'We can't wait to go': Auburn's mystery lunch trips thrill local seniors

Jan. 25—AUBURN — When Sally Gagnon of Auburn boarded the bus at the Auburn Senior Community Center on Tuesday morning, she nor any of the other 13 people on board had a clue where they were headed for lunch.

But that's all part of the fun. On these mystery lunch trips, the only person who knows the destination is the driver, Auburn recreation specialist Jody Collins.

"We love not knowing where we're going," Gagnon said. "It's fun. It's exciting ... we can't wait to go."

Attendees love the thrill of the mystery, but that doesn't stop them from trying to trick Collins into sharing her secret.

On Tuesday, Gagnon and the others spent the entire 40-minute drive to Annette's Country Skillet Diner in Naples trying to guess which roads Collins would turn on, which town she was headed to and, of course, the restaurant.

"Part of the fun is people trying to guess where we're going," Mona Lothian of Lewiston said. "Very seldom are we ever actually able to guess."

Collins doesn't make it easy. She takes the back roads and, on occasion, even makes detours to confuse her passengers. Once, she drove about 4 miles out of the way in a circle just to mess with one direction-savvy woman.

"The thing that I love the most is hearing that people have enjoyed where they've gone so much, they've gone back with friends or family members," Collins said. "To me, that's the win, introducing them to somewhere new that they probably wouldn't have tried on their own."

Started last year, the mystery lunch trips have been a hit. Every trip fills up quickly, and waiting lists often have as many as 10 names.

Attendees pay for the ride — $2 for Auburn residents, $4 for nonresidents — and their lunch.

In the past, the group has gone to places such China Village in Gray, the Countryside Diner in Augusta and 104 Main Public House in Topsham. Sometimes, the group loves the restaurant so much that Collins adds it to her list of non-mystery lunch trip destinations.

"It's surprising to me how many people don't leave this immediate area," she said. "They don't know places farther away (from Lewiston and Auburn), so I very, very rarely have anyone on my buses that has been to where we're going."

The trips are fun for attendees, but Lothian believes it's also good for restaurants to have new people coming in.

"These places that we go to (mostly) either have just opened up or they're smaller operations," she said.

The mystery lunch trips are just one of a variety of excursions and activities the Auburn Community Senior Center offers. Over the last year, Collins has brought groups to shop in North Conway, New Hampshire, learn about the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, and enjoy beautiful light displays at the Maine Botanical Garden's popular Gardens Aglow display.

"One of the biggest rewards is just trying to get people out and about and experience new things," Collins said.

For many who frequent the senior center, the community there has become their family, Lothian said. When someone fails to show up to a club meeting or an event, there's always someone ready to call and check in with them.

"Anybody that thinks there's nothing to do once they're retired, they should check that place out," Lothian said. "They've got so much to offer ... It's obviously more than just a job (for the staff)."

Those interested in learning more about the Auburn Senior Community Center's trips can call Collins directly at 207-333-6601, ext. 2109.