Road appears on the right, dirt tracked. No mention of any preserve. But I’ve done enough exploring to know that when you reach the unmarked you can encounter the remarkable, if you keep going. And I do—shortly there is a hand-painted sign: Stop Here for Maps. Trailhead, a blue wooden box with tri-fold maps in a plastic bag. I feel like I’m on a scavenger hunt or The Amazing Race. Hand-drawn and photocopied, the map lays out trails to a cemetery and old farm foundations and the two parking spaces up the lane—both empty.  Having just come from Acadia National Park’s $20 lots—packed with one-percenters who want popovers and pony rides to the point of traffic jams—this weird little spot is a spooky relief.

Lobster bobbers

The dog is out the door in a magnificent bound, no leash, his nose in thick moss and leaf layers and boughs of black spruce. His brown tail arcs and he trots on point into what looks like an ancient forest, a lichen galaxy on the dark matter of tree trunk and stone. And if I can feel the ghosts I know he can see them and it is evident that we’re welcome; this is a good place. I study the map like it is fine literature and follow the trails marked with tiny signs, hand-painted still, each gently tapped into the ground at eye level for elves. The former farm fields are ringed with the oldest apple trees, and, surprisingly, museum-quality signs narrate the family histories. The cemetery is the size of my office and I wish I could sit there every morning to write about overgrown lily-of-the-valley and how small old trees have scripted peace accords with a rusted fence. The trail spurs to a coast of pink rocks where cormorants drape their ragged wings in the rising mist. On the loop back there is one family with a black dog but they are out on the rocks, and then I pass their car with its New York plates, parked in the other spot. I return the map, as the sign requests.

As I leave, the sun is sweeping the fog into corners and in the new light the strange roadsides of Deer Isle have become familiar—I recognize a pile of lobster traps, red-green-blue-yellow like Tibetan prayer flags; the quaint sign for an artist’s studio, open today; a bean supper announcement at a church. I read it all, carefully, each syllable, each angle of whatever is piled in these old fishermen’s yards. I’m at the bridge before I realize I didn’t need my road map—the way out feels shorter, as it always does, than the way in, because I can say I’ve been here before, I can read the land a little better than this morning. Cresting the bridge, I glance in the rearview mirror to see that the dog, who usually lies down in the car, is instead sitting backwards, his anvil head wedged between seatbacks so he can take in where we’ve just left. Together, we’re students of the route, and someday, experts in the elements of style.



Jen Hirt’s memoir Under Glass: The Girl With a Thousand Christmas Trees (University of Akron/Ringtaw Press, 2010) won the Drake University Emerging Writer Award. Her essay “Lores of Last Unicorns” won a Pushcart Prize. She has work forthcoming in The Colorado Review, Blackbird, and Quiddity.

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