It was a quiet day on the lazy main drag of Millinocket on Thursday. An occasional car or truck drove past, slowly. A few diners sat down to eat at the Appalachian Trail Cafe. And along a strip of vacant storefronts, an occasional pedestrian peered into the open door of a newly occupied space.
A small, wooden National Park Service sign stood proudly in the front window.
And inside, Tim Hudson — the newly named project leader of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument — was already hard at work, an hour before the monument’s office officially opened for the first time.
Job one on this landmark day: Vacuum the floor in the musty-smelling space.
“Don’t publish these [photos], because if my wife sees, she’ll know I can vacuum,” joked Hudson, a 49-year veteran of the National Park Service who previously worked in Alaska and at Yellowstone National Park, but has lived in Bangor for the past few years.
There were no festivities to mark the office’s opening day, a day after President Obama declared 87,563 acres northeast of Millinocket a national monument. Hudson and a colleague greeted the media and shared information with anyone who dropped by.
There were no cheers. There were no jeers.
But make no mistake: No matter how silently, a new era in the north woods has begun.
Before Hudson even got around to practicing his previously unpublicized house-cleaning skills, a pair of women from Plymouth, Mass., stuck their heads in the door to offer congratulations. And although the opening of the office was also largely unpublicized, a few curious folks did stop by.
Donna Boone grew up in Lincoln and now lives in Bishop, Calif. She came to Millinocket on Thursday for a simple reason: She wanted a map of the monument lands.
A quick detour from her original travels near the new monument, and she got what she’d come for.
Boone, 69, described herself as largely ambivalent on the national park question that divided Mainers for years, but after dealing with federal land management entities in the west, she was decidedly leery.
She has concerns about access for the disabled, and worries that the economic impact won’t help locals as much as it could. She doesn’t think the federal government listens to locals.
But she also loves the outdoors, and recognizes that access to more than 87,000 acres could be a positive. Thus, her quest for the newest map available.
She’s not a cheerleader for the national monument designation by any means. But she planned to take a look at the land, and hope for the best.
“There’s a lot of changes, and as we get older we have to adapt,” she said.
Jared Martin, 36, lives in New Holland, Pa., and was making a regular visit to his in-laws at Cedar Lake. He’d been following the park debate for years, and seemed surprised when he asked Hudson when monument officials expected to open the land for business.
“It’s open right now,” Hudson said with a smile. “Be our guest!”
Martin was also surprised to learn the less-than-exorbitant fee he’d have to pay to access the land. Admission is presently free, and no admission structure has been discussed as of yet, according to Hudson.
That initial trip into the national monument will have to wait for Martin though. He and his family are returning home on Friday — but he promised he’d return.
“It won’t be this year. It will have to wait. But we’ll definitely get out there and put some miles on our feet,” he said.
Through frequent visits to the area he’s come to love, Martin said he’d always struggled to understand why people were fighting against the gift Burt’s Bees co-founder Roxanne Quimby wanted to make to the federal government.
“We’ve been watching the battle back and forth for a few years, and seen the “National Park No” signs,” he said. “We couldn’t really understand why people wouldn’t want it.”
Not long after that, 71-year-old Jane Andrews of Belfast strode in the door, smiling broadly.
This, she said, was a wonderful day. A new beginning. A new era.
And it only got more wonderful.
“Do you want to get the [Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument] passport stamp?” Christina Marts, the monument’s community planner asked. “Many folks who visit national parks have little passport books and they get stamped at every park they go.”
Andrews didn’t have a passport book. Instead, she accepted a stamp — the first ever for Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument — on the map she’d just picked up.
Wednesday’s news that Maine had a new national monument thrilled her.
“It had been forever that clashes were going on. I didn’t know [when any announcement would be made],” she said. “I was happy as heck.”
John Holyoke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke