Cards Against Liberty, Maine

Can a game company welcome the world to its island without making a small town into a joke?

From above, Lake St. George doesn’t look like much. Twenty miles inland from the jagged coast and due west of Augusta, itself no more than a grey smudge on the winding Kennebec, the lake seems like little more than an irregular glacial scrape. The northernmost island in it is even less remarkable, a six-acre bit of verdant trivia so close to shore it could pass for a peninsula. In winter, it’s white on white. In summer, it’s green on blue.

From the shoreline, there’s a bit more color. The sort of places folks from “away,” the local term for everything beyond the state’s borders, call “quaint” line the water near docks nursing litters of kayaks. The roads around the lake are largely empty and the fields above it are hemmed by blackberry bushes. The water is flat and calm, except when a motorboat emerges from one of the quiet coves and the wake crashes into the swimmers at the beach open only to residents of Liberty, the town containing the lake containing the island.

The island in question is called Birch Island in town, but on the internet it’s Hawaii 2, which is a pun about it being “the Maine island.” The authors of that pun are the employees of Chicago-based Cards Against Humanity, which bought the island in October for $200,000. Though the company is known for its eponymous “party game for horrible people,” which allows players to fill in the blanks in statements like “Money can’t buy me love, but it can buy me ___” with phrases like, “Toni Morrison’s vagina,” its employees focus largely on producing expansion packs and internet happenings. Their major annual event is the Holiday Bullshit celebration, which prompted 250,000 fans of the company to pay $15 in return for some TBD whimsy last year. CAH, which was kickstarted into existence in 2011 by high school friends from the affluent suburb of Highland Park, spent that $3,750,000 windfall distributing presents over the “10 Days or Whatever of Kwanzaa.” There were “Miracle Berries,” “Stickers to Use for Vandalism,” personalized playing cards, a $250,000 donation to the Sunlight foundation and, on the tenth day of the celebration, a license for one square foot of Hawaii 2.

The lease wad entitled Holiday Bullshitters, the specific geolocation purchased with their 80 cents. With it came a map and a note. “We bought this island for two reasons,” the note explained. “1) because it was funny, and 2) so we could give you a small piece of it. Also, 3) we’re preserving a pristine bit of American wilderness.”

When all this was announced, r/holidaybullshit blew up and the internet got happy. CAH co-founder Max Temkin, a Chicago quasi-celeb, told the Tribune that the company had “wanted to do something big.” Even the subreddit lurkers just enjoying the reactions (“Let’s do our best to keep the place just as pristine as it is now,” “I might have to erect a 1x1 6ft high barbed wire fence”) were excited and Adam Paul, who lives just up a rutted road from Lake St. George, was one of those people. He was shocked and delighted to see his town at the center of some well-intentioned mischief. He read the Bullshitters’ posts about visiting from Nebraska, California, and Oregon. Would he bump into these people at the Sunoco Station down Rt. 3 in Sherman’s Corner? Like a quarter million other people, he suddenly wanted to go to the island immediately. Unlike most of them, he could.

Adam Paul wanted to get involved and he did. The subsequent experience convinced him to sell the house he’s lived in for over a decade. And perhaps that’s an appropriate ending. At the end of the day, the story of Cards Against Humanity’s incursion into Liberty isn’t about humorless New Englanders or thoughtless city slickers, it’s about what it means to own something.

For 188 years, the idea of owning land in Liberty was coupled with the idea of being a citizen of the town of Liberty and an investment in the place itself: the forests, the roads, and the immaculate lake. Then, 250,000 people got leases in the mail and it wasn’t anymore. The idea of owning land in Liberty, Maine became, to most of the people who were actually thinking about it, a joke.

Before Cards Against Humanity went public with their purchase in December, they reached out to Dan Miller, a former Liberty selectman and the owner of a local boatyard. A representative of the company told Miller that his name had come up when they approached other contractors about an unusual job.

“We have a not particularly well-earned reputation for doing stuff other people won’t,” Miller explains. “Cards Against Humanity tried to come in quick and quiet to do what they wanted to do.”

What they wanted to do was move a vault-style Fort Knox safe into a shelter being erected on their island, and they wanted to do it before the water froze over, so Holiday Bullshitters could start using clues to figure out the combination as soon as their leases arrived. Miller had to rig a semi-rigid inflatable with styrofoam outriggers and use most of his then 26-person team ($50-an-hour per man) to get the thing in place. That project started rumors around town about the safe and the island, but no one got nervous — not really nervous anyway — until Christmas Eve, when J. Craig Anderson of the Portland Press Herald, who had found the Waldo County real estate record of the transaction, ran a story explaining the purchase, the prank, and the one-square-foot deal. That’s when Adam Paul first emailed Cards Against Humanity to offer his services as caretaker.

It’s also when people started showing up. Fans of CAH like Mark Glowacky, a graduate student in Environmental History at the University of New Hampshire, decided to ignore the cold and make the trip. “I would sort of cringe at what the other participants would say, but the central idea of buying the island was good,” Glowacky says. “I was off in January so I popped on some Lord of the Rings music and headed up there.”

Here’s what Glowacky found on the island: a gingerbread house carefully erected on a square foot plot, the safe sitting heavily on a small wooden platform, and litter.

The residents living along the lake saw cars they didn’t recognize and boot prints and out-of-state license plates. A false story circulated that Cards Against Humanity had created a Hawaii 1 in a different town that had subsequently been inundated. A probably-true story circulated that people had been seen shitting near the lakeshore, creating a potential public health hazard. A definitely-true story circulated that trespassers had transported a canoe to the lake over private property. Were 250,000 people going to come? It sounded unlikely, but no one knew for sure.

Adam Paul, feeling that he was one of the few people in town who understood the nature of the prank and the nature of the place, reached out to Cards Against Humanity again. This time he heard back. Jenn Bane, the company’s community manager, agreed to pay him $250 a month to “check the island weekly, at least, and send us a weekly email letting us know what’s up,” to “clean up any trash or debris,” and to “call the police if something goes really awry.” Adam’s first act on the job: writing a letter to the town outlining potential solutions to the concerns about the island. The town sent no response.

If Cards Against Humanity knew more about Liberty, Maine, they would have known that the last name Paul evokes exasperated scoffs from those active in town politics. Adam’s parents, relocated Bay Staters, had filed suits against the town for refusing to pave their road, which has been deemed abandoned. The town, and a lot of people in it, had no interest in dealing with Adam even if he did have demonstrable land management expertise and a desire to do the right thing. If Cards Against Humanity was aligned with the Pauls, they didn’t want to deal with the folks back in Chicago either.

“There was this big concern when they bought it and were encouraging people to go out there,” says Kerry Black, head of the Liberty Lakes Association. “They should have looked for guys the town would have had a better relationship with.”

Instead of talking to Adam or CAH, the town’s selectman brought the issue to a town meeting, the audio of which sounds like an a cappella mash-up of A Civil Action and “Bert and I.” The loudest voice in the room that evening belonged to Sarason Liebler, a retired Navy man who Dan Miller describes as a “better speaker than listener,” but genuinely conservation and community minded, who repeated an idea that had been gaining momentum in town. Pointing out that the town could charge up to $2,500 a day per unresolved zoning violation and that, according to the subdivision law, Cards Against Humanity had committed 250,000 violations.

“If I was the schemer living in Chicago who thought this up, and I figured out a way to throw a couple million dollars in my bank account with this very clever business, and then I saw a freight train coming, I think I’d be very willing come up with a solution to make sure that I didn’t get run over by that freight train,” he said. “We have to make sure we construct a freight train.”

As a lawyer constructed that freight train, anti-Hawaii 2 sentiment in Liberty hit a fever pitch. Adam discovered that the thousands of remaining “sloth cards” — literally, cards with sloths on them because CAH is self-consciously obsessed with sloths — had been removed from the safe. He also discovered, at the same time, multiple sets of bootprints headed away from the island toward the far side of the lake, the side without public access. There were incidents with people in town as well, so Adam started to open carry a Walther PPK, a Bond gun, because he was frightened that someone upset about the lawsuit or the island might try to hurt him. He emailed Jenn Bane an update.

“I heard nothing,” he says. “If anyone says they enjoy carrying a gun, they shouldn’t have a gun.”

Then, on March 31, Liberty Code Enforcement Officer Don Harriman sent Cards Against Humanity, LLC as well as Hawaii 2 LLC, and Birch Island, LLC — two subsidiaries CAH had created — a letter. In it, Harriman made the case that the company had leveraged the non-commercially zoned island, using publicity and a contest to find hidden USB sticks to indirectly make money. The letter pointed to problematic language in Adam’s contract, stating that the company would be entitled to “profits arising from or incidental to all your work.” But the central concern of the town remained the issuing of licenses in violation. The town asked that CAH communicate to licensees that they actually owned nothing and for them to do so as publicly as possible. “While it is unlikely that the court would order daily penalties of $625,000,000 per day (250,000 x $2,500), the Town will seek the maximum fines, penalties, and legal fees as may be awarded by the court,” wrote Harriman.

Then Dan Miller was hired to remove the safe and barely met the April 15 deadline because of ice. Then Adam was let go with six month’s severance and no reason given. Then the island sat there.

Then summer.

The short history of Hawaii 2 is a knot of arguments, misunderstandings, and false assumptions that look like a tangle from the outside, but are cinched tight by one intractable reality: The locals don’t think the joke is funny. Many agree in principle that buying an island was clever and inventive. Many like scavenger hunts. Many like the name. But almost all of them eventually use the same phrase, “middle of nowhere” — as in, “My guess is that when they came up with this idea, the notion was that this little island on a lake in Maine was in the middle of nowhere,” says Kerry Black. “They thought no one would care what they did there.”

Or: “To someone from the city of Chicago, this is the middle of nowhere,” says Adam Paul. “This is not the middle of nowhere.”

Or: “They kind of assumed it was the middle of nowhere,” said Dan Miller.

Liberty is a small town, but it’s only a short drive from Belfast, with its stately downtown and thriving harbor, and Camden, with its myriad colonial inns. By the standards of Maine, a state that contains multiple towns where people still speak Arcadian, Liberty is essentially a suburb full of former hippies. And this isn’t a subtle point. If Cards Against Humanity had sought guidance from anyone who knew the area, they almost certainly would have been informed that, no, Liberty isn’t the middle of nowhere.

Which begs a question: Did CAH fail to do an adequate amount of research, or did they simply shrug off the fact that their project would strain the resources of a town run predominantly by volunteers? Even Temkin, who is reluctant to speak in detail about his project, admits that CAH was always more focused on buying an island than on its specific location.

“We worked with a real estate firm to find a list of private islands in the United States that we could afford to buy,” Temkin explained in an email. “The island in Liberty was affordable, beautiful, and undeveloped — everything we were looking for. Once we found it, we came up with the name and the design elements.”

The through line in CAH’s Hawaii 2 materials, in the company’s limited statements to the press, and even in Jenn Bane’s emails to Adam Paul, is that buying the island was a joke — the idea was born when an employee quipped that, with all the Holiday Bullshit money, they could buy a private island — but that owning it is a very real conservation effort. It is still unclear, especially given Adam’s dismissal, what that effort entails or augurs for the island itself.

Prior to being purchased by CAH, Birch Island was owned by the Bedke/Fox Family Trust. There were no structures on the island, presumably because it’s illegal to build structures on the island — much less the “summer home or a condo” CAH claims might have been planned if they didn’t swoop in — without special dispensation. After CAH bought the land, they illegally built a shed for the safe near the waterline and invited not just 250,000 people, but — in essence — every Reddit reader, to tromp around at his or her own discretion.

An indicative detail: Adam Paul was told by Jenn Bane to “clean out campfires,” which she presumed would be built fairly regularly. She was not wrong, which is why Kerry Black wound up in a panic on Memorial Day when visitors unaware of a “red flag” fire warning sparked up in the middle of what was basically a bunch of kindling. If sparks had jumped, Black points out, the town, with its tiny fire department, would have been powerless to stop a blaze. There is a reason it’s illegal to build a campfire without a permit on public land.

All that said, no one has been hurt on the island and the land itself remains in fine condition. But the idea that this has more to do with CAH’s stewardship than blind luck or Adam’s continued commitment to picking up trash feels less like a viable standpoint than, to reference a product CAH used to sell by the box, bullshit.

As for the notion of “preserving a pristine bit of American wilderness,” maybe that was intended to be funny? One doesn’t need the straight-faced disquisition on how the term “wilderness” was used as propaganda to justify the theft of lands from indigenous peoples to understand that, whatever wilderness is, this isn’t that.

The long and the short of it seems to be that CAH wanted to own an island because they thought it would make people laugh. That meeting back in Chicago, the one where Temkin and his team decided to go through with the Bedke/Fox deal on Halloween, wasn’t really about Liberty or whether or not it’s in the middle of nowhere. The meeting was about a joke designed to make a very big audience laugh and maybe think and maybe even feel something. The details — all those things the company didn’t discuss when it crept into town and cold called Dan Miller — must have been considered secondary, if at all.

The easiest way to get to the island, which now exists in a sort of legal purgatory, is through Lake St. George State Park. Leland Griffin, who manages the facilities, is welcoming. He’s happy to rent out kayaks and is indifferent to town politics. He dismisses all that with a wave of the arm he didn’t lose to a wood chipper.

“I’ve got no concerns because I don’t know what anyone is doing out there,” he says. “I don’t ask.”

If he had, the answer would probably be this: “Not much.”

There aren’t any beaches on the island, so the easiest place to land is a sloping rock on the north shore, which ramps up toward a small path through the undergrowth that leads to a man-made clearing that seems inorganic, only in the sense that someone chopped down some trees a century ago. Next to the clearing, there is another rock, and on top of that rock sits, like a crown, a ring of stones built for a campfire, the ashen remains of which look far from fresh. There’s a log cabin too, built from twigs and set lovingly on flat ground near a teepee built in the same manner. The biggest thing on the island is the platform on which the safe used to stand, which is really nothing more than a sodden pallet.

The island has a very healthy Red Squirrel population. Tamiasciurus Hudsonicus scamper up the trees and over roots. The forest is dense, but far from primeval, and the lake is plainly visible from every square foot.

There are loons on the water and landlocked salmon, rainbow smelt, smallmouth bass, and American eels in it. The underwater ecosystem isn’t an abstraction either: The lake is so astonishingly clear and shallow that anyone with a halfway decent pair of polarized sunglasses can leave the depth sounder at home.

There is a flat area on the southern side of the island which looks ideal for a tent and like it’s seen a tent or two recently. The view from that spot is expansive, taking in the entirety of the larger, eastern portion of Lake St. George and its less densely settled southeast shore. It’s only a half a mile or so from that waterline to the center of town, which consists of an auto body shop, a general store, a tool store that also stocks taxidermy, a beautifully appointed library, and a church. But you can’t see any of that.

A visitor could take in the scenery and feel a sense of solitude, a sense of wildness. But that’s all it would be, a sense. That same visitor could turn and, if they had a halfway decent arm, hit someone else’s property with a rock. Or they could turn and see the piece of toilet paper at the base of a nearby tree.

“For the longest time I couldn’t even step on the island, it was just saddening,” says Adam Paul. He’s sitting in his boat with his Cairn terrier and looking across the lake. He’s a big guy with a healthy, outdoorsy vibe and his dog looks at him like he’s a god. “They left me in the dark on so much.”

The battle of Lake St. George has no clear hero and no clear victor. According to 2nd Selectman Steve Chapin, the town is “currently in the process of coming to an agreement with Cards,” and the town’s lawyer has requested that we decline commenting on the matter until an agreement is signed by all parties.” Temkin, who took issue with some of the facts put forward in this article but repeatedly refused to say which ones or why, provided a different kind of update, offering this statement: “We’ve reached a compromise with the town to relocate the island to Lake Michigan where it will serve as a receptacle for radioactive waste.”

Max is funny, and he and his transparency non-profit loving team did a big thing. The Hawaii 2 project was grand in scope and, from a participant’s perspective, very well executed. It also stress-tested a town with extremely limited resources — a town that hosts a public fundraiser to raise the $300 it costs to supply shut-ins with Thanksgiving turkeys — put a delicate ecosystem at risk, victimized the not-insignificant number of Liberty residents who now have “No Trespassing” signs in their yards, and all but forced Adam Paul to finally give up on the town he’d called home for over a decade.

But there are no innocent victims here either. Adam wasn’t quite honest with CAH — the town officers over-reacted then made a vague attempt at profiteering. The fire department took a $2800 donation from CAH then denied having anything to do with the project. Dan Miller, probably the most introspective of the bunch, took on a cool project without being as open about the process with his former neighbors as he could have been. He feels kinda bad about it.

What happened in Liberty was a collision of two very different types of society. The people that rallied around Holiday Bullshit were enthusiastic and open-minded, but not bound together by any sense of mutual obligation. The recipients of square-foot plots had no emotional investment, and a financial investment of just 80 cents. The people of Liberty, on the other hand, had such a profound sense of collective responsibility that they refused to listen to Adam because his parents had put their personal interests before the greater good and dismissed the people at CAH as money-grubbing punks because they failed to understand arcane bylaws and social norms.

Liberty, defined by a 28.4-square-mile irregular polygon and a 188-year-old charter, is a community. Holiday Bullshit, defined by $15 and a two-year tradition, is (despite having a community manager) a crowd. Communities are heterogeneous and defined by a collective goal; crowds just want stuff.

In this particular case, the crowd wanted to have a laugh and a guilt-free good time. And that is precisely what happened. The press coverage was almost uniformly positive, because the internet is the greatest fun engine the world has ever known. The Holiday Bullshitters empowered CAH, a company built — not coincidentally — on crowdsourcing, without imposing restrictions of any kind because the internet is the greatest fun engine the world has ever known and also because the internet is an awful way to distribute responsibility. As Max would no doubt attest if he was interested in attesting, it’s easy to set out rules, but enforcement is a bitch. Maintaining real control requires more than a good idea and Wi-Fi. Regulating the sharing economy requires IRL effort and consensus building, things that aren’t fun at all.

So does colonization.

In many ways, the biggest remaining mystery surrounding the island in question is what its name actually is. The locals call it Birch Island and Google Maps, the cartographer of record, calls it Hawaii 2. That second fact isn’t really representative of change so much as it is of the fact that Max knows a guy who works at Google, but the name Birch doesn’t really mean much either. It’s common and bland and not all that apropos — the island has some birches, but no more than the next one. One name tethers the place to the past and the other ties it to a joke. That’s it, and that’s not much because the last laughs are almost over.

The island’s future won’t be that different than its past. From above, it will be white on white during winter and green on blue during summer. It will outlast everyone in town and every company in Chicago. But it won’t outlast the internet.

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