Travel

A corner of Maine isolated in acres empty of people

What lies inside 10 million acres of barely populated forest lands

Among the things you’ll see up in Maine’s “unorganized territory”: logs.
Scott LaPierre/Globe Staff
Among the things you’ll see up in Maine’s “unorganized territory”: logs.

ROCKWOOD — You come to this tiny village on the western shore of isolated Moosehead Lake to get away from it all. But from here there’s even farther to go, farther away to get.

To reach our friend’s lakeside cabin on a hot summer Saturday, we spent several hours crawling up Interstate 95, clogged with beach and mountain traffic, before finally hitting the state highways and backroads. These meandering arteries are the only routes to the vast, wild emptiness that is northwest Maine. The towns get tinier and farther apart, the road narrower. Passing through empty Misery Gore township north of Greenville, you have Route 15 — by now a slim ribbon of grey in a thick evergreen forest — pretty much to yourself. As we approach the lakeshore cabin after dark, the road has become a dirt track.

Rockwood is ringed by mountains and sits on spectacular Moosehead Lake, the second largest lake in New England. Visible from all over town is nearby Mount Kineo’s postcard-perfect cliff face. It’s tempting to spend my entire vacation week planted in a chair on the cabin’s deck, novel in hand, as the horizon-spanning mirror shifts moods with the days’ changing light. Development near the lake is sparse, and there are few motorboats or other man-made noises. At night, only the cries of loons pierce the silence. Looking up, you can see deep into the Milky Way: a ghostly cloud behind the first-order stars visible back home near Boston.

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Rockwood is only about halfway up Moosehead Lake, but it’s the last town as you head up the western shore. Just beyond is the state’s “unorganized territory”: 10 million acres of unincorporated townships and back country that make up most of the top half of the state, with a year-round population smaller than Hopkinton’s.

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A glance at my phone shows Google Maps struggling to make sense of this wilderness zone. What roads there are are unlabeled, directions are hit-or-miss, town names (and towns) are nonexistent. Forget about street view. I find it both exhilarating and a little haunting that in 2015 there is this place in the northeast United States where, without being careful, one could get lost. In a car. With all your devices charged. I want to see what that looks like.

We set out into the territory one morning with my friend Eric, who’s been summering on Moosehead since he was a child. Driving north from the cabin we pass half-vacant motels and summer lodges before the pavement abruptly ends and we are bouncing on badly rutted logging roads. Eric drives on the left, where the potholes and divots are slightly shallower. Immediately we are in forest so thick you can’t see more than 20 or 30 feet into it. This is the view for over an hour, although it’s occasionally, suddenly, interrupted by breathtaking, once-in-a-lifetime vistas of unspoiled lakes, rivers, and distant mountaintops. But most of what you see is forest: up close and lots of it.

Rockwood is only about halfway up Moosehead Lake, but it’s the last town as you head up the western shore.
Scott LaPierre/Globe Staff
Rockwood is only about halfway up Moosehead Lake, but it’s the last town as you head up the western shore.

We are on our way to remote Seboomook Lake for some sightseeing, and then Pittston Farm, the only lunch option, it seems, until Canada. When we come to forks in the road, there’s often no road signs, and Eric picks the path from memory. When we do see a sign Eric says, “That’s strange.” Such frivolous touches didn’t exist all those summers ago when he drove around here with his grandfather. The flat descriptiveness of the road labels is poetry: “South Branch Access Road.” “20 Mile Road.” The tempting “Slab Pile Road.”

We arrive at Pittston Farm around lunchtime. Built in the early 1900s to feed and aid loggers, the place today is a destination for hunters, fishers, campers, and snowmobilers. Its website euphemistically puts it “Just north of Rockwood,” but I can see from a map that we’re halfway to the Canadian border. The sprawling grounds hold old farm buildings, cabins, a logging museum, and gorgeous green fields lined with wildflowers. There’s a fairytale feel to this cluster of frowsy comforts forgotten by time in an ocean of trees.

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As we pull up to the main house, a woman is standing on the front porch.

“Ready for some lunch?” she asks, stubbing out her cigarette.

The decor inside is hunter chic: mounted moose heads, antler chandeliers, fishing poles, a stuffed fox, a black bear. The wallpaper in one dining room depicts a lake scene that must be a duck hunter’s dreamscape.

The food is simple and delicious: burgers, chicken sandwiches, and BLTs with fries so thick they’re like mini baked potatoes. The bread is baked on-site by the owner’s teenage daughter: buttery, rich buns and thick, hearty sandwich bread that taste even better than the meat they hold.

We take some homemade whoopie pies for the road. (They are divine, we will discover after dinner.)

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It’s hard to pull ourselves away from this little sanctuary. With heavy stomachs we pile into the car for the long, bumpy ride back to Rockwood.

On the way back I glance at Google Maps and realize that our five-hour odyssey has covered an infinitesimally small sliver of the unorganized territory.

We emerge from the forest, smooth pavement making it feel like the car is suddenly floating over the roadway. As we pull into the tiny village center, Rockwood, with its houses and church and Post Office and faint 4G signal, feels like a bustling metropolis.

Scott LaPierre can be reached at scott.lapierre@globe.com.