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Down the Road a Piece

A Storyteller’s Guide to Maine

Softcover, 158 pages, Humor

ISBN: 978-0-9763231-3-6

Availability: In stock


About this Book:

We thought about calling this “Get Lost with John McDonald.” The author wanted to call it just “Get Lost!” Regardless of the title, McDonald is back, this time offering tips to tourists and trying to help them better “understand” the state of Maine – from its history to its weather to its unique vocabulary. It’s also great for natives looking to brush up on their home state or just looking to laugh. Hilarious.

In Down the Road a Piece, McDonald – also a weekend talk show host in Portland, a newspaper columnist, and founder of the Maine Storytellers’ Festival – provides a colorful version of Maine history, gives his take on Maine destinations that should not be missed, helps interpret Maine-speak, and offers tips on where to shop, what authentic Maine food to eat, and much more.

“I traveled all over the state to put together this wicked funny comprehensive guide, and it’s just loaded to the gunn’lls with everything you need to know about Maine, and a few things you probably shouldn’t,” McDonald says. “I hope you’ll get a mess of laughs out of it.”

Down the Road a Piece

"Some of the best stories are the ones we tell about ourselves, and nobody does it better than John McDonald."
Kennebec Journal

"It's all in good fun, sure to bring self-effacing chuckles from Mainers and good, honest laughter from those who know the state and its people only from depictions or stereotypes."
Bangor Daily News

Tips When Visiting Maine

Tips When Visiting Maine

By John McDonald

"Tips When Visiting Maine," an excerpt from John McDonald's book Down the Road a Piece first appeard in Islandport Magazine Summer 2018.

As everyone knows, Maine is known as Vacationland. It’s written right on the state-issued license plates, so it must be true. Given all that, I know that many, many people will visit the Pine Tree State this summer. And I am here to help.
Your first question is probably: What do I pack when I choose to visit Maine?
Well, cash and credit cards, period. We prefer that you bring almost nothing with you to Maine, and while you’re here buy everything you need and lots of stuff that you don’t. We spend a lot of time in the winter thinking up things to sell to tourists, and come spring we mortgage the trailer, the snowmobile, the pickup, the dog, the cat, and anything else we can find to get enough money to buy things to sell. We fully expect you folks to snap up all our stuff and cram it into your vehicles and haul it to hell out of here.
Not only is this process good for the state’s economy, but it is also critical to our entire trash-removal infrastructure. Our system is predicated on tourists loading their cars with trinkets and perceived treasures and hauling them across state lines. If this doesn’t happen, our dumps and backyards soon will be overwhelmed, leaving no room for more important items such as broken-down refrigerators and junk cars. It would be akin to an environmental disaster. 

Here are some other basic tips for Maine visitors.

  • The more fishing nets, wooden traps, barnacle-covered buoys, and other flotsam and jetsam hanging outside a Down East establishment, the less genuine the enterprise will be inside. 
  • When you discover an ideal spot while vacationing in Maine, don’t be a knucklehead and tell all your friends about it as soon as you return home.
  • Don’t sit at a table in the middle of a local restaurant and talk real loud about how cheap everything is here. We can arrange to charge you more if you like.
  • Don’t ask someone if they were the inspiration for a Stephen King novel. They probably don’t like to talk about it.
  • There are such things as dumb questions. Keep them to yourself.
  • Do drive safely on our roads; don’t drive on things like our fancy lawns. Years ago most Maine homes didn’t have lawns. You could drive your car right into someone’s dooryard and park wherever. Some of Maine’s homeowners still observe this tradition and have large, mostly level yards of mostly gravel where a lawn might be expected. Elsewhere around the main house—in keeping with the old ways—they’ll also have a tasteful mix of weeds, puckerbrush, dead flowers, and a few neatly arranged stored items like cinder blocks, tripods, engine blocks, appliances, car, truck and snowmobile parts, sinks and—of course—a few satellite dishes. 
  • Do enjoy our way of speaking; don’t try it yourself. 
  • Do ask what people in a town do for excitement; don’t laugh at the answer.
  • Don’t complain about the weather. 
  • Do stop and ask folks for directions; don’t take those directions too seriously. 

Mainers don’t just give out information to tourists; we try to get a little information in return. Which brings to mind the time I was sitting on Dickey Merrill’s front porch and a couple from Massachusetts stopped their Volvo and asked for directions to Bangor. Dickey, a direction-giver of world-class standing, started right off giving one direction after another. The wife, on the passenger side, wrote it all down. When Dickey was done, her window went up and off they went. Fifteen minutes later, the same couple in the same car stopped in front of the house again. You see, Dickey had directed them up one side of town, across the river, back down the other side of town, and back across the river again—a complete circle. When the wife saw Dickey she realized what he’d done. She put her window down again and proceeded to give Dickey a tongue-lashing so severe I swear it started to blister the paint right off the front of his house. Dickey claims he hadn’t heard such strong language since the last church social. When the woman was done with her tirade, she demanded an apology. But Dickey, not a man to get flustered easily, was cool as a cucumber. “Listen, deah,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure you could follow directions before I wasted my time directing you all the way to Bangor.”

John McDonald, now regarded as a dean of Maine storytelling, got his start as a performer playing at local Downeast Maine events in the 1970s before catching his first big break when he was asked to perform on stage with the legendary Marshall Dodge and Kendall Morse at Ellsworth’s Strand Theater in 1980. In the years since that event, McDonald has performed for audiences across New England, released two audio recordings, and written four books, including the now-classic,  A Moose and A Lobster Walk Into a Bar and John McDonald's Maine Trivia.

Beyond Bert & I

Beyond Bert & I

By Scott Sell

Beyond Bert & I: John McDonald Continues to Hone Maine Storytelling Tradition first appeared in Islandport Magazine, Fall 2017.

There’s a story John McDonald likes to tell about Mark Twain coming to Maine to do an evening of humor. Although he’s been told that Maine audiences are the toughest in the world, Twain is unswayed and, confident in his storytelling abilities, he books a grange hall near Bangor. Soon news spreads like wildfire and on the night of the performance, the place is packed. Twain starts off with what he thinks is his funniest story, but when he reaches the punchline, there’s utter silence. Not even a chortle from the crowd. He presses on, telling one great story after another, but still, nothing. After he exhausts all of his good material, he walks off stage to barely any applause. Distraught, he decides to exit out the back, run to the front of the hall, and eavesdrop as people are leaving, if only to better understand where he went wrong.

The first people to come out are a farmer and his wife. The farmer lights his pipe, thinks for a minute while puffing, and says to his wife, “That fella was some funny, wasn’t he, mother?” She says, “I think he might have been the funniest person I’ve heard in my life.”  And the farmer says, “I’ll tell ya, he was so funny, it was all I could do to keep from laughing.”

That’s the essence of the type of Maine humor John McDonald specializes in—understated, dry, and clever as hell. In his hands, a story is developed and made better with time and detail.

And they’re not jokes.

“I don’t like to call them jokes,” said McDonald. “The way to drive a spike through the joke’s heart is to say, ‘This is the funniest joke you’ve ever heard.’ I prefer to call them stories.”

Marshall Dodge Lends a Helping Hand

McDonald got his start as a professional storyteller playing local Down East Maine events in the 1970s before catching his first big break when he was asked to perform on stage with the legendary Marshall Dodge of “Bert and I” fame and folksinger and humorist Kendall Morse at Ellsworth’s Grand Theater in 1980.

“I thought it was going to be the sort of thing where each storyteller was going to have their own set and I was going to open for these two titans of Maine humor,” McDonald says. “But Marshall said, ‘Nope, we’re going to have one microphone and three chairs.’ And we passed the microphone back and forth telling stories and I started to run out of material! I learned a lot from Kendall and Marshall that night, but mostly that you can never have too many stories in your back pocket.”

McDonald started writing at Providence College, not far from where he was born in Rhode Island. An English major, he had a professor who told him that one thousand words a week was a book a year and he began keeping notebooks and writing essays. His love of journalism and the Pine Tree State brought him to Cherryfield in 1971 where he began working as a general assignment reporter for Maine newspapers, including nine years at the Portland Press Herald throughout much of the 1980s.

“I wasn’t much of a reporter,” McDonald admits. “I wanted to write what I wanted to write and I started to feel penned in by the formula of newspaper articles.”

He felt the pull to tell quintessentially Maine stories, funny stories—not merely report the news of the day. Spending summers in Tenants Harbor when he was growing up, he learned classic yarns from the fishermen and studied their mannerisms, and the cadence of their speech.

Learning From the Old-Timers

“I would listen to the old-timers on the wharves and they were so funny in their observations, the way they’d describe something,” he said. “The first thing I wanted to do when I moved to Maine full time was to learn and perfect the accent. People assume I’m a native and I don’t discourage them from thinking as much. It’s easier that way.”

That contrast between natives and people “from away” is a regular theme in McDonald’s storytelling, a dynamic that isn’t unique to Maine but is certainly a long-standing part of how we interact, especially as tourism in the state has continued to boom.

“You have farmers and fishermen who are funny on their own,” McDonald said. “Then you have these people from the big cities who operate at a different speed and don’t get our sense of timing. I have fun with that idea of a clash.”

McDonald began writing a weekly humor column for the Lewiston Sun-Journal in 1995 in which he ruminated on such regionally important topics as yard sales and black flies. It has since been syndicated and featured in more than fifteen weekly papers. In 2002, the columns were collected and made into a wildly popular book called A Moose and a Lobster Walk into a Barwhich topped bestseller lists at bookstores throughout Maine. Since then, he’s written other Maine humor books, including Down the Road A Piece and Maine Triviareleased a CD of stories, Ain’t He Some Funny! been a longtime radio talk show host on WGAN, and appeared at countless storytelling events around New England. This year, for its fifteenth anniversary, a new edition of his classic A Moose and a Lobster Walk into a Bar will be published by Islandport Press with new foreword from McDonald. A Moose and a Lobster Walk into a Bar is one of the most popular books of Maine humor ever published.

“I always try hard come up with new material or to tweak old favorites and, above all, make it all funny. I like to think of my books being on people’s shelves at their vacation houses and fishing camps. Many people have told me that my books live in their bathrooms, which is a great honor. Some of my best reading is done in the bathroom.”

Scott Sell is a writer and filmmaker living in Rockland. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Island Journal.

John McDonald

About this Author

John McDonald, now regarded as a dean of Maine storytelling, got his start as a performer playing at local Downeast Maine events in the 1970s before catching his first big break when he was asked to perform on stage w



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