Leaf-peeping in a pickup

LACKING the usual dominant reds, Canada's maple trees depended this fall on a million yellows to perfect the foliage spectacular, but our visit to the Kaybecker scenery had an inauspicious start. We had the sedan loaded for an early morning getaway, and as I released the pedal into gear the clutch gave out and quivered in the anguish of defeat. ``So what?'' whatted my amiable companion, ``we'll go in the pickup!'' So I repacked the impedimenta into the back of the truck, tied down a tarpaulin, and off we went for four delightful days of leaf-peeping through northern Maine and southern Quebec, and along the St. Lawrence River. I found that touring in a pick-up is different.

Well, I did ask one customs officer if he and his fellows operate on the presumption that sedans are polite and harmless but pickup trucks are suspect and seditious, and the tool of the hardened smuggler. He did laugh and say no, but it is true we were subjected to scrutiny and questions that didn't prevail in former years when we made the same trip in pleasure cars. This came to our attention on the first night from home when we border-hopped seven times to get settled at Fort Kent, Maine, and Clair, New Brunswick.

Back and forth. Fort Kent has a comfortable motel called Rock's, but Rock's has no dining room. The adjacent fast-food lounge is operated by Rock (his real name is Michel Levesque) but the sign says, ``No service, take your food to your table.'' This seemed beneath the holiday desires of two semi-wealthy travelers who get all the self-service they need at home. So we went scouting for a place that had a waitress and napkins. This we found at the Canadian end of the international bridge over the St. John River, a place with improbable Viking d'ecor.

So as we went back and forth before leaving Fort Kent and Clair we passed customs the seven times, and became an international nuisance. Each time our aforesaid impedimenta was un-tarped and examined, to be tarped again, and while the United States boys were stern and offish, the Canadians were politely efficient and pleasantly affable. Nothing was found that incriminated us.

Fort Kent and Clair are in the historic St. John River Valley, known on both sides as ``the valley,'' and there is much charm to the mingling of French and English, both languages and cultures. The dispersal of the French from Nova Scotia in 1755 sent many to the ``Cajun'' lands in Louisiana, but many more simply moved up the St. John River to live in the valley. Here, they are proud of being from ``Acadia,'' which is a place-name in Micmac Indian and the word from which Cajun derived.

When English settlers moved into northern Maine in the 19th century, they found these Acadians already long established, and today there are more Cyrs and Daigles and Gagnons than there are Smiths and Joneses and Browns. The valley is a beautiful place. Here, the St. John River is the international boundary. On our seventh passage we succeeded in eluding the customs and immigration and were soon truckin' on towards St. Alexandra and the St. Lawrence River.

We passed Long Lake, which is long indeed and beneath golden maple leaves on both sides, and came to an interlude at a place I cannot spell and couldn't pronounce and don't remember anyway. The word is Indian, and in Old French it somehow got changed to the simple Estcourt. Estcourt Station has Maine's most northerly post office, ZIP 04741, and it is the original town you can't get to from here.

The post office step is right on the line, and a smuggler's jump takes you over the boundary into Canada. The Canadian customs station is in the next jump. We swung off the main highway to go along a dirt road to look at an international boundary marker. There isn't much else there. In doing this, we did not leave Canada.

But when we came to return to the main highway my assistant-trucker said, ``He's waving for you to stop!'' It was even so. The Canadian guardian of the frontier was signaling me to turn in. I turned in. Forth came a good-looking young man, and he simply said, ``Hello!'' None of this, ``What's-your-name, where-are-you-from, and-where-are-you-going?'' stuff. I gave him hello for hello, and he smiled much as I did.

``I didn't know we'd gone over the line,'' I said.

He said, ``You didn't. But I get lonesome here now and then for somebody to talk to.''

So we talked a time, and he explained how Estcourt Station mail is flown up from Portland. He said the St. Francis River is named for Msgr. Montmorency, whose first name was Fran,cois. We're home now.

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