Ask an Islander—Monhegan’s Tara Hire

Island life is not as romantic and idyllic as some would believe

by Tom Groening

Tara Hire of Monhegan Island is one of those people for whom island life seems like an appropriate match. She’s not afraid to step into the important roles that keep an island functioning, such as serving on the town’s board of assessors (similar to a select board), and she’s figured out how to carve out a place to pursue her passion for wellness.

She’s lived on the island full time for 18 years, and navigated changes in jobs—including owning and operating a store and a restaurant—and outside forces like the COVID pandemic. Our conversation was over Zoom in late March. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Island Journal: How did you come to live on the island, and where are you from originally?

Tara Hire: I’m originally from Ohio. I lived there until just after high school and I moved to California, then New York, then back to Ohio. At that point, I was 22. I’d gone back to Ohio to go to college and came to Monhegan in 2000 for a summer job. I graduated from the University of Maine and moved full time to Monhegan in 2004.

IJ: And had you any ties to Maine before that?

Hire: No. I had not even visited Maine before that.

IJ: Interesting. And what was the summer job?

Hire: I worked at the Island Inn as a waitress.

IJ: Did you enjoy that?

Hire: Yeah, it was great. A summer job on Monhegan is especially great when you’re in college. You can make really good money. They have housing for you and supply all your food. So I thought it was fantastic. 

You work really hard but then you also have a good amount of time to explore the island, make new friends, and just have a really fun time.

IJ: I’m curious about the housing. I know they often find horrible housing situations for workers on other islands, like Nantucket. Where would they put you up on such a small island?

Hire: They have dorms. The three major hotels have dorms for their staff. And it’s not luxurious by any means. When I came here in 2000, most of us shared a room, and they’re pretty tiny—two twin-sized beds and maybe enough room to walk into the room. You spent most of your time outside.

That’s changed. People have different expectations. They have their own room and a little more space.

Now I have this big, spacious house and rarely go out in the community. (Laughs.) No, I’m kidding.

IJ: How has the pandemic affected island life? It’s been two years now. What would a typical quiet winter be like versus the last two years? I wonder how the pandemic affected you, specifically, and the island.

Hire: My husband and I took it really seriously and so did most of our friends. We haven’t really been as social as we used to be. For the first year-and-a-half, we weren’t going into people’s homes. We would, in the summer, hang out on the deck.

For me, it’s been very dramatically different in my socialization. We still go for walks with people, but just not dinner parties like we would normally do.

IJ: And are you a very extroverted or introverted person?

Hire: I am more introverted, but I like small gatherings.

IJ: For a typical winter, pre-pandemic, did it ever get to the point where, “It’s so lonely here,” or do you savor that?

Hire: I tend to savor it, more so when I was working in the public life. Now I work at home, and I work online. But when I was working in my grocery store and my restaurant, it’s just so intense. You see a lot of people and you interact with a lot of people on a daily basis that it was such a nice relief to have winter. Now, it’s not as much of a relief. Every day is kind of quiet.

IJ: And you ran a grocery store and a restaurant?

Hire: I had a grocery store for seven years. I had a little restaurant before that, for two years.

IJ: You have had a wellness business, teaching yoga?

Hire: Yes, a few years of health coaching, and here on the island, yoga classes and art retreats, some wellness coaching around healthy eating, writing a blog.

IJ: And one of the advantages of having a business like that is that the island is part of the attraction, right?

Hire: Exactly. I was trying to leverage the healing energy of Monhegan and create opportunities for people to be in this beautiful space and treating themselves and learning how to be their best selves.

IJ: So obviously, healthy food is important to you. How do you get your food on the island?

Hire: Our store stays pretty well-stocked and they get vegetable orders weekly. But I also do a lot of shopping online, dry goods like rice and beans.

IJ: How often do you go off-island?

Hire: It ends up being like every six weeks.

IJ: And do you stay overnight on the mainland?

Hire: In the winter, you have to. In the summer, I can do a day trip, but it’s a tight squeeze. It’s possible, but you don’t get a lot done.

IJ: And where do you shop?

Hire: We mostly go to Rockland for shopping and dentist and all the medical. That’s kind of our home base.

IJ: Electric bills have already gone up quite a bit, and you guys already had high electric bills. How do you power your home and heat it?

Hire: We use propane for heat, and we have our own power company here on Monhegan, so that’s our power source. The rates are what they are. They’re high, and you do what you can to conserve. We don’t really go without. Maybe we should, but we don’t (laughs).

IJ: Is it crazy busy in the summer?

Hire: It’s insane in the summertime and people work really, really hard. I might get two days off for the whole summer. Our season is extending on both shoulders. People are coming earlier and leaving later. I think it strains people a little.

We have a little apartment that we rent and there’s people here already, in March.

IJ: I wonder if there’s pent-up demand for travel.

Hire: Monhegan has had banner years for the last couple of years. People are saying they are already booked up—the hotels—for the summer.

IJ: And can I ask about your new job?

Hire: I went back to school and graduated last May with a computer information systems degree. I did an internship with L.L. Bean last summer and was offered a full-time job in August of last year. I’m in the marketing department as a data analyst and it’s great. I love it!

I think the pandemic provided the opportunity for more remote work. They were becoming available but with the pandemic, everyone started hiring remotely. I would have found something working remotely, but it might not have been in Maine, so this is nice.

IJ: What do people who just visit in the summer fail to understand about island life?

Hire: I think in general they tend to over-romanticize island life and think that we are ultra-special, or that we don’t experience the same challenges as everywhere else. When I’ll tell a story about someone not being kind to me on Monhegan, they’ll say, “Even on an island?!” expecting that people would be different here. It’s just not true.

IJ: I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but I suppose you do rely on people more and people help each other out more than in Portland or Boston?

Hire: Maybe. I think a lot of people attracted to islands tend to be more self-sufficient. I can’t say that I rely on anyone else for much, to be honest. That’s one of those misconceptions. People assume we’re all gathering together on a regular basis to hold one another up or helping everyone succeed. And that’s not true. If someone’s in a really bad place and we know about it, we pitch in.

IJ: What sort of friend would you recommend year-round island life to? What sort of person would fit in?

Hire: Someone who is pretty self-sufficient, doesn’t need a lot of social interaction. Someone who’s willing to work really hard and be creative. For 18 years, I had a small business, and I also worked at the museum, I worked at the library in the wintertime. I worked for the town and got a small stipend there. So you have to be willing and able to be flexible in how you make your money.

And after a while it gets old (laughs). I want a real job and I want to know how much money I’m going to make. I want to have health insurance. This is a new experience for me.

IJ: Do you ever think about leaving?

Hire: My husband, Kole Lord, was born and raised here and he’s pretty connected. This is his home.