Getting There: The Tao of Poptech?

I am sitting on the third floor of  Camden, Maine’s lovely public library, looking out on a view of sun-sparkled water and trees flashing green-to-red-to-orange-to-yellow-to-bare in a display not quite neon-sign quick, but close. The Poptech conference gets going in earnest here tomorrow, an annual fall parade of inspired ideas, sobering realities and copious thinking, with round-robin lunches, acoustically-challenged parties and plenty of traipsing up and down the long stairways of this small town’s signature opera house.

Some of the best connections seem to be made on those stairways, especially on days when the weather inevitably turns cold and spitty and attendees instinctively huddle into a mass, the brilliant-and-accomplished shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest of us, waiting for the doors to open. Layered in polartec and flannel, wearing hats and gloves pulled from summer storage for the trip, there is a comradery. Inside, the discussions are about problems mostly far away. Outside, we are all ducking the same fierce wind…

And maybe that’s the “why” of Camden – something I have puzzled over for a year now. This is simply not such an easy place to get to for most of us. In fact, it is a schlep with a choice of noisy puddle-jumper plane from Boston, or a car rental and nearly four-hour drive.

Camden is also somewhat remote digitally. Connectivity is a hit-and-miss affair in these parts (hence the day at the library…). But even that has its upside. The only choice is to take Ram Dass‘ dictum to heart: “Be here now.”

FROM POINT “A” TO POINT “B”

Last year, I tried the puddle-jumper –  a journey that started with the pilot / mechanic / baggage-handler-all-in-one cracking open the cockpit window to shush out a fly as we taxied down the runway. This time, I drove. Boston, of course, is the Bermuda Triangle of traffic, so I knew I would get lost, despite dutifully printing out maps, setting my iPad for step-by-step directions and grilling the car rental lady. No matter. It was a gorgeous day and, theoretically, if I just stuck to Route 1, sooner or later (it turned out later), I would get there. I just hadn’t counted on Route 1 being such a shape shifter, merging identities with other highways, poking through small towns, squiggling around business districts and virtually disappearing in the inky blackness of fresh unmarked asphalt.

Good thing New Englanders turn out to be a pretty friendly lot. I met quite a few, starting with a computer repairman who literally steered me straight, nixing plans to take Route 60 to Route 1 with advice about 93 to 95, but do notnotnot exit before Topsham Fair. Next was a community-radio-DJ-with-a-soft-spot-for-the-blues / cashier-at-a-Panera, who moved here from North Carolina a year ago, doesn’t herself drive, but who sent a couple of customers more familiar with the area over to my table to help. One grew up in Chicago (“Do you know Montrose and Sheridan?”) and spends every other year in Poland teaching. (“You were in Wielicka? “Yes, for a television documentary…”)  The other studies “arts integration” and has a  documentary producer brother (“Do you know?” Cards were exchanged.). They advised 95 to 295, but do notnotnot get off until Bath. Finally, in Rockland, I was assured by a children’s author at a pizza parlor & ice cream shop that Main Street was indeed still Route 1 and I was only minutes away from the motel, which would be on my right, not on my left as the Google map emphatically insisted.

The Moon & Jupiter / October 19, 20, 21 2010 / credit: earthsky.org

By the time I settled in, the past—as in my life prior to this little trip—seemed surprisingly remote. I opened the screen door to a small balcony: Penobscot Bay. The Atlantic Ocean. An almost-full moon with Jupiter, shockingly bright, in tow. Could the journey be the point of Camden? My mind had been jiggled out of deadline-addled, multi-tasking mode. The celestial, primordial scene put all in poetic perspective.

O.k. I am ready. Bring on the Science and Social Innovation fellows (tops on my list of whom I would most like to meet). Wow me with the possible. Frighten me with the truth. Let’s connect some dots. And let’s catch up. What has – and hasn’t worked – of the promising ideas from years past? Let’s talk…

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TRAVELERS’ TIP

Boynton-McKay is my favorite place for breakfast in Camden. Low on pretension, high on glorious pancakes. But it can get crowded. So…if you see someone with an eye-catching TrackerNews card tucked into her badge, scootch over and make a little room. Actually, make room for any hungry-looking soul. You never know who’s walking around in this crowd. In addition to doing the right thing, you might just get a little bit of kismet with your coffee…

2 Responses

  1. Wonderful piece; you captured Camden well.

    But no, that wasn’t the point. The conference was founded by people from (and in) Maine.

    Also, while it doesn’t make sense for people from Boston, you can take a jet to Portland (PWM) and drive from there – about 90 minutes – and avoid small-plane hell.

  2. Thanks for the historical insight Rob. I actually looked into the Portland option, but I’m starting from Chicago, so there aren’t a lot of direct flights. I was also a little concerned that weather could easily cause trouble with canceled flights on the return trip. Not that spending an extra day or two in Portland would be such a bad thing…

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