with Nancy Willey and Sunrise Senior College
One of the many benefits enjoyed by members of Sunrise Senior College this summer was the opportunity to join Nancy Willey from Cherryfield, The Baseline Lady, this past Wednesday on a trip to the Great Heath and a hike along the Epping Baseline Road from Columbia to Deblois. This particular “summer short” is one of a dozen popular summer specials offered to members free of charge. Twenty-five of the college’s one hundred and sixty members make up the rapt audience who met at Addison Town Hall for the hour-long lecture that precedes the journey.
Nancy Willey, a retired Washington County social studies, history and geography teacher, comes from a family of teachers; her grandmother, mother, father and two brothers were in education and although Willey is retired - officially – after teaching for 35 years 8 months and 2 days, she still substitutes frequently in area schools. She’s teaching the third generation of some families and takes great delight in tattling on previous generations. It’s easy to see why she is a great teacher; she loves it. And students, young and old, love her. Her enthusiasm for her hobby, The Epping Baseline, is contagious and a liberal sprinkling of anecdotes enlivens the course.
Based at University of Maine at Machias for the past two years, Sunrise Senior College is a volunteer community group open to all persons 50 years of age and older and their spouses of any age. In deference to the average age of the group, older by far than the groups of school children Willey normally squires, she apologizes repeatedly for treating them like children or talking down to them. Far from being insulted, the seniors seem to relish her technique and ripples of laughter follow every apology...and many of her other remarks as well. Humor is a big part of her winning style.
Willey begins by explaining how she became interested in the Epping Baseline in 1978 and gives a brief overview of its history and the enormously important role it played in the geodetic survey of the entire eastern coastline of the United States in the mid-1800s. Although the uninitiated (even Nancy) may not understand the mathematics and the triangulation formulas involved in surveying, the importance to an emerging nation, a new world power, of accurate land measurements and navigational charts is obvious to all. Equally obvious, is the enormity of the task. By the time Willey is done with the history lesson, the group is in awe of Hassler’s and Bache’s accomplishments and anxious to see the real thing. But first, a geology lesson - so we can appreciate the terrain through which we’ll be passing.
Finally it is time to board the big yellow school bus provided by SAD 37 who also furnished a most appropriate bus driver, Preston Smith of South Addison. Smith has been driving school buses for forty-seven years and knows the ways of bus riders. He tells the group he would have known how old they were without even seeing them - because...”the younger the group, the farther toward the back of the bus they sit.” This group is clustered closely at the front of the bus to insure that no one misses a single word of wisdom from their leader. They may sport more ear trumpets than earphones, compare the latest in walking sticks rather than the newest video games and chatter about their grandchildren instead of their grandparents, but they want to be here. Age provides another dimension to the dynamic that a younger group would lack – the sharing of details gained from decades of learning and observing. Anything that Nancy doesn’t know, Preston or someone else can contribute and a wonderfully rich, multi-layered experience is the result. Even all the side-conversations are fascinating.
The first stop on the tour is atop the ridge that runs from Cutler to Ellsworth. Here in Centerville, the ocean is just a smudge on the horizon to the south in Milbridge, but it once covered the blueberry barrens right up to this ridge. We stop to see kames, kettle holes, natural bridges, boulder fields and the Great Heath, the largest in New England. Here everyone gets off the bus for a stretch of the legs and a view of the “...purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain.” Tunk Mountain, Brown, Black, Catherine and the mountains of Mt. Desert Island really do look purple off to the west. The glacier, we are told, took all our topsoil and deposited it in New Jersey; that’s why it’s called the Garden State. Fortunately for us, the wild blueberry loves sandy soil and since the harvest is over, we eat as many blueberries as we are willing to glean.
The Epping Baseline Road begins in Columbia and runs straight across the Epping Plain. The monument on the eastern end has fallen to vandalism and this spot is marked with a concrete slab and several obscure roadside blocks. Everyone files out to have a look and take pictures...and begin the 5.4-mile walk. It’s a perfect day for it. The road stretches straight ahead to the horizon. We soon pass a lone pine called the “mower’s tree.” Such trees were left in the middle of each field to provide a shady spot for the mower to eat lunch. That was back in the days when hay was grown on these plains to feed the horses and oxen used in the lumber camps. The bus creeps along behind the group of hikers, carrying the less able or the disinclined. In no time at all we’re stopping for lunch at Frog Rock, one of the larger erratics on the plain. I sit on the bus and talk to Preston. He tells me he has climbed Katahdin thirty-five times.
Refreshed, the intrepid gather themselves up and resume the hike. After walking off their lunch, they all climb aboard and we ride until woods obscure the road. The vegetation has grown up in wet spots and we detour away from the federal road onto the blueberry company road for a short way. Finally, we again disembark and follow Nancy into the woods. The road here is entirely obscured by trees and brush. It’s easy to see the old road if you know it’s there, but most people who drive by don’t know what they’re looking at. This very obscurity has been the salvation of the monument on the western end of the baseline. Since it’s lost for all intents and purposes, it has survived and what a feeling of excitement we have coming upon it, standing there in the clearing since 1857. We know we are in the very same spot as Ben Franklin’s great-grandson, Alexander D. Bache, and the team of men and women who cleared the land, built the road, measured the baseline and mapped the coast.
On the way back to Addison, we pass my house in Cherryfield. I ask everyone to put down their windows and scream “Hello Ralphie” as we go by. They do. Although we are only young once, we can be immature forever. And every day can be a good day for having fun with Sunrise Senior College.
For information about SSC and the course offerings in the fall session, call 255-1384, or see the website at www.maineseniorcollege.org.
Note: This article appeared in the Downeast Coastal Press of September 21-27, 2004
Ref: Maine, At Last - Out and About Vol. III, Page 90