The Desert of Maine

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons

Ahhh . . . Maine! Land of lakes and lighthouses, lobster and blueberries, pine trees and sand dunes.

Wait, sand dunes?

A miniature desert blankets 40 acres of land just a stone’s throw west of Freeport, Maine. An uncanny contrast with the state’s sweeping trees, the dunes (dubbed the “Desert of Maine”) are a geological curiosity—and Mother Nature’s way of reminding us that if you don’t take care of her, she’ll come after you.

About 10,000 years ago, glaciers lurched through what is today southern Maine, grinding soil and rock into glacial silt. As the millennia flew by, topsoil accumulated and caked over the mica-heavy silt, priming the area into first-class farmland. That’s what lured William Tuttle there: In 1797, he bought 300 acres to start up his family farm. Like most Maine-ahs back then, he was clueless about what lurked beneath.

Tuttle was a fine farmer. His descendants, though, were not. They failed to rotate the crops and their sheep overgrazed (the same bad habits that sparked the Dust Bowl). When the farm’s topsoil started to erode, a tiny patch of sand—no bigger than a basketball—appeared. It grew, and it spread so much that it gobbled up the family’s farmland. The Desert of Maine was born, and it swallowed so much that some buildings are now buried under eight feet of silt.

After a fire forced the Tuttles to call it quits, Henry Goldrup bought the land in 1919. Living the cliché that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, Goldrup made bank by transforming the desert into a tourist trap, which it remains today. Although it’s technically not a desert (it rains too much) and the wavy hills of sand are really silt, the Tuttles seemingly farmed up their own patch of Death Valley in the Pine Tree State.