A Pilgrimage to a Maine Island in the Footsteps of John Steinbeck

“All I knew about Deer Isle was that there was nothing you could say about it,” Steinbeck wrote. I set out to do my own investigation.

A young man watches the sunset from a public park near Stonington on Deer Isle, Maine. (Greta Rybus for The Washington Post)
21 min

A few months ago, while doing some spring cleaning, I found a large, black-and-white poster of John Steinbeck, advertising a Library of America collection of his work. I had no idea where this poster had come from or how long it had been there, but I had the feeling I’d stumbled upon a talisman. Impulsively, I tacked it up on my wall, right beside my writing desk. Steinbeck had been an early hero of mine, and I was now in the process of finishing my first book. It seemed right and even comforting to have him glowering down at me as I worked, challenging me to live up to the ideals he’d once modeled: simplicity, directness, an abiding love for humanity in all its imperfections.

I hadn’t thought about Steinbeck in decades, but as a young man I’d read all of his work, and now I pulled some of those dusty old friends from my bookshelves. Among them was “Travels With Charley in Search of America,” published in 1962 — a work of autofiction about the writer’s cross-country road trip in a camper, accompanied by his dog. As I started rereading, Steinbeck’s words resonated from the get-go. “I discovered that I did not know my own country,” he writes, outlining the reasons for his trip. On the road, Steinbeck despairs at the waste created by our compulsive consumerism and laments the way our natural environment is being slowly poisoned by plastics and refuse. “We have overcome all enemies but ourselves,” he writes. All of this seemed relevant today.

But the biggest early surprise for me was that Steinbeck’s first major stop on his trip was not someplace directly west of his then-home in Sag Harbor, N.Y., but way up on Deer Isle, Maine. That fact had vanished from my memory. He explains that his “friend and associate” Elizabeth Otis (actually his agent) was a longtime visitor there and had urged him to go: “When she speaks of it, she gets an other-world look in her eyes and becomes completely inarticulate. … All I knew about Deer Isle was that there was nothing you could say about it.”

After he’s been, he finds that he agrees with her assessment. “One doesn’t have to be sensitive to feel the strangeness of Deer Isle,” he writes, noting that the place “is like Avalon; it must disappear when you are not there.” Steinbeck had a lifelong obsession with Arthurian legend, so this was no casual reference. His book “The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights” would be published posthumously in 1976, and Avalon is central to those stories — a magical island known for its healing powers, and the place where Arthur is taken after he is wounded in battle.

I wanted to see what, if any, part of Deer Isle remained from Steinbeck’s journey, though I knew I wouldn’t be the first writer to choose “Travels With Charley” as a departure point for exploration (nor even the first for The Washington Post; Rachel Dry did so in 2011, focusing on his stop in Fargo, N.D.). I, too, felt disconnected from my country. The idea of getting out to see a part I was unfamiliar with — especially one that had left Steinbeck flummoxed to describe to his satisfaction — compelled me to pack a bag.

A dramatic, high-arching bridge over Maine’s Penobscot Bay connects the mainland to Little Deer Isle, then a causeway (replete with postcard-worthy views of glittering seas and big, chunky Marsden Hartley-like rocks) leads to the island itself and its two main towns: Stonington and Deer Isle Village, which have a combined year-round population of about 3,000.

My first stop on the island was a place called 44 North Coffee, in the village of Deer Isle. Luckily for me, Jimmy Cook — the Isle’s recently retired UPS delivery man — happened to be standing at the counter as I placed my order. Cook knows everything about everyone and introduced me to a steady stream of regulars lined up for the shop’s coffee (roasted right here) and local pastries.

Cook, 60, moved to Deer Isle just recently. A former union leader with the Teamsters, he’s good-natured and sardonic. “I wanted to come here because I knew I wouldn’t get lost,” he explained. When I mentioned that I’d been inspired by the fact that Steinbeck had begun his “Charley” journey here, Cook’s response was one of disbelief. “You’re kidding me!” he said. “John Steinbeck came here?” When I quoted what Steinbeck had written in the book about the strangeness of Deer Isle, Cook didn’t miss a beat. “You can’t explain it to anyone, this place. You just can’t. You have to feel it.”

As we moved to a bench outside, Sam Ostrow, who’s lived here since 1988, got pulled into our conversation. “Isolation is something we enjoy,” Ostrow told me, extolling the island’s virtues. “You’ve not heard quiet until you’ve been here in the middle of winter.” Then the UPS truck passed by, prompting Cook to scrunch up his face in a mock grimace and vigorously wag his middle finger at the driver. The ring of easy laughter filled the air. The sun was bright overhead, the breeze crisp and clean. It felt good to be here.

Ostrow, 76, is co-president of the Island Country Club. Clubs, by definition, are places where some people belong and others do not, but he insisted that there wasn’t any sense of elitism or entitlement on Deer Isle, and little conflict around class, status or ideology. “We don’t do politics here. And it’s not about money, either. It’s about working hard and being nice.”

Even so, the place was not quite paradise. “We have our share of problems too,” he said. The national opioid epidemic, for example, had not spared the island. And, as Megan Dewey-Wood, the coffee shop’s 38-year-old co-owner, pointed out, “Maine is the oldest, whitest state in America.” In the wake of George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, a Little Deer Isle resident had displayed a sign that read “White Lives Matter.” A noose had been hung nearby. “That was unusual,” Ostrow said. “People were upset.” The police got involved and the noose was removed, but no charges were filed. “You see, we’re like everywhere else,” Ostrow said caustically. “We just have a better view.”

“You can’t explain it to anyone, this place. You just can’t. You have to feel it,” says Jimmy Cook.

Herbie Carter joined us, a lean man with a sly grin, sunburned squint and twinkling eyes. Carter, 76, was headed home to make a big pot of chowder for his daughter. “People from away make up more of this island now,” he said. “Used to be everyone knew everyone here. Now I know one-tenth of the people!” Of course, the local definition of “from away,” I learned, meant anyone whose parents had not been born here, and even that might not be enough. Many of those born here after the publication of “Charley,” 60 years ago, could be considered “from away.”

One person who certainly fit the definition was Liz Leuthner, who’d recently opened Deer Isle Yoga Studio across Main Street, a stretch that also features a few art galleries. “On an island, people have to get along,” said Leuthner, 56. “It’s one of the things that drew me here.” Just a few nights ago, she told me, one of her storefront’s windows had been broken during a parade. “Someone came by the next morning and said, ‘I broke your window, and I’m going to make it right.’ And they did.” She said she feels that benign, unseen forces are at work on the Isle. I hadn’t said a word about Avalon.

In the center of Stonington is the town’s opera house, built in 1912. Its distinctive green facade is highlighted by a bold, all-caps painted sign that reads, unapologetically, “OPERA HOUSE.” In addition to housing the island’s professional theater company, the venue hosts live music, comedy and films. “When you go to the Opera House in the winter,” Sam Ostrow had told me, “it isn’t really to see movies. It’s to see if people are still alive.”

Opera House Arts’ executive director, Tony Adams, told me that — while the company regularly casts actors from away for its productions — some locals had cried foul when the organization recently installed Cait Robinson, a native of Brooklin, Maine, as artistic director. “Why can’t you hire someone from here?” they’d wanted to know. (Brooklin, home to the family of literary royalty that included Katharine and E.B. White, and the recently departed Roger Angell, is 15 miles from Deer Isle.)

Steinbeck described Stonington as having “the best lobsters in the world”; today, Hugh Reynolds, 50, runs one of the busiest lobster concerns on the wharf. “It can be a little barbarian here,” Reynolds told me. “You got a lot of clans — families that go way back. It’s way more calm these days, but you used to have people shooting at each other out on the water, cutting each other’s lines, things like that.” When I mentioned Steinbeck’s line about “strangeness” to Reynolds, he let out a big, boisterous laugh. “You could say that, yeah! One time I saw a cow drinking a Michelob Light on the side of the road!”

Because commercial fishing tends to be profitable here, and because it is often a family affair, with young men regularly dropping out of school to follow their fathers onto the boats, “you got a lot of people with very low education and very high income,” Reynolds said. When there’s little to do in the offseason, this has sometimes contributed to the kinds of drug abuse that Ostrow had mentioned (and presumably helped to fuel the island’s once-thriving brothel industry).

Reynolds was not the only entrepreneur in Stonington. “Ninety percent of the people here are entrepreneurs,” Max Katzenberg said when I met him at the newly reopened Harbor Cafe on the main drag. The 34-year old is a former co-owner of the foodie destination Olmsted in Brooklyn, N.Y., but Deer Isle had been a favorite place to visit, and when he’d gotten wind that this local “greasy spoon” (as he called it) was coming on the market just as the pandemic hit, he and his then-pregnant wife, Chloe, seized on the opportunity to get out of Dodge. Katzenberg has retained most of the eatery’s longtime staff and did not mess around with its down-home flavor, savvy moves that helped him to be accepted by the community here. Earlier this year, he reopened another beloved local joint, Dennett’s Wharf, in nearby Castine, and managed to lure one of his former Olmsted chefs up to plate decidedly more upscale fare than what’s being slung at Harbor Cafe.

Steinbeck does a lot of simple camper cooking in “Charley.” When he does stop for meals, it’s mainly to eat at a diner, where he finds it as impossible to be served a bad breakfast as it is to find a palatable dinner. There’s no telling what he would have made of the sort of delectable food I ate at Dennett’s — or at Aragosta at Goose Cove, the island’s only luxury destination for tourists, which features fine dining and overnight accommodations in plush, retrofitted cabins. Though locals partake of its reasonably priced happy-hour fare on weeknights, the outpost’s centerpiece is an elegant tasting menu showcasing the creations of chef Devin Finigan. (Her pedigree includes stints at French Laundry, Per Se and Blue Hill at Stone Barns.) The meal I had there, which included foraged mushrooms, seared sea scallop with seaweed, and creamy polenta with peas and flowers — all locally sourced — was one of the most beautiful I’ve experienced in recent memory, the food seeming like it had sprung directly from the sea, the sun, the air and the land of Deer Isle.

Steinbeck spent only a few nights on Deer Isle, but I still thought there might be some local pride around his visit — a commemorative plaque, a “John Steinbeck Way,” at least a Steinbeck sandwich somewhere. Yet it was almost as though he’d never been here. I felt sure there’d be some enthusiasm for his visit at the Stonington Public Library, but the oddly unfriendly man at the front desk didn’t even look up from his computer screen when I mentioned the subject, and claimed to know nothing about it. Happily, his counterpart back in Deer Isle Village, Nina Woodward, lit up when I mentioned that Steinbeck had started “Travels With Charley” here. “This is exactly the kind of thing we should be celebrating!” she said. Though the library didn’t seem to have a copy of the book, she was determined to rectify that.

My last, best hope, it seemed, for finding some trace of Steinbeck was the island’s historical society. On the day I walked in, a half-dozen women, all volunteer docents, were working on various projects. The first one I talked with seemed nonplussed by my mission, but her colleague Lee Fay told me that, yes, she remembered hearing that Steinbeck had visited her grandparents on their farm when he’d come through.

A hubbub ensued, as Fay and her colleagues began talking to one another, looking through files, pulling out copies of local newspapers and checking for leads. Most of them seemed upset to think that such an eminent author had written about their island and no one had bothered to tell them. They were now trying to make up for it. “Surely I never met such ardent individuals,” Steinbeck writes of the inhabitants of Deer Isle. “I would hate to try to force them to do anything they didn’t want to do.” It was a sentiment echoed by Tony Adams at the Opera House, who’d told me: “People here will do anything you ask them to, and nothing you tell them to.”

“Okay!” Fay said excitedly, passing me her phone. “This is someone who remembers meeting him here!” On the line was Linda Stratton, who’d been in high school when Steinbeck visited. She wanted to tell me about it and said she’d be right over.

I now mentioned to the docents that the only Deer Islander named in the book was Eleanor Brace, who’d owned the guesthouse where Otis had stayed and where Steinbeck had parked his camper. “Wait a minute,” one of the women offered. “I think I know what house that is.” It turned out that Brace’s niece, Brenda Gilchrist, lived there now. Gilchrist is 93, and Fay called her to see whether I could come over and have a look.

When Stratton arrived she had me follow her to the spot where she’d shaken the author’s hand. She remembered “voicing an opinion to him about something he’d written” — which she now regrets — but her eyes still sparkled with girlish wonder at the memory of meeting the great writer.

Then it was on to find the Brace cottage. Marnie Crowell, a friend of one of the docents, had secured permission to bring me by Gilchrist’s house with the caveat that I was not to reveal anything about its location. I followed Crowell, and over the next 40 minutes we engaged in an almost-farcical series of three-point turns (I counted at least 10) as we looked for the house — but then there it was, on a stately, secluded waterfront, nestled in the trees.

Gilchrist was there to greet us. Though she had not been here to meet Steinbeck, she not only knew about his visit but had written about it herself in her 2012 memoir, “Waltzing With Bracey.” She had a copy of the book ready to show me, and she humbly opened it to the page where she writes about the guest cottage where Elizabeth Otis had stayed, the porch where Brace and Steinbeck had sat and talked, and the driveway where he’d parked and slept in the camper he’d named “Rocinante” (for Don Quixote’s horse). It was thrilling — thrilling to be where Steinbeck himself had been, to stand in the same driveway, to walk into the same house, to look out on the same waters and sandy beaches that he’d looked out on. To find his footprint, at last.

But what of the Deer Isle magic that Steinbeck and others had alluded to? I kept hearing about it, but I wouldn’t experience it for myself until I followed a small yellow painted road sign pointing toward something called Nervous Nellie’s Jams and Jellies, a few miles off the main road. I figured I might find some jars of local preserved fruits here, and indeed there is a store on the property that sells those and other items. But what I immediately understood was that these things were beside the point entirely. Surrounding the shop in every direction, and covering many acres that stretched into a large wooded area, was an alternate reality, unlike anything I’ve ever seen. “Nellieville,” as it’s called, is the brainchild of artist Peter Beerits. And if Deer Isle can indeed be compared to Avalon, then Beerits is its Merlin.

Technically speaking, what Beerits has created here might be called an art installation, but such a term seems woefully inadequate. Rather, it’s like an invitation into a dream, and walking into it is like being in a series of three-dimensional paintings — like truly being inside art, in a way that immersive theater gestures toward but never really achieves.

It’s a ghostly, sprawling series of structures, sculptures and scenes. There are tableaux dedicated to Wild Bill Hickok, to the captain’s cabin of the Flying Dutchman, to a Southern juke joint Beerits once visited in Clarksdale, Miss., and — yes — to King Arthur. There’s a three-story wooden church with a ghostly pieta residing in one of its pews, and a reconstructed Maine general store containing many of the original’s actual furnishings and features. The whole of it is like stepping into a time machine that goes in both directions at once: to the not-so-distant past of analog America and to a post-apocalyptic, post-human world that seems to reside in the collective unconscious. The scope and breadth of Beerits’s vision burns with the sort of unbridled imagination I associate with epic fiction, its layers of details, history and minutiae combining to produce an effect of giddy otherness.

There are no instructions for how to engage with Nellieville, other than some basic guidelines about behavior while on the grounds — no audio guides, no map, no starting point or finale. It’s left to the viewer to figure out what it is, what to see and how to see it.

Beerits, now in his 70s, has been steadily adding to it over the past four decades. “Kids seem to appreciate the place because they like stuff that’s scary and they know they’re safe,” he told me. I was hard-pressed to think of anything in America right now that inspires the mix of humor, danger and hair-raising weirdness I felt walking through it. It was the same kind of feeling I get when I think about things like the Donner Party tragedy, the lost colony of Roanoke or the disappeared artist Connie Converse — none of which are represented here, per se, but whose stories seem part of the same fabric Beerits has used to stitch together his world. Beerits did not dispute what Steinbeck had written about the otherworldly feeling of Deer Isle. “There’s an edge here,” Beerits said, his impenetrable gaze not unlike the way Steinbeck had described the residents of Deer Isle as having “aught behind their eyes.”

As we spoke, the spruce and oaks surrounding us soughed in the breeze. I asked Beerits what it felt like to live on Deer Isle. “Someone once asked me what it would be like if I had some horrible accident with the hospital so far away,” he said, “and I told them that it would be wonderful, because when the ambulance came I would know the people in it. They would take care of me.”

Beerits was born in southeastern Pennsylvania. He studied art at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, then had his own gallery in Portland, Maine, eventually settling on Deer Isle in the early 1980s. He began making his jams and jellies simply as a way to support his artistic practice, which involved repurposing found objects for the sculptures and buildings that became Nellieville.

“At first I just started taking stuff home from the dump because I loved it, not because I wanted to make something out of it,” he said. “I availed myself of resources that were here, from an America that has vanished everywhere else.” In one of the notes posted in Nellieville he writes: “The important thing is that the material has a soul, a history; that it carries a little scrap of myth. I want the wood to come from a 200-year old sawmill, the aluminum to have dings and wear marks, the patina that comes with age. I would not be happy if I had to make sculptures out of stuff I purchased at Home Depot.”

If “Travels With Charley” tells us anything, it’s to disregard the obvious, to seek out the unexpected, to remain curious, to follow our gut.

When I expressed disbelief that he could be making such vital work in virtual obscurity and offered that it should be given a platform for much wider exposure, Beerits gently smiled. “I have no connection to the art scene today,” he said. “I came here to let go of all that. And I’m at peace with it. People stumble upon what I do, and they enjoy it. They tell me stories about what it all means, and that’s very satisfying for me.”

Outside of the shop, Nellieville isn’t monetized in any way — another thing that separates it from branded, contemporary America. There’s no admission charge and no time limit on how long visitors may stay. Beerits does sell the odd sculpture to people who like them, but I quickly realized the insensitivity of my suggestion. Nellieville’s genius, like the best kinds of live performance, resides in the alchemical reaction that takes place when it interacts with its intended audience, and there’s no museum that could contain its feral spirit. It is exactly what it needs to be, and could only be, right here.

If “Travels With Charley” tells us anything, it’s to disregard the obvious, to seek out the unexpected, to remain curious, to follow our gut. Only when I unconsciously obeyed these maxims did the mystery of Deer Isle reveal itself in the form of Nellieville. Here, at last, was Steinbeck’s glorious strangeness, a place that must disappear when you are not there.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Jimmy Cook moved to Deer Isle 36 years ago. He moved there just recently.

Howard Fishman is a writer, composer and performer based in Brooklyn. His book “To Anyone Who Ever Asks: The Life, Music, and Mystery of Connie Converse” will be published in the spring by Dutton Books.