Rangeley, ME: An Angel in Rangeley
Yankee classic from December 1993
It’s a long road to Rangeley. Route 4 twists through miles of thickly forested land, rising and falling as it heads north from Augusta, and on winter nights snowbanks narrow the road, shining white in the headlights, tunneling through the darkness. Surrounded by the mountains and lakes of western Maine, Rangeley has long been famous as a summer vacation destination. But Rangeley in winter is the sort of place where you always travel with a shovel and boots and extra clothes in your car. It’s a town where people call when they get home, so you know they haven’t gone off into a snowbank. It’s a town, locals say, that even the rest of Maine forgets all about. “Heck, even the Indians never stayed the winter,” says one woman.
These days Rangeley is home to 1,200 year-round residents. The town has one school, two police cars, and the nearest movie theater is an hour away. In winter more snowmobiles than cars line up at the gas station. The sign outside Doc Grant’s Restaurant on Main Street is a constant reminder: “Halfway to the Equator and the North Pole,” it boasts, noting that Rangeley is 3,107 miles from both points, north and south — which is to say, 3,107 miles from two places so remote that even though you know just where you are, you feel, somehow, completely isolated.
But despite its isolation, or more likely because of it, something special happens in Rangeley each winter. It happens, not surprisingly, as Christmas approaches. It starts with names, lists of people young and old — families, children, seniors who have fallen on hard times during the last year. The names come quietly, discreetly, from church pastors or teachers, maybe from a neighbor. Some call it a list of the “less fortunate.”
But in Rangeley, where hardly anyone is rich, the Giving Tree isn’t about the wealthy giving to the poor. It’s about those who have some helping those who have less. It’s about people thinking of each other. “The Giving Tree,” says Linda Sikes, current president of the organizing committee, “is just an organization that epitomizes the giving spirit of the whole town.”
Hard-working volunteers attend wrapping parties to ready the gifts for distribution. “We take real care to personalize them,” says Ginny Spiller, whose house has one room entirely devoted to storing Giving Tree items. Gifts have to be collected from drop-off spots around town, wrapped, tagged, grouped by family, and bagged for Santa to deliver.
For all the last-minute bustle, the Giving Tree, in its quiet way, has become a year-round event. All year long people buy and plan and share names. Even people from away, who visit in the summer, want to contribute — like the lady from Rhode Island who sent a brand-new child’s snowsuit. Or the family from New Jersey, who buy things and send them north. It seems fitting then, after months of preparation, that the town itself finally pauses, comes together, and gives a gift to itself.
It wasn’t always this way. Originally designed to include the Canadian city of Lac Megantic and the surrounding ski areas in both towns, the Giving Tree began in 1987 as an effort to increase tourism. “It began as a commercial venture,” says one local, “but it turned into something decent.” That about sums it up. The idea thrived in spite of the commercialism that launched it. What remains are the people of Rangeley and nearby Lac Megantic looking out for each other.
This year’s celebration starts officially on November 20, when a 40-foot fir tree arrives from Canada. “We meet at the D.O.T. garage,” says Millie Bowman, who’s in charge of the parade. “Then we drive through town tootin’ and yellin’ and hollerin’. We all have our flags out. Speakers are spewing off French and English.” Later in the month, an exchange tree from Maine is delivered to Lac Megantic, where there is more flag waving and music and parades full of logging trucks and sled dogs.