This weekend, we took to the woods. I say this with not a faint trace of irony… Growing up in the true North Country – Aroostook County – none of the woods around the Mid Coast area compare to the lush, unending forests of my childhood. But we do the best with what we have, and this time, it was the woodsy area on the old naval base here in Brunswick. Books and reading are my first love, but I also have a passion for getting out and exploring the world around me – places both near and far, though due to budgetary reasons, it’s usually the former. Faraway places will come later, after I strike it rich with that first book deal or when I – perhaps more realistically – stumble upon a winning lottery ticket on the ground one fine day. Until then, I am all for discovering new places that lie just beyond my own backyard.
A bright, sunny January day, so warm it felt like spring. Snow crunches and squeaks under our feet as we amble through the crude trail cutting through the back fields of the base. It is warm enough for snow to melt, dripping off pine boughs hanging over the path, warm enough to make me forget that we still have months to go before winter ends and mud season begins. In short, a lovely, perfect day for a walk in the woods.
No snowshoes or skis for this Maine gal. I’ve never been one for winter sports. Case in point: one of my most awkward memories involves a mandatory “fun” day in middle school (FYI, nothing is fun if it is deemed mandatory) in the dead of winter, a pair of ill-fitting cross country skis, and me without even a pair of snow-pants to cushion my oft-repeated tumbles to the icy ground. No, if I opt to take a winter’s walk, it will just be in my sturdy boots and ill-fitting jeans.
Each time we walk on the base, I can’t help but imagine the past lives of those who once resided there. Originally constructed and occupied in 1943, the Naval Air Station in Brunswick was used during World War II to train British and Canadian pilots. It was used again during the Cold War for a few years before being turned over for operations of maritime patrol aircraft. In 2011, the federal Base Closure and Realignment Commission opted to close the Brunswick Naval Air Station. Since then, the base, renamed Brunswick Landing and under the management of the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, has become home to dozens of businesses, including two daycare centers, the Brunswick Executive Airport, Mölnlycke Health Care, a nursing home, and Southern Maine Community College. Also the Landing Y of the Bath Area Family YMCA just opened in the old gymnasium – until recently, I’d never heard of pickleball, but word on the streets (and on the sign outside their doors) is that it’s a fun mix between tennis, badminton, and ping pong.
I bet the military men who lived on the base in the 40s and 50s never imagined their gym would be recommissioned decades later to accommodate a pickleball court. But then, none of us know how our present towns and homes will look years down the road, when we are long gone. It is this bittersweet nostalgia that makes the base so intriguing. Interspersed throughout the business buildings and residential facilities are apartments that once housed the personnel who lived on the base during its hey-day. They now stand mostly empty, silent reminders of the people who once resided within their walls. So still, it’s almost ghostly.
I try to imagine all the life this place used to see, when it was alive and functioning. There’s a chapel, a primary school, a bar, a store, even what appears to be a tiki-lounge – all proof that once upon a time, life flourished here. It’s in my nature – and perhaps in everyone’s – to create stories in my mind about all the people who lived here. Was the person who lived in those quarters an officer? A gentleman? A drunken sailor? Of course imagining those stories may be, in some way, an injustice to those who served their time here. But in another way, I like to believe that by thinking of those folks, imagining their lives, and creating individual stories for them, I am doing my part to keep the memory of them alive and well.
The day of our walk, it is quiet on the base. We meet a girl walking her dog; some cars pass us by on the road. Other than that, it is still and silent. As we trudge our way into some untrodden snow, the drifts coming up to nearly my knees, it is easy to forget that we are on the campus of so many thriving businesses. For now, it may just as well be as it was back when it was abandoned between WWII and the Cold War.The only sounds are the twittering of birds, the soft wind through the tree branches, and my own heartbeat, amplified by the earmuffs I am wearing. We say little to one another, instead choosing to savor the silence and immerse ourselves in the wintry world around us. The more we walk, the calmer I feel. We have just returned from a somewhat stressful weekend trip up to Bangor – what started out as a relaxing night in front of the hotel’s HGTV channel turned into a six hour visit to the emergency room with a kidney stone. And that will leave anyone frazzled, even your 6’2” tall other half who normally suffers no illness more serious than the occasional headache.
As a County girl (it still takes me by surprise that I think of myself in those terms, especially since I haven’t lived in Aroostook for over seven years, nor do I intend on living there again), I was spoiled as a child and adolescent by always having some river or forest path to explore if I so chose. Even while I was living in Orono and Old Town, I could still find some comforting piece of Nature in which I could walk or sit and read and contemplate all that was wrong and right with my life. It took me much longer to find that kind of place here in Brunswick.
The base has unexpectedly become that outdoor getaway for me. Just enough forest paths to explore without being far from civilization. No Aroostook River, mind you, but it’ll do the trick. The further we walk along the snowy path, the more I can sense both of us realigning, gaining back a sense of calm and equilibrium. On this sun-soaked, unseasonably warm winter day, after a long weekend away from home, this is exactly what I need. Me and my fella, walking through a wintry landscape, content to listen to the rich silence all around us.