First settled in 1771 on an island in the Kennebec River, the midsize mill town of Skowhegan (pop. 6,297) was the birthplace of Margaret Chase Smith (1897-1995), one of Maine’s most renowned politicians and a 36-year veteran of the U.S. House and Senate. Her home, set on 15 riverside acres, is now the Margaret Chase Smith Library Center (56 Norridgewock Ave., 207/474-7133, Mon.-Fri. 10am-4pm, donation). Northwest of town, the complex includes a museum depicting her life and Cold War times, when Smith was the first U.S. senator to stand up to the red-baiting character assassination of Joe McCarthy’s Communist “witch trials.”

Skowhegan’s other larger-than-life character stands alongside US-201, just north of US-2: the Skowhegan Indian, a 62-foot statue sometimes billed as the “Largest Wooden Indian in the World.”

North from Skowhegan, US-201 runs along the Kennebec River, offering some of Maine’s greatest fall foliage vistas. One of the prettiest stretches is around the town of Bingham, about 25 miles north of Skowhegan. On US-201 a mile south of town, you can catch an alfresco movie at the Skowhegan Drive-In (207/474-9277) on weekend nights all summer long.

East of Skowhegan, US-2 veers away from the river across low, rolling hills covered with pine and birch forests, the only signs of habitation a few trailer homes and scraggly farms.