As the world spins, here Downeast we wait and wait some more

Technology is out of control. From self-driving cars, voice activated computer assistants, zillions of streaming radio and TV channels, to motion sensor camera doorbells, it is safe to say the world is spinning at a furious rate of change. Here now, in Downeast, Maine, I try to slow things down by taking each and every day one at a time. The sun comes up, the tides come and go like clockwork, boats head out to sea and come back. And still I think a lot about this rapid rate of technological change going on around me, and worry most, no, cringe is a better word, at the thought of a traffic light showing up here one day.

Yes, here in this part of Maine we do not have a single traffic light and that’s ok. In fact, I love that there are no traffic lights because I think their absence is a unique component of what makes this place so special. It would take a drive of about 60 miles in either direction to eventually find one working traffic light.

In Machias there is an intersection at the center of town that can get quite busy by Downeast standards. The intersection requires patience by both pedestrian and driver because the road also serves as Coastal Route 1, and during the summer months it will be quite busy as people head north or south. Borrowing from the term, “stop, look and listen” that we learned as children when approaching a railroad crossing, this intersection is a great example of stop, look, and “wait”. No need for a traffic light to regulate anything, the people self-regulate and it is an awesome sight when it works; and usually here, it works.

In what I believe to be a silent revolt to even the simplest form of technology being installed, a traffic light, pedestrians and motorists, locals and out-of- town travelers, all work together to carryout a Downeast decorum of discipline and accommodation to maintain traffic flow. Fulfilled countless times a day, along with the occasional wave thrown in for good measure, I am certain it is happening not only here, but in other areas such as Jonesport and all the way up to and including Eastport.

Why is this important enough to write about? I think it says a lot about us as a community. Not only does it make us a little more cautious and slower paced, it also allows time to muster itself into lessons of patience, friendliness and support for one another. I remember driving into Bangor for the first time and sitting at a traffic light, thinking to myself, “Man, these traffic lights take forever to change.” In fact, back in Pennsylvania, I find it safe to say we have very quick lights. But again, I think it’s the place that can create the speed of things. Here, even in Bangor, “where are you going in such a hurry?” seems to never be asked. So, we sit at the light or the busy intersection, wave and say hello to people passing by and wait.

Back to that intersection in Machias: As I was there the other day patiently waiting to make a turn, it had me thinking back to my first business trip to China. After arriving at the hotel I wandered outside and across the street to a nearby park. It was mid-day and as I walked up the street I came to a major intersection, literally a hub of chaos. Five heavily traveled streets intersected, creating a whirlpool of people on foot, bikes, scooters and cars. I stood back and watched in amazement as hundreds of people moved through this intersection quietly looking ahead as they all moved with determined precision, sometimes coming so close to each other you could hear the whisper of metal against metal or shoulder against shoulder, all without complaint. In fact, it was all done very orderly and quietly as they navigated this maze of streets and humanity. There were no shouting or inappropriate hand gestures, just people working together in a silent effort to control this chaos. This example is a far cry from the congestion experienced on Coastal Route 1 through Machias, but you get the picture, it simply works when everyone works together.

Lately I have been reading a new book by Thomas Friedman on how to thrive in the age of acceleration. He has authored plenty of books dealing with globalization, and recently gave his thoughts and reasons for the world being flat in a business sense. In this latest offering there are chapters telling the reader how, why and what to look forward to in this future of one “ization” after another. After writing down these observations on traffic lights and the patience of people here to work together in a nostalgic homage to yesterday, I have now put the book aside and am pretty sure I will not be returning to it.

Quite frankly, I am not looking to thrive in any age of “ization”; I simply want to live each and every day to the fullest. And for me the place to do this happens to be Downeast. Many can and will do it someplace else, and that’s ok. We know the world will continue to spin, but here Downeast, I will patiently sit at an intersection, wait quietly, and on occasion smile and wave a friendly hello.

RJ Heller

About RJ Heller

Having arrived here from Pennsylvania over four years ago, there has been plenty to learn and even more to observe. This place is different, but I mean that in a good way. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, I am a college graduate with a teaching degree, a business founder and seller, and a father of two children with my wife Stephanie; life has been full and somewhat adventurous, but finding Maine remains a high watermark in my life.