Riding to Maine

I left Kempton early in the morning without saying goodbye to anyone. I wanted to get on my horse and ride. I’d stayed a week in the small eastern Pennsylvania town, made a few dollars working in the kitchen of the Kempton Hotel, and was anxious to get back in the saddle. I rode northeast through rolling hills and, after riding about fifteen miles, turned Horse into the woods and found a secluded spot near a dribbling little creek where I set up camp. I watered Horse, fed him some oats, pitched my tent, built a fire, made coffee and lit a joint. I was in the woods with my horse. I was a free man.

I sat by the campfire thinking about the years that I had spent traveling around America. I thought about the life I was living on horseback. For the next few days I puttered around my camp in the woods. I repaired some holes in my jeans, brushed the dirt out of Horse’s hide, cleaned all of my equipment and washed all of my clothes. I read a little, but mostly I let my mind wander through the years of living on the road.

It was early springtime and the earth was sprouting new life. So was I. Riding horseback across America was something that I loved. I awoke every day a happy man. I did have a few tough nights, but all of the days were wonderful. I could ride from dawn to dusk, then disappear into the woods with my horse, pitch camp and call it my home.

In early July, my life riding horses and living free would come to a dramatic conclusion when I crossed the Piscataqua River Bridge separating New Hampshire and Maine and rode north. During the summer of 1979, my days and nights would be filled with cops and robbers, good guys and bad guys, and one old lady who lived in a zoo. But, before I arrived at my destination in the coastal village of Cape Neddick, I had to deal with the police in two different small cities in the state of New York. In one city a cop arrested my horse; in the other, two cops busted me.

* * *

When Horse and I rode into New Paltz, I didn’t know it was a college town; by the time I reached the center of the city, I knew it was a party town.

The sight of a man on horseback was something many of the students had never seen in their young lives. I caused a rush of excitement when I stopped and dismounted. More than one young person carefully approached Horse and patted her on the neck; a few brave kids actually touched her hindquarters. I tied Horse to a fence in a small grassy area. I wanted to get a cup of coffee and a newspaper. The young people slowly walked away, except for one young man.

“Hey, dude, want to get high?” Except for the ‘dude’ part, I had been asked that question many times. I usually answered yes.

“Yes,” I said. The young man smiled.

He had long brown hair tied in a ponytail and wore a plaid shirt and blue jeans. He was a college student. David lived in a small apartment around the corner from where I had just tied Horse. David assured me that my horse would be okay while we went to his place to smoke some pot. I checked the rope that tied Horse to the fence, then walked away with David. We sat on his porch smoking and talking. I learned that ‘dude’ meant ‘man’. I thought, far out, I’m getting old. A few of his friends joined us, then a few more. It was turning into a party; it was time for me to go. I stood up, thanked David for getting me high and left the porch. I walked back to where I had tied Horse.

Horse was gone. My thousand pound animal was missing, and everything I owned was tied to her back. “What the (expletive deleted),” I yelled aloud.

I looked around. There was nobody nearby. I ran to a parking area and asked a group of students if they had seen a horse. No, they said, looking at me as if I was crazy. I noticed a man about my age open the door of his van. I ran up to him and explained that someone had just stolen my horse. I asked him if he would drive me around in a search for my horse. I was so upset and angry, the man probably thought I was ordering him to help me. He told me to get in and we began to look for Horse, driving through the busy streets of New Paltz, New York. I saw Pintos and Mustangs, but no Horse. The man had been driving me through New Paltz for a half-hour when he suggested that I contact the police. I could think of a few reasons to avoid the cops, but reluctantly agreed. He turned his van around and drove to the police station.

Horse was tied up in front of the station, calmly nibbling on the grass. I thanked the driver and got out of his van. He wasted no time in getting away from the crazed hippie. I walked over to Horse and said hello.

“Hi,” said a middle-aged man dressed in a blue uniform. “I’m Officer Turner. Is that your horse?”

Officer Turner was a cop and had just walked outside the police station. He was pointing at Horse.

“Who the (expletive deleted) stole my horse? I yelled. I was angry.

“Nobody took your horse, mister.” replied Officer Turner in a patient voice. “We thought he had broken free.”

“Bullshit,” I said. I kept mouthing off to the cop as he turned and walked back inside the police station. I followed him into the lobby and continued on with my tirade. I accused Officer Turner and the rest of the New Paltz cops of horse theft.

“They hang horse thieves,” I taunted.

Officer Turner never raised his voice, and nothing I said seemed to bother him. When I was really going good, he opened a door to another room and walked out of the lobby. He closed the door. I was ranting to an empty room. I stopped yelling and stood still for a moment. I then walked outside and sat down on the steps.

“Feel better now,” asked Officer Turner.

He had waited a few minutes for me to exhaust myself, then came outside and sat down next to me. He explained that someone had called the police and reported a lost horse. The cops were just doing their job. He was correct, and I felt lousy for acting like a jerk. I apologized to Officer Turner, stood up and walked over to Horse. I tightened her cinch, stepped into the saddle and rode away.

* * *

“Bend over.”

I was standing in front of three hefty Hudson cops, looking at the bars of the cell I would soon be occupying. The cops were looking at my butt. My jeans were down around my ankles.

“Bend over,” said one of the cops in a louder voice. He sounded winded, out of breath. “We have to search you for contraband.”

Hudson, New York is a large city situated on hill high above the Hudson River. After crossing the long bridge that spans the Hudson, Horse and I rode up the road and entered a poor black neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. The children scattered, then turned around with shy smiles and waved hello. I waved back. The adults hanging out on the street just stared.

I weaved my way through the narrow streets and alleys of west Hudson and wound up in a downtown area where a small park dominates the cityscape. The park was filled with people lounging on benches and walking up and down pathways.

I met Thomas in the park. He was sitting with some friends when I rode by. Thomas said hello and invited me to join them. They were drinking beer and smoking pot. I tied Horse to a tree, and sat down next to Thomas. He handed me a can of beer.

“No, thanks,” I said. “I don’t drink anymore.”

I handed him my marijuana pipe. It was filled with pot. For the next few hours, Thomas and his friends entertained me with stories. They lived lives that consisted of dull, low-paying work, cheap beer and weekends spent partying with friends in the park. It was Friday night, and we were in the park.

“Where are you staying tonight,” asked Thomas.

“Don’t know,” I said. “I’ll find a place.”

“You can camp in my backyard,” said Thomas. “It’s small, but there should be room for you and your horse.”

Thomas walked me to his house. It was in the city and the backyard was really small. But, it was late and I wanted to go to sleep. I was tired and stoned. With Thomas’ help, I managed to get my tent set up in an area where Horse wouldn’t be able to kick it down. I got water for Horse from the coiled garden hose. Thomas said goodnight and left the backyard. I thought he was going into his house. Instead, as I would learn later, he returned to the park and spent the rest of the night partying with his friends. Thomas wasn’t home early the next morning when I was awakened by a male voice trying to sound tough.

“Come out of that tent right now,” the voice commanded.

Two cops were standing on the other side of the backyard fence. Neither one of them wanted anything to do with Horse. This was going to be a long-distance arrest.

“Do you have any weapons?” asked one of the cops.

“Just my knife,” I said. I was standing next to Horse.

My arrest was negotiated. I tried to explain that I had permission to be in the yard, but the cops said that the woman inside the house had called them. Horse and I were trespassing. Thomas didn’t tell his wife I was staying in the backyard. There was no beating me to the ground, no handcuffs tightened around my wrists, no threats or intimidation. My arrest in Hudson was abnormal. The cops allowed me break camp and saddle Horse; and, they waited until a representative of the local Animal Society arrived to take Horse to a shelter. When I knew that my horse was okay, I submitted to the arrest and was taken to the police station.

“Bend over,” said the cop.

The Hudson cops didn’t find any contraband, and I was placed in a cell. The Hudson cops also didn’t find any contraband in the saddlebags they allowed me to take into the cell; I found it. I had a small stash of pot and a marijuana pipe hidden in the bags. The cops were apparently more interested in my saddle-sore butt than my saddlebags. So, while the cops were out looking for Thomas, I was getting high in the Hudson jail.

The cops eventually located Thomas and he came immediately to the jail and bailed me out. To save face, the cops wouldn’t drop the charges. They made me stay near Hudson until I could see a judge on Monday morning. I had to wait two days before the matter could be settled. I did a repeat performance in the Hudson court of the one I did in the New Paltz police station, except in Hudson I was right. The judge let me rant and rave, and then he apologized for the actions of the cops. I thanked the judge and left the courtroom.

I walked outside to where I had tied Horse. I tightened her cinch, stepped into the saddle and rode away.

* * *

I was still more than two hundred miles from Cape Neddick, Maine when I left Hudson, New York. I tried to stay away from cities and large towns; I was tired of dealing with cops. Horse and I rode hard for the next week, night and day. I wanted to get to Maine. Except for the mountains in western Massachusetts, it was an easy ride. I stopped for an afternoon and evening in Lunenburg to give horse rides to children at a birthday party. Horse threw a shoe in southern New Hampshire and, at the entrance to the Piscataqua River Bridge in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Horse balked and didn’t want to cross over into the State of Maine.

I got out of the saddle and walked my horse across the bridge.

“Well, you look lean and mean,” said Gebhardt as I rode up to his front door. Gebhardt’s trailer home was located on the west bank of the Cape Neddick River. We had been friends for a long time.

I was lean; the mean came from being in good shape. Hanging on to a large horse all day long made me strong. I was tanned from being outdoors every day. I rarely wore more than a pair of old jeans: no shirt, no shoes. My hair was long and I wore a headband to keep it out of my face.

I was fit and I was in Maine. My horse was healthy. Life was good.

* * *

“You can camp at my place,” said the chubby young man as he sat inside Gebhardt’s trailer. “You can give horse rides there, no problem.”

I looked over at Steve. I wasn’t interested in hanging out with him. He gave me the creeps. But the idea of earning a few dollars always made me pay attention. I had been at Gebhardt’s for about a week when Steve made his offer. He was visiting Gebhardt with a friend named Jim. Jim was a big fellow in his mid-thirties with a craggy face, a Jack Palance mug chiseled out of granite. When Jim talked, his voice always sounded like he was snarling. I liked Jim.

A few people who knew Steve tried to dissuade me from going to where he lived. It was a large piece of property across the Cape Neddick River, about a mile from Gebhardt’s trailer. They told me that there was always trouble at the ‘Park’. It was a dangerous place, with lots of arguments and fights. But when I heard the word Park, I could only imagine nice folks with children willing to pay for horse rides. I ignored the negative comments. On 6 July 1979, I rode the short distance from Gebhardt’s trailer to Steve’s place. It was then known to the local community as Kuhn Park.

Kuhn Park was infamous, and hidden from view.

River Road winds along the north bank of the Cape Neddick River. The meandering road is an architect’s dream. Old colonial homes, mansions, large Victorian houses, small ranch-style homes and a few farmhouses are located along the roadside. The road continues past the Cape Neddick Baptist Church, then ends at the intersection with Route One, the old King’s Highway. The lawns are always well groomed, trees and shrubs are pruned regularly and colorful flowers sprout everywhere. The view down the river is postcard beautiful. River Road takes a dogleg turn near the church, and next to the church was a dirt road that led into the woods north of the river. The dirt lane was the entrance to Kuhn Park.

In July of 1979, a horse rider could find both God and Hell on River Road in Cape Neddick, Maine.

* * *

“You must be Terry,” said the old woman.

“Yes, ma’am,” I said. I was thinking, who the heck is this?

The old woman smiled. She seemed to be having trouble focusing in on me; one of her blues eyes wandered around in its socket. She was sitting in the passenger seat of a late-model sedan driven by a middle-aged woman. The car had just exited from the dirt road next to the Baptist church, and had stopped next to me as I rode Horse alongside River Road in Cape Neddick.

It was in the middle of the summer and it was hot, yet the old woman was wearing a bright red overcoat. She wore a black felt hat; strands of her grey hair were dangling from under its broad brim. She was a big woman; not fat, just big. She looked to be somewhere in her seventies.

“I’m happy to meet you,” she said. “I’ll talk to you later. Goodbye.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said.

I had no clue about what the old lady meant, but I always treated elderly folks with respect. It’s something that the children of a Tennessee-born father can certainly understand.

I turned Horse to the right and rode up the dirt road into the Park. I was riding into Hell. One hundred feet up the road up the road on the right was a small clapboard cottage painted shocking pink. The small house was run-down, and trash was strewn all over its yard. Shards of broken beer bottles were scattered everywhere. The road curved to the left past the pink house. When I rounded the bend I saw a junkyard; or, what looked to be a junkyard. In the middle of all the trash and garbage, between two huge piles of burned-out vehicles, was a large modern wood-shingled building.

I was looking at Kuhnhouse for the first time. It wasn’t the best of times for Kuhnhouse. A concrete ramp led up to a small porch in the middle of the large building. As I rode closer, I saw three young men sitting on the weed-infested grass in front of the porch; they were drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. One of them was Jim. A fourth man, Steve, walked out the front door onto the porch of the building.

“Hello, Terry,” he said. “Glad you decided to come.”

I dismounted and tied Horse to the wooden rail fence that separated the building from the road. I nodded hello to the three men sitting on the grass. I looked around slowly at all of the accumulated junk, then looked at Steve.

“This place is a (expletive deleted) mess,” I said.

Everyone laughed, but I wasn’t joking. The place was a dump. Steve offered me a beer. I refused.

“I don’t drink anymore,” I said.

“That’s okay,” said Steve. ” I’m getting some pot later on. I’ll get you high.”

I didn’t mention my small marijuana stash. Steve sat down with his friends and opened a beer. They started asking me questions about riding, about my horse and about me. My answers were offered in a friendly manner, but I was vague. I listened to them talk among themselves; they had an inclination to talk about cars, women, partying and fighting.

I had been warned.

The four young men were having a good time laughing and carrying on and, of course, drinking beer. They were all drunk.

“I met an old lady on the road,” I said. “Who is she?”

I described the woman in the red coat.

“Oh, that’s just Brenda,” said Steve. “Brenda Kuhn. She’s my mother.”

Three of the four young men laughed uproariously. They were punching each other and wallowing around on the ground. I noticed that Jim didn’t join in the laughter. “Just Brenda” was, apparently, quite a joke. I started asking questions, also in a friendly way. I wanted to find out what I was getting myself into by coming to Kuhn Park.

Brenda Kuhn really was Steve’s ‘mother’- she had legally adopted him when he was a young man in his early twenties. Steve’s real mother lived across the river on Clark Road. He had taken a job at the Park when he was a teenager, and very quickly had taken over Brenda’s life. Steve had been living in the Kuhnhouse for more than four years.

I learned a lot that afternoon while sitting with Steve and his friends; more than enough to realize that Brenda Kuhn was being terribly used and abused. However, I had no real understanding of the horrors that had been inflicted on the old woman. In time, I would learn more than I wanted to know.

“I’m going to set up my camp,” I said.

The four men watched as I unhitched Horse and walked her over to a wooded knoll that sat between Kuhnhouse and the pink building. I re-tied Horse to a tree and began setting up my tent. The four drunks lost interest in the hippie on a horse. Unfortunately for them, especially for a short blubbery young man named Steve, I had taken an interest in what they were doing to the old woman. I took my time organizing a campsite; I wanted to think. I crawled inside my tent and lay down on my unrolled sleeping bag. I closed my eyes, but I didn’t sleep. No one bothered me. I had a quiet night on the knoll. I didn’t get high.

The next morning, I got up early and started a fire. I was going to make some coffee, and was starting to collect firewood when the front door of Kuhnhouse opened. Brenda came out onto the porch. She adjusted her hat, then walked down the ramp. She had a cane in her hand. I watched as she continued walking down the dirt road in the direction of River Road.

“Good morning, Miss Kuhn,” I said.

“Good morning, Terry,” she responded. “I’m so glad you are here.”

I walked over to her. Brenda looked tired. I spent a few minutes telling her about my life on horseback. I then listened to her as she tried to explain away the mess that surrounded us; she could only manage a few sentences before she sighed and looked at Kuhnhouse.

“It was beautiful at one time, Terry,” she said. Brenda turned around and started walking away. I asked where she was going.

“To the store. Steve wants bacon for breakfast.”

I watched as Brenda walked out of the Park and turned right on River Road. The store was about a quarter of a mile down the road. I wanted to go into Kuhnhouse and drag the fat jerk named Steve out of bed and kick his ass. But, I waited. I knew I had to go about things slowly and carefully if I was going to help Brenda without getting myself hurt too badly. When Brenda returned from the store, I met her in the middle of the dirt road. We were standing in front of Kuhnhouse.

“Miss Kuhn,” I said. “Do you want to see some changes around here?”

“Yes, Terry, I really would,” she answered.

“Would you like me to help you?”

“Yes, please. I’ve been waiting for such a long time.”

* * *

Brenda Kuhn was born in New York City in 1911. She was the daughter of Vera and Walt Kuhn. Walt Kuhn was one of America’s premier artists, the man responsible for the infamous Armory Show of 1913. Brenda grew up in New York, but her family spent many vacations in Ogunquit, Maine, a small fishing village and artists colony located a few miles north of Cape Neddick.

Walt Kuhn died in 1949; his wife died in 1961. Brenda’s parents left her an Estate that was very valuable. It included artworks by her father and property in Maine. Using the income from the sale of Kuhn paintings, Brenda bought more than one hundred acres of land located on River Road in Cape Neddick. She wanted to create a memorial to her parents and, in 1965 the Kuhnhouse was built and Cape Neddick Park was officially opened. Brenda was in her mid-fifties. It was the first time in her life that she was able to do something on her own without the influence, good or bad, of her mother or father. Walt Kuhn was a tough, domineering father and husband who controlled the lives of “his girls”; and, after Kuhn’s death in 1949, Brenda would live in her mother’s shadow until 1961.

The village of Cape Neddick was where Brenda Kuhn decided to honor her parents by designing and creating Cape Neddick Park. The Park was Brenda’s gift to the community and she worked hard to develop the project. Kuhnhouse was a large structure designed for meetings, exhibitions, and recreational activities. The grounds of the Park included picnic areas, hiking trails and a hard-surfaced basketball court. The Park was utilized and enjoyed by many community groups from York and the surrounding area. For more than a decade Brenda was able to manage the operation, in addition to providing the funding. However, in the early seventies, health problems and poor art sales caused Brenda to agree to the formation of a non-profit corporation that would manage the affairs of Cape Neddick Park.

In 1975, the people in charge of the Corporation hired a teenager to help do chores at the Park. His name was Steve, and he lived across the river with his mother on Clark Road. Cape Neddick Park would slowly evolve into the horror show known as Kuhn Park.

* * *

I traded Horse for a sawed-off shotgun.

Steve was a bully and he only picked on the weak and helpless. I never really worried about Steve; however, I was concerned about the various people and groups using the Park as a place to hang out, a place to party, and a place to raise Hell. When I arrived at the Park, I was unarmed. During my second night at the Park I realized that I might need a little extra protection. Jim helped me obtain the shotgun. He had a friend who wanted a horse.

Jim was also the first person that I talked with after having a lengthy, and eye-opening, conversation with Brenda. Jim was living in a tent on Park property with his young wife and newborn baby. He was in his mid-thirties, stood over six feet tall and had only recently been released from the Maine State Prison in Thomaston; Jim spent most of his adult life in prison for assault and parole violations. He was a native of York and still had family living in town. Steve had invited Jim to stay at the Park. Jim was a drinker and almost uncontrollable when he got drunk. He liked to drink and argue and fight.

Sober, Jim was a really nice fellow. It was the sober Jim who Brenda appreciated.

“Jim,” I said, “Brenda wants me to run the Park.”

“What about Steve?” he asked.

“Screw him,” I said.

Brenda told me that Jim always treated her with respect, even during the wildest parties. She didn’t feel threatened by Jim. Most of the other people scared her. I told Jim that he and his family were the only people, other than Steve, who could remain on the property. The party days were over. There would be no more drinking and partying at the Park.

“Jim, you have to make a choice.” I said. “Either support Steve, or me.”

Jim was sober when we talked. I had no time or interest in arguing with a drunk. He realized I was serious and that I was the first person who had made any attempt to confront Steve about his abuse of Brenda. I told him that he could move his family from the tent into the pink house. Jim was not a stupid man.

“You’re the boss,” said Jim.

The next day, Jim met with a friend and negotiated the trade for the sawed-off shotgun. There was a long list of other folks who needed to be educated about the changes that were about to occur at the Park. Some wore dirty jeans; others dressed in expensive suits.

Horse was history.

* * *

I wasn’t certain about why the people in Brenda’s life turned their backs on her for such a long time, but Brenda’s hospitality and generosity for more than ten years were repaid with hostility and apathy. The well-known Maine characteristic of minding one’s own business, the live and let live attitude, allowed Steve to perpetrate indignities on Brenda that were not a secret in the community. People who knew what was happening at the Park couldn’t find the courage to challenge Steve as he went about destroying Brenda Kuhn’s dream. Luckily for Brenda, I wasn’t a native of Maine. I was from someplace south of the Piscataqua River. I was ‘from away’.

“Steve,” I said. “It’s time for you to go.”

Steve was sitting at a table in the room I occupied in Kuhnhouse. I had been living there for one month. The job of getting rid of the garbage that had accumulated at the Park was almost finished. Earlier in the day Brenda asked me to tell Steve that he had to leave the Park.

“Why, Terry?” It was more of a whine than a question. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”

“I’m not going to argue,” I said. “Brenda wants you out of here. You have to leave.”

The why was left unsaid. Steve knew why: intimidation and verbal abuse, physical and sexual assaults and destruction of Brenda’s life and property. For being a bully without balls, I thought.

Steve did not argue with me. He knew that I would enforce Brenda’s desire to see him leave the Park. For more than a month, Steve watched as I confronted various people and told them to go away, including a local biker gang named, ironically, the Iron Horsemen. The bikers had used the Park for parties and gatherings. The local young people who used the Park for partying would, for a short time, continue to drive up the dirt road looking for fun. All of them would be told to leave; I would rarely have to say it twice. The criminal element, the hangers-on and the local kids who used and abused the Park were soon gone from Brenda’s life. Six weeks after I rode into the Park, Steve also went away. He never returned.

It was as simple as that.

I then fixed my sights on the people wearing suits – Brenda’s lawyer, banker and art dealer – who not only ignored the abuse but also profited from it. They were the real bad guys. I got angry with the people who abused Brenda at her Park; I got ugly with the people who allowed it to happen.

(In 1980, the Walt Kuhn Gallery at Cape Neddick Park opened in the Kuhnhouse, and was a respected art and music facility until it closed in 1990. James T. Phillips was the director of the Park. In 1991, the Kuhnhouse was sold to Weiser Publications. Brenda Kuhn died in January of 1993 at the age of 81.

James T. Phillips began a career as a reporter and photojournalist in 1991. He has covered the wars in Iraq (1991-1992), Croatia (1993-1995), Bosnia (1993), Kosovo (1998-2002) and Macedonia (2001-2002). Riding to Maine is an excerpt from Phillips’ book manuscript entitled Remembering Maine.)

He can be reached at: jamestphillips@yahoo.com