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By Cathy NewmanPhotographs by José Azel



The "prettiest village in Maine" has great lobster rolls, but Wiscasset's real specialty is foot-long (30 centimeters-long) worms.



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A worm digger works knee-deep in taupe-colored, fetid mud that clings to legs like a drowning man to a buoy. At my behest Doug Schmal, a third-generation digger, took me out on the mudflats. Watch that first step out of the boat. Mine was a disaster. I sank deep in mud, hopelessly stuck. Knowing I could never break loose, I left my boots in the mud, slogged to higher, solid ground, and sat on a rock while Schmal pulled them out. Then I watched him hack through the muck with his hoe in search of his quarry. Smirk if you like at the idea of digging worms: On a good day Schmal makes $180 for five hours' work (at 12 cents a sandworm, that adds up to 1,500 worms) and takes the rest of the day off to play golf. Of course there are $30 days, and, he hastens to add, "I have a hardworking wife who helps support me."
 
The prime hangout for worm diggers is the Miss Wiscasset Diner south of town, where U.S. 1 becomes the town's commercial strip. The usual roadside flora prevails: gas stations, motels, a trailer or two, and Big Al's Super Values. Big Al is Al Cohen, the self-proclaimed Undertaker of Merchandise, and Wiscasset has never known a bigger booster, even though he is, in local parlance, "from away." Big Al (who at 300 pounds [136 kilograms] lives up to his name) is from Queens, New York. He immigrated to Maine 16 years ago after being robbed three times in six months.
 
"There are people who decorate their house in Modern Big Al's and Antique Salvation Army," Al said, showing me his merchandise, which consists of manufacturers' overstocks and odd-lot leftovers from catalog houses. He picked up a plastic bird from a bin. "Don't You Know You Need One Of These?" he said in his TV voice. (Big Al stars in his own television commercials.)
 
"Is it an ostrich?" I asked.
 
"Not an ostrich," he corrected. "Here they should know from ostriches? This is a Lawn Bird." He picked up a ceramic bowl and offered another marketing lesson. "In some places this is a pasta dish." It was one of a huge lot of bowls that didn't sell—at first.
"Then I called them chowdah bowls. Now I sell 230 cases a year." That's Yankee ingenuity by way of Queens for you.
 
We moved on. "And Don't You Need One Of These?" he boomed, lifting a coffee mug shaped like a cow's hindquarters.
 
A woman in the adjacent aisle pricked up her ears and headed our way.
 
"Get it before it's gone," he said.
 
She practically broke into a run.
 
"Life's been good to you?" I asked him.
 
"Can't complain. I won the lottery," he said, by which he meant the jackpot in the lottery of life. "I came to Maine."
 
I stopped by the counter to choose my Free Gift (Big Al has the Only Free Gift Bar In Maine!) and couldn't decide between a ring made of indeterminate metal with LOVE on it, or one with a peace sign.
 
"Take both," said Big Al.
 
Why not? I should get it before it's gone. 

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An estimated 26,000 cars a day pass through the village of Wiscasset during the peak of the summer season. The artery they use is two-lane U.S. 1, which in Wiscasset is also the town's historic Main Street. From the south the road runs past outlying shops and businesses—small strip malls—into a residential part of town where houses hug the road, around the courthouse, down a hill through the center of the historic district, then across a long two-lane bridge over the Sheepscot River and out of town.
 
People who live or work along the road hear a constant rumble of cars and large trucks. U.S. 1 is the only way by land to reach all the coastal towns between Brunswick and Bangor—an 84-mile (135-kilometer) stretch as the crow flies—and links popular summer vacation spots such as Boothbay Harbor, Pemaquid Point, Rockport, and Camden along a jaggedly indented shoreline. Traffic congestion makes for a long, slow slog along the coastal route.
 
The heart of Wiscasset is one of the main clogs in this artery. The road through town is narrow and curving, with many side streets. Parking is limited, yet many tourists do stop to down a lobster roll at Red's Eats or visit the many antique shops (in the process crossing the road repeatedly and further slowing traffic). On busy days traffic can back up for miles on either side of the bridge. 
 
Over the years many projects designed to ease traffic have been tried and abandoned—one-way streets, a traffic light, a median, a pedestrian crossing guard—but none has solved the problem of ever increasing backups. A bypass would be logical. Or would it?
 
Since 1958 the town and the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) have debated the issue.  Bypass or no bypass? Save the sanity of the residents by sending traffic out and around town? But many residents own businesses, and a bypass would cut off their livelihood. There's even disagreement as to whether traffic through town increases business or discourages it. If a bypass, should it be north or south of town; affect local homeowners or cut across nature preserves, damaging wildlife and wetlands? How far south to start the bypass, or, in other words, which businesses to pinch off from the life-blood of tourism?
 
The town has suggested bypass routes of its own; the MDOT has sponsored environmental studies and proposed other routes. Since the first discussions nearly 50 years ago, even when the townspeople have been able to agree on the route, something has always intervened to stop the project. The MDOT now seems to be getting ready to make a decision and go through with its own bypass route with or without the blessing of Wiscasset or nearby communities. The process has now come further than ever before—will it actually go through this time?
 
Stay tuned via the first two websites below, and if you drive "downeast" in the summer, be forewarned—traffic may be worse than in your commuter-clogged hometown.
 
—Elizabeth Snodgrass
Did You Know?

Related Links
Wiscasset Newspaper
www.wiscassetnewspaper.maine.com
Stay up-to-date on local happenings with the weekly Wiscasset Newspaper, "Serving Alna, Dresden, Edgecomb, Westport, Wiscasset and Woolwich." A contents section highlights current articles; searchable back issues allow you to find articles on specific topics covered in the past.
 
Maine Department of Transportation
wiscassetroute1.com/
This official government website of the Route 1 Corridor Study offers links to a study overview, project news, an interactive map showing the proposed routes, notes from the Public Advisory Committee (a group of local residents), and reports and plans.
 
Wiscasset Newspaper, "Prettiest Village," July 19, 2001
wiscassetnewspaper.maine.com/2001-07-19/prettiest_village.html
John Meo tries to unearth the origins of the "prettiest village in Maine" sobriquet, and in the process implicates National Geographic. Residents weigh in, looking back to the early 1900s for the probable source.
 
The Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities
www.spnea.org/visit/homes/castle.htm
If you visit Wiscasset between June and October, be sure to visit Castle Tucker, now run as a museum. Details on tour times and the background of the house accompany inside and outside photographs.
 
The Chewonki Foundation
www.chewonki.org
The Chewonki Foundation is a nonprofit educational institution organized in 1962. The wide range of programs includes environmental education, wilderness trips and training, a Maine coast semester for high school juniors, and a variety of camp programs for boys and girls.
 
Red's Eats
www.hollyeats.com/Reds.htm
For mouthwatering pictures of some of Red's Eats' specialties (the famous lobster roll, batter fried clams, and the Sturdly—a hot dog with cheese) visit this website. 
 
Maine Bait
www.mainebait.com/info.html
Despite annoying pop-up ads, this site is a good source of information on the current state of Maine's marine worm industry.  At the top of the page is a brief history of bloodworm digging.  Scroll down the page to find editorials by the owner of Maine Bait and, further down, a collection of media articles on the worm industry.  The site also links to good basic descriptions of bloodworms and sandworms.
 
Intertidal Habitats
www.state.me.us/dep/blwq/vol1pt2.pdf
Generated by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection's Land and Water Quality Bureau, this extensive (and slow-to-download) PDF file is an excellent resource for students or biologists interested in Maine's coastal habitats. Each category of habitat—sand beach, boulder beach, sand flat, mixed coarse and fine sand flat, salt marsh, bedrock ledge, and mudflat—is described in detail, including a description, where it is found in Maine, its functions and value to man and nature, its sensitivity to disturbance and development, threats, and related permit issues.

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Bibliography
Dole, Nathan Haskell, and Irwin Leslie Gordon.  Maine of the Sea and Pines. L. C. Page and Company, 1928.
 
Duncan, Roger F. Coastal Maine: A Maritime History. W. W. Norton and Company, 1992.
 
Rich, Louise Dickenson. State O' Maine. Harper and Row, 1964.

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NGS Resources
Nelson, Andrew. "American Idylls: Small Towns, Big Culture." National Geographic Traveler (July/August 2003), 18.
 
Kostyal, K. M. "Back to the Past in Rural Maine." National Geographic Traveler (May/June 1991), 42-6.
 
Jeffery, David. "Maine's Working Coast." National Geographic (February 1985), 208-41.

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