Life imitates art in western Maine

When most of us think of Maine, we envision coastal fishing villages, preppy island resorts, and vintage lighthouses. A tour of western Maine is a lake and forest adventure in a region full of real and imagined ties to novelist Stephen King. Bridgton, where King raised his children, became the town of “Castle Rock” in its stories. The writer summers on Lake Kezar (Dark Score Lake in the book “Bag of Bones”). Less than an hour from Portland, thousands of people visit this region to canoe, enjoy the fall foliage, or ski. King’s sources of inspiration can also be traced.

Stephen King is from Durham, Maine, and is perhaps the state’s best known native son. Whether you’re a King fan or not, a tour of the southwestern state offers attractions for everyone: skiing in the Sugarloaf or Sunday River, excellent local antique and craft shops, romantic lakefront bed and breakfasts, and paddle steamer rides along the Songo river. The other story is told by King in his thrillers and the locals whose lives surround him.

Western Maine grew as a logging center. The tales emerged from the lumberjack camps, where, from September to April, workers shared jobs, meals, and stories. The best place to see this heritage is RJ Richard’s store (on Rangeley’s main street), also known as “The Mad Whittler.” The son of a lumberjack who lived to be 93, he makes a living crafting life-size figures with a chainsaw. Ladies need not feel left out, Richard will introduce them to his worldwide “Bunny Club” by giving them a small wooden rabbit. Visit the Rangeley Lakes Lumber Museum, which features art dedicated to the logging tradition. “The Mad Whittler” himself leads the tour, full of spirit and appreciation.

Ask your Rangeley innkeeper or hotelier for a good place to pick blueberries in season. Also here is a stone farmhouse with views of nearby and distant mountains – this was the residence of Dr. Wilhelm Reich, an Austrian immigrant from Maine from the 1940s and 1950s who was equal parts Sigmund Freud and Nikola Tesla. Reich was an advocate of a human energy that he called “orgone.” A tour led by a volunteer who met the scientist, includes the doctor’s study, his B-movie tech crew, and the rooftop observation deck. The view is captivating.

While in the Rangeley Lakes area, dine at the Kawanhee Inn and Restaurant in Weld, a log retreat where young Stephen King worked as a dishwasher. Order the mild soup and finish with a local dessert filled with blueberries. Teddy Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover are among those who came here to fly-fish with “Fly Rod” Crosby, a colorful local woman who knew Annie Oakley. Not far from here is Naples, a lakefront town where King served as a kitchen helper for a defunct hotel called The Woodlands. There he met a black cook who served as a model for Dick Halloran, the clairvoyant chef of “The Shining.” The rest of the impetus for this story was King’s real-life winter concert as caretaker of the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, built by Francis Edgar Stanley. A must see for both King readers and car lovers alike is the Stanley Museum in Kingfield, the aptly named. Once a school, this white-column building houses vintage steam cars from the early 20th century that broke land speed records. The museum’s founder, Susan Davis, will take you around town in style in a rare Stanley. Kingfield is best known for the Sugarloaf slopes; there is no equal for east coast skiing.

To top off an evening here, dine at the majestic Herbert Hotel, a restored Victorian building that was one of the first finer stays north of Boston in its 1930s heyday. If you travel west, you’ll hit Route 302 in Bridgton. This city appears in the fiction as “Castle Rock”, which appears in the King fiction, and is the name of the production company that turns novels into movies. The Food City grocery store in the little mall at 119 Main Street here was Federal Foods of King’s dream novel “The Mist.” If you’ve read the story, the store is identical to what your mind’s eye conjured up. Continue a short drive north to Lovell, where King has a summer home on Palmer Lane in the Kezar Lake area. On the main road here, King was hit by a pickup truck in June 1999; since then he has donated ambulances to Bridgton’s Northern Cumberland Memorial Hospital on South High Street. For a possible King sighting, head to the nondescript market called Melby’s on Route 35 in North Waterford. The locals still call it Tut’s, a former name.

Head north on Bethel where you can have lunch or play 18 holes at the Bethel Inn. Later, have a bite to eat at Cho-Sun Sushi on 119 Main St. The owner, Pak Sun Lane, is good friends with both King and his novelist wife Tabitha.

No trip to this region would be complete without a stop in Poland Springs. As you approach in your vehicle, you will feel like you have left the US and entered a New England Oz. Once a Shaker village, the upper crust flocked here to chat, spa, and drink the mineral waters since the 1910s. Tours of beautiful period buildings, green grounds, and original water treatment facilities are offered. (ask for Elliot Levy, the director of energy conservation). This is where Joseph P. Kennedy went on his honeymoon with Rose, and where their children learned to play golf (on a Donald Ross course). Photos of the elite crowd display walls. President Coolidge and Henry Ford were summer guests at a time when the wealthy insisted they only drank Poland Springs water. The majestic stone entrance is one of two buildings still standing from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where the world first got a taste of Aunt Jemima’s burgers, fries and pancakes. In the small community of Shaker next to Poland Springs, visitors can tour their old houses, the meeting house, and purchase souvenirs, music and literature at the gift shop.

Hiking, biking, presidential folklore, and all set against America’s favorite thrillers. Go west, but do it in Maine.