A World Of Sand At Desert Of Maine

Maine is a summer tourist mecca, but one attraction might not be getting as much attention as it deserves. The Desert of Maine offers — among other things — a collection of sands from around the world.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Visitors to Maine around this time of year are going to look at the glorious fall foliage. Plenty of them will also find time for some shopping in the town of Freeport. That's home to the famed outdoors retailer L.L. Bean. But just down a wooded road, just a few miles away, lies a geological curiosity people would not expect in the Pine Tree State. Here's reporter Josh Gleason.

JOSH GLEASON: For hundreds, maybe even thousands, of years, it was hidden beneath a thin layer of topsoil, a large deposit of silt, a sandy substance formed by the grinding action of a glacier during the last ice age, and it might have remained hidden had the Tuttle family been better farmers. But the Tuttles, who started raising crops and livestock on that thin layer of topsoil in the late 1700s, made several mistakes that would prove disastrous. They clear cut the property, they didn't rotate their crops properly, and they allowed their sheep to overgraze.

Mr. GARY CURRENS (Owner, Desert of Maine): So, all of a sudden these sand patches started appearing and no one knew what it was. And so, they tried to cover it up and fight it, but it kept showing more and more, and what actually was happening was it was eroding the topsoil away. So, underneath it was glacier desert that no one knew it was here. Of course, at that point, it wasn't any good for farming, so they abandoned it.

GLEASON: Gary Currens, along with his wife Ginger, owns what is now known as the Desert of Maine, an eerie, 30-acre expanse of sand, complete with sweeping dunes and a couple fiberglass camels.

Mr. CURRENS: The desert sticks out like a sore thumb. You know, everything that you would think Maine should look like looks like it, all around it. Then all of a sudden, you walk out our back doors, you know, there is nothing but dunes and sand. So, it is pretty amazing.

GLEASON: It is not technically a desert, in case you were wondering. It receives far too much rain to be considered one. It was given that name by one Henry Goldrup. Goldrup, hoping to turn the Tuttles' misfortune into his own fortune, converted the property into a tourist attraction in 1925. It has been operated as a tourist attraction ever since.

(Soundbite of engine revving)

(Soundbite of people talking)

Unidentified Tour Guide: All right. On behalf of Gary and Ginger Currens, the owners of the Desert of Maine...

GLEASON: Visitors are free to wander the desert as they choose, but most jump on board the guided tram that stops at various points of interest around the property, like the southeast edge, where the desert's largest dune dramatically drops off into the surrounding forest. Here's tour guide, Ken Chutchien (ph).

Mr. KEN CHUTCHIEN (Tour Guide, Desert of Maine): The winds come from that direction. They built this dune. The dune is 90-feet high now. Twenty years ago, it was 75-feet high. It's growing vertically, but it is not growing horizontally. It butts up against the forest and it stops. The forest is lush. It's fertile. It's wet, and it is simply does not allow any further penetration of the sand into the forest.

GLEASON: The bubbly Mallory Durosh (ph) of Amherst, New Hampshire, is here with her friend, Gretchen Schmidt (ph). Mallory lived in Maine for five years and never knew the desert existed. Standing atop the dune, looking down the steep incline into the forest is kind of blowing her mind.

Ms. MALLORY DUROSH (Tourist, Desert of Maine): It's crazy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GLEASON: What's crazy is about it?

Ms. DUROSH: Here's the desert. You're standing on sand in a desert, and then, you know, the tree line is right there. You know, that's just incredible, the forces of nature. Makes you feel a little bit smaller than you think you are.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GLEASON: The same wind that created the 90-foot dune has also buried the various trees that lie within the desert up to their tree tops, and they're still alive, their bright green foliage rustling in the breeze.

Mr. CHUTCHIEN: We have birch. We have pine. We have oak. We have cedar. We have cherry. We have all kinds of trees in and around the Desert of Maine living quite nicely.

GLEASON: But here's the most surprising thing. The desert itself is being buried. Lichen is growing in certain patches around the perimeter. That lichen will ultimately lead to soil, plants, and so on. According to Gary, it'll take roughly 400 years for the desert to disappear once again. At that point, he says he and his wife ought to find another job. For NPR News, I'm Josh Gleason.

(Soundbite of music)

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

So, you were flailing madly away at the keyboard there before the show.

BRAND: I was.

CHADWICK: This is about the blog?

BRAND: Yeah, I was writing my blog entry for today. It had nothing to do with Sarah Palin, believe it or not, but about homework and what parents can do to try to make it less of a struggle every night with their kids. So, there're some tips up there.

CHADWICK: OK.

BRAND: Npr.org/daydreaming.

CHADWICK: OK.

BRAND: And you have a posting there, too.

CHADWICK: Well, this is - you know that essay I sent you the other night, from home, even?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHADWICK: Because I was thinking about, hey, this is - might be cute. What do you think about this? You kind of didn't get it, and indeed, it is not going on the show. But we put it up on the blog with a little thing, and I don't know if it works or not, but it's there. I think it's fun.

BRAND: It's a little thing, and it does have to do with Sarah Palin.

CHADWICK: Npr.org/daydreaming.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: Still more to come on Day to Day.

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