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The Places We Aren’t

Translating Matinicus Island’s remoteness

By Eva Murray

Illustration by Ted Walsh Somebody once called Matinicus Island—my hometown—“the most Alaskan place in the lower 48.” I have no idea whether it’s true, never having been to Alaska. Those who call Alaska home might find the comparison a bit cloying and tedious, for which I apologize in advance. Still, the facts remain that, like Alaska, our groceries are delivered by bush pilots, each new one-room schoolteacher has a mother who reacts like her child has run off and joined the French Foreign Legion, and our emergency medical technicians are called upon to respond equally to loved ones, friends, enemies, and dogs—but rarely to strangers—and to pull random things out of peoples’ ears despite medical protocol. What was the question?

Journalists who visit Maine’s islands routinely comment upon our “unique lifestyle,” but I’m not sure we’re so unique. Alaska aside, there are some other places around the world, some iconic, some enigmatic, some less than glamorous, that resemble Maine’s Matinicus Isle Plantation. Here are a few.

Many offshore islands of Scotland, particularly when they advertise online for schoolteachers. This happens from time to time, with gorgeous aerial photography making the post irresistible. The Outer Hebrides seem much like here, particularly when the discussion gets around to the need for schoolmasters who can more or less fend for themselves, including unplug the toilet and fix the copy machine. Such advertisements bring forth a waterfall of over-the-top sentimentality expressed by moony Internet users who wish themselves capable of pulling up stakes and moving to a place without traffic lights, cell service, or take-out vanilla chai. Also, in many cases, without privacy, level-one trauma centers, law enforcement, pad thai, anonymity, pavement, electric heat, or salad. On Matinicus, we don’t have those, either.

In the Shetlands, there is a place called Mucklegrind, on the island of Foula. You’ve got to love a spot called Mucklegrind. I looked up the transportation options. According to the Internet, “Foula is served by a Public Service Obligation (air taxi) from Tingwall Airport. The service runs four times a week with a flying time of 15 minutes. Flights are heavily weather dependent due to fog and crosswind.”

Foula is also served by a ferry service running three times a week but tourists prefer the short flight to the 135-minute ferry ride, according to what I read. The airfield also provides the island’s only public toilet and telephone.

Foula does sound a lot like here: same air crossing time, same fog and crosswinds, and about the same
population, at least after Christmas. Our Shetlands doppelganger is more civilized than we in one sense: The Matinicus airstrip only provides a telephone—no toilet.

The island of Alcatraz. The main difference between there and here is that our ferry ride through roiling waters isn’t typically one-way (although the Maine State Ferry Service does have cause to wonder, when we choose to use the second half of our round-trip tickets maybe five years after purchase, as I did recently). I went to Alcatraz as a tourist once, and of course I wanted to see the power station, which wasn’t on the tour.

There are occasional jokes on Matinicus about this being “the Alcatraz of the willing,” but I have also heard at least one person express annoyance at “all this Alcatraz stuff.” This isn’t prison. Not at all; the scenery is lovely, the food is great, the beds are soft, and the anarchy is, uh, liberating. It’s just that sometimes you cannot leave.

Phantom Ranch, which is the tourist accommodation at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. When we were there with our children nearly 20 years ago we noticed a few parallels with our home island. There are something like 80-100 people on any given night; the rangers have to answer the same questions all day; and it doesn’t matter how sick, how persistent, or how rich you are, the helicopter cannot fly you out if the weather’s bad. The food is good and hearty and plentiful, but what’s there is there and what isn’t, isn’t. What isn’t there is a lot in the way of milk. They do not, however, tend to run out of beer. Every day—just like here with our air service—the mule train delivers the mail, more beer, and a red-and-white box of parts from Grainger Supply for the maintenance man. They ship to the Matinicus maintenance man as well (Grainger, I mean—not the mules).

Mars mission practice, NASA (location undisclosed), at least regarding how not to get into a fistfight. When we read articles about the training of astronauts for a potential Mars mission, the science strays into the realms of sociology and psychology. It is one thing to worry about the severe cold of Mars, or the radiation exposure, or the effects of extended space flight on physical fitness. But the reality is a few people cooped up together, dependent upon one another and without the option of going to Disneyworld for a week during mud season can devolve into something resembling a soap opera or an all-hands barroom brawl. We on Matinicus know about such things. NASA should ask us.

South Pole and other Antarctic research stations. Like us, they have need for talent and multitasking among those who labor there, and a similar relationship to fresh produce, and they know all about how the regulars have to babysit the visitors. I once asked our friend Skip, who has worked many times at Palmer Station, what his actual job in Antarctica was. After giving it a minute’s quiet thought he responded, “It is my job to stop the highly-educated researchers and scientists from stepping into the Zodiac inflatable rubber raft with their ice crampons on.”

Anyway, many of us who winter on Matinicus are certain we could easily handle Antarctica. I suspect our postmaster is filling out the forms to apply for a postal worker job down there; she saw something on television about how the job required the ability to work hard, dress for the cold, and clean up penguin poop.

I made voice contact over 40-meter amateur radio with somebody at the geographic South Pole station last year from Matinicus, certainly my farthest and most exotic ham radio contact. It would have been his first and only Matinicus Island contact as well.

Hootin’ Holler. There is a Snuffy Smith comic strip on our refrigerator, ripped out of a newspaper years ago, yellowed and brittle. We see Smif’ inside his shack asking Louise, “How much for a pizza from the Piney Creek House o’ Pizza?”

“Ten bucks,” she replies.

In the last frame of the strip we see the area from a distance, with pointy mountains and steep, treacherous, sketchy-looking roads. “Wif’ delivery, $62.50.”


In the words of author Lawrence Millman, who wrote about Foula, “Difficulty of access may be the last remaining grace.”  

Eva Murray lives year-round on Matinicus Island. She has written three books detailing aspects of island life, including Island Schoolhouse: One Room for All (Tilbury House), and is working on about 10  more. 


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