Stuck on MDI

A few times I’ve covered incidents that have involved traffic on and off Mount Desert Island grinding to a halt for extended periods of time. Wednesday’s incident was the first time any such incident kept me from getting to my house.

I’m a former MDI resident who now lives in Ellsworth, but obviously I travel to MDI frequently for work. On Wednesday afternoon I went down there to conduct some interviews for an unrelated story. I finished the interviews around 4:30 and thought I would grab some prepared food to take home with me, maybe from the Morning Glory Bakery or Gringo’s, before I headed back.

But I had the scanner on in my car and, when I heard the Trenton Fire Department was responding to some sort of incident on Route 3 and was getting mutual aid from Bar Harbor, Ellsworth and Lamoine, I immediately started driving to the head of the island.

I drove out Crooked Road and then Gilbert Farm Road and got as far as Salsbury Hardware on Route 102 before I had to stop. The line of stopped cars extended back up the hill toward the Town Hill Market, so I knew I wasn’t going to get any closer in my car. I parked in the hardware store parking lot, grabbed my camera, my raincoat and a small umbrella (in case it started raining hard) and started walking.

I walked past all the stopped traffic on Route 102, past the sheriff’s cruiser blocking traffic at the head of the island, and down the middle of Route 3. It was weird to be alone in the middle of what normally is a very busy road, especially at that time of day and at this time of year. The sheriff’s deputy at the head of the island had told me the incident involved a bus and a propane tank, but still wasn’t sure what was going on. I called my editor as I walked, telling her we had news to report but that I wasn’t sure what it was yet. I walked almost three miles before I saw the bus with the Island Explorer logo and the pickup sticking into its side.

I saw all I needed to see within five minutes of getting there. Orange traffic cones placed across the road kept me from getting too close. I took some photos and shot some video, but didn’t really feel comfortable getting any closer than I was. I stood there for over an hour, watching the two mismatched vehicles getting sprayed with a firehose.

I tweeted. I updated my status on Facebook, trying to get the word out, and took cell phone photos that I could email to Bangor right away. My phone had not been fully charged, however, so after more than an hour it started to fade and so did I. I walked over to the Trenton Bridge Lobster pound to see if I could get a lobster roll, but they were closed. Not enough business, apparently, with the road blocked off directly out front. I decided to return to my car.

I was lucky to get a lift back from a first responder, so I was spared the three mile hike back to the hardware store. When I got to my car, I plugged in my phone and drove back to Bar Harbor to get the food I had nearly gotten three hours before. After eating and buying a few things at Hannaford, I drove back to Salsbury Hardware to wait out the vigil.

Not being able to drive off MDI when I wanted to was an inconvenience, but as almost anyone can attest there are worse places to be stuck than in Bar Harbor in June. My wife was able to pick up our baby daughter from daycare in Ellsworth, so there was no urgent need for me to be anywhere.

I sat in my car, cut the engine and turned on the Red Sox game, grateful to find out Boston was winning. The line of parked cars along the road had the feel almost of the Fourth of July as people gathered together outside, chatted each other up and shared a common experience as they kept an eye out on the horizon, waiting for something to happen. Some people walked their dogs along the edge of the pavement.

Others saw opportunity in all the stopped traffic, either to ply their wares or to offer handouts. A Bar Harbor woman stuck on the Ellsworth side of the accident tweeted that one woman was walking down the line of vehicles selling roses. Where I was parked, a downtown Bar Harbor cafe owner showed up with coffee and walked from car to car, giving away about 30 cups. Finally, around 10 p.m., the cars came back to life and traffic slowly started moving again

Some readers have emailed me to tell me how they coped with being stuck in traffic. One MDI resident said he left work in Ellsworth at 5 p.m., waited in traffic, returned to Ellsworth for food around 7:30 p.m., and then drove back to wait in line again. He got home at 11 p.m.

“Most of the time, I passed my time by playing around [with] my phone,” he said. “When it got dark, I spent several minutes just watching what was going on around me. I had my lights and engine off, sitting in an endless line of cars doing the same. It was foggy and almost dead-quiet, all I heard were distant voices. It was very eerie.”

A woman sent me an e-mail saying that there should be another road leading off MDI in the event of an evacuation-worthy emergency. She’s not the only one with this opinion.

“This was an eye opening experience,” she said  “I did, however, find that one may eat yogurt with a comb. God bless the family that rolled south on Rte 3 with a small wagon full of water, crackers and cookies to assist familes with children, animals and diabetics whose glucose level were diving of such a long period of no food.”

As a reporter, I’ve learned there are things I should always have in my car: sub-zero boots and longjohns in the winter, a pencil, extra pens and batteries and notepads, and a local phone book. Now, having survived the Great Traffic Jam of 2012, I’ve learned that it might be worth adding to that list a box of granola bars, a large bottle of water, and a good book. Smart phones only get you so far.

Bill Trotter

About Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors. He writes about fisheries, marine-related topics, eastern coastal Maine communities and more for the BDN. He lives in Ellsworth. Follow him on Twitter at @billtrotter.