KINGFIELD, Maine -- Summer dawn comes early at this latitude. The sky brightens around 4:30 a.m. as the deer start darting across the highway. By 5 on weekdays, Diane Christen opens the doors and starts dishing eggs and pancakes at The Kingsfield Woodsman just north of the village. Her early clientele is a mix of retirees and men who work outdoors and drive pickup trucks. Her breakfast specials range from $2 to $3.25, and she only takes cash. But at those prices you get both breakfast and the talk of the town.
It is June, so the discussion revolves around who's graduating, who's getting married, and who's come back for the season from Florida. There's a quick mention of the recent murder in nearby New Portland -- everyone knows the family of the victim -- and some surprisingly hearty approval of the just-announced sale of Sugarloaf/USA to the Boyne family of Michigan.
"It would've been nice if somebody local got it," says Christen, "but they seem like good people who know how to run a ski mountain. Maybe now we can get some quad lifts up there."
This wide spot in the high-country road between Skowhegan and Rangeley is perhaps best known as what Ski magazine called "the most beautifully preserved ski town east of Aspen." Herbert Grand Hotel co-owner Lynn Herrick refers to the winter community as "a feeder town for Sugarloaf."
So it's natural that Kingfielders are a little anxious about the sale of their bread-and-butter attraction. On the other hand, it's summer, and after the second successive slow year for skiing, many locals are happy to see warm weather and enjoy the subtler attractions of western Maine's mountains. Says Herrick, "There's plenty of boating and fishing, and it's a good place to just do nothing at all. That's what most of our guests are doing right now."
Kingfield attracts a different kind of visitor in summer, and Peter Jacullo from Ridgefield, Conn., and Fred Tonelli from Congress, N.Y., are not atypical. They have booked a couple of nights at the Herbert Grand, an old-fashioned genteel country hotel that dates from 1917. They plan to drive the approximately 220-mile scenic loop from Kingfield to Moosehead Lake and back on touring motorcycles. Jacullo, though, worries about moose. "We encountered seven of them in the middle of the road on the way over from Vermont," he says. "One just jumped out of a ditch in front of us."
Marcie Herrick, co-owner of the Herbert Grand, warns the pair to be careful, especially as they cruise the lonesome stretch of Routes 6 and 15 on the shores of Long Pond . "Those moose warning signs are for real," she says.
Long before skiing became an organized sport, people used to come to the mountains to admire the grandeur of the landscape -- something Kingfield has in spades. In the bright summer light that lingers late into the evening, the landscape snaps into focus. The hillsides are covered in a gentle transitional forest of spruce and birch. Red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures glide between mountains. At night, cicadas drown out the occasional hum of tires on blacktop.
The village sits along the Carrabassett River, a feeder to the mighty Kennebec . The Carrabassett is a minor river here, broad and shallow as it riffles over large rocks. Then it slows down and pools at the town's mill dam impoundment. In a Huck Finn tableau, boys cannonball off the Route 16 bridge into the deepest hole of the pond, and wade in shallows to bait-cast for fish. (Serious fishermen cast flies for brook trout in the upstream rapids or troll lures for legendary bottom-feeding togue in Eustis, less than 30 miles north.)
The Carrabassett also runs fast and narrow down much of the back nine at the Sugarloaf/USA Golf Course , suggesting that a duffer might do well to pack a flypole along with the clubs. At the resort, 16 miles north of Kingfield, golf carts take up where ski lifts left off. Kingfield's lively weekly newspaper, The Irregular, noted that 13 Carrabassett Valley Academy students hiked to the top of the mountain's Hayburner trail for a final round of spring skiing over Memorial Day weekend -- before playing a round at the golf course to kick off the summer season.
Tom Butler works at Sugarloaf year round. He didn't plan it that way; he came to teach skiing for a winter after graduating from the University of Maine at Orono. But then summer came and he started helping out at the golf course. Then 16 years went by, and while he'll always be "from away," he's nearly a local.
"I don't know how Robert Trent Jones Jr. could envision this course in the middle of the woods," Butler says, "but it's awe-inspiring. The way the holes are laid out you can play all day and never see another group."
Golfers usually need a good supply of balls, since many of the holes feature long drops over the forest -- 120 feet from the tee at hole 11 down to the green.
A less genteel sport takes center stage on Kingfield Festival Days , July 20-22. The first Mudbowl was organized here in 1981 , though the championship of that league of two-hand touch football is now played in Conway, N.H. Nevertheless, for Kingfield Festival Days the players rototill a field and get the Fire Department to flood it before the first whistle. The result is a definitely dirty game.
Mud football is only one of dozens of events in the weekend celebration, which includes a fly-casting clinic, a skateboard jam, a parade, and the crowning of Mrs. Kingfield.
The Stanley Museum holds an open house through the celebrations. A mecca for steam-car buffs, the museum chronicles the achievements of twins F.E. and F.O. Stanley and their sister Chansonetta Stanley Emmons, all born in Kingfield. The twins are best remembered for the Stanley Steamer automobile, but made their fortune by inventing a process to coat glass plates with photographic emulsion. (They sold the patents to George Eastman of Kodak fame, and were safely out of the business by the time photography turned to film negatives.) Two of their impressive automobiles are exhibited, along with an earlier Stanley Steamer on loan from a museum member. The bulk of the museum's collection of Emmons's photographs are on loan to a museum in Portland, but the remaining examples confirm her standing as a pioneer art photographer.
Like many 19th-century Mainers, the entrepreneurial Stanleys decamped for more urban parts, with the brothers settling in the Boston area , as did their sister. But they visited with relatives in summer and never lost touch with their roots. In Riverside Cemetery, Freelan O. Stanley, the longer-lived of the twins (Francis Edgar died in 1918, in an auto accident), lies beneath a simple marble tombstone about 20 paces from the road. It is dated Oct. 2, 1940, and the stone reads "91 yrs. 4 mo. 1 day." Kingfield has a way of luring people back.
Patricia Harris and David Lyon, freelance writers based in Cambridge, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.