The road to real
After a distance of years and an ocean, seeking the roads and routines, the landmarks and laid-back nature of a home state
I grew up driving a route that has disappeared.
For years, our family would hop in Dad’s silver diesel Dasher wagon every weekend for the drive from my hometown of Atkinson to our Lakes Region cottage. For 66 miles along Routes 111, 125, and 11, it was New Hampshire at its best: tree-lined local highways passing through small towns flecked with mom-and-pop establishments.
“125?’’ says Fritz Wetherbee of WMUR-TV’s “New Hampshire Chronicle.’’ “It ain’t that no more.’’
Sure enough, there are now three Wal-Marts on the route, a Burger King, a few McDonald’s, several Dunkin’ Donuts, and a Honey Dew Donuts that sports a giant inflatable coffee cup festooned with rally flags. The drive that used to be part of a weekend ritual has become just a way to get somewhere.
Now that I live abroad, I long to find the authenticity of my home state: the people and places that make me smile when foreign friends ask about my home. I want to find the real thing, but does that place still exist?
Wetherbee is the perfect guide. Before his current nine-year run as a “storyteller and historian’’ for WMUR, he worked for 14 years on New Hampshire Public Television’s “New Hampshire Crossroads,’’ and on both, he’s known for his bow tie, granite voice, and, most of all, an appreciation for our home state. Plus, he has a bird’s-eye view of what makes New Hampshirites tick.
“This place was like this when it opened. Nothing has changed,’’ he says admiringly from a booth at Claremont’s Daddypops Tumble Inn Diner. “This isn’t something where they’re wearing hula skirts or trying to make it look older than it is.’’
Sure enough, the staff look like they’ve worked here forever and on this late summer day, they’re serving a near-perfect strawberry shortcake and still talking about last winter’s snow.
“There are very, very few things that haven’t been Barbie-dolled up in this state but once in a while, you find yourself in a place that’s unlike anything else,’’ Wetherbee says, citing a dreamlike room in Effingham’s Masonic Hall, Milford’s Swing Bridge, and the curious “great ruin’’ of hundreds of hulking, rusting trucks on Ralph Balla’s land in Acworth.
Wetherbee suggests heading up Route 12A along the Connecticut River toward Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish. It’s the former home, studio, and gardens of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the sculptor who created the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial on Boston’s Beacon Street and the “Seated Lincoln’’ statue of Abraham Lincoln in Chicago’s Grant Park.
It’s hard to believe that a National Historic Site is hidden out here, but the place is part of the larger find of the Connecticut River Byway (this part of it is also called the Maxfield Parish Highway, which follows the river up to the far reaches of Coos County, passing covered bridges linking New Hampshire with Vermont along the way).
We go through Hanover, grab an espresso, and walk around the Dartmouth quad, then continue north through the near-perfect towns of Lyme and Orford with their impressive Federalist architecture. Here, we turn east onto Route 25A (Governor Meldrim Thomson Scenic Highway) and within a mile, I know this is it. The Kancamagus Highway may be the elephant in the room when it comes to beautiful drives, but here, among the roadside signs that simply read “HAY,’’ “CORN,’’ and “WOOD’’ - often next to an unattended cash box - we skirt the southern side of the White Mountains, pass Camp Pemigewassett, and find the state’s pastoral heart.
Days later, I head north on a trip that will take me to the top of the state. Above Lincoln, where Interstate 93 becomes the Franconia Notch Parkway, the speed limit drops to 45 and, just above Echo Lake, I peel off and head north on Route 3, which leads 100 miles into the wilderness.
Following a tip from Wetherbee, I stop at Lancaster’s Garland Mill, the last water-powered sawmill in the state, which brothers Tom and Harry Southworth run with their sons, Ben and Dana.
The mill itself is exactly what you would hope: big, open, tin-roofed timber buildings and a pond where logs float, waiting to be hauled into the mill by a giant chain that runs through a notch in the floor. It looks much the same as it did when it was built in 1853.
“When we bought the mill, I told [owner Harold Alden] that I wanted to run it the way he would run it,’’ says Tom Southworth about factors that helped his 1974 purchase of the property. “I was just going to wing it, but when I bought it, the house Harold was buying didn’t come through right away, so I slept in the barn and he helped me out,’’ he says. “In the beginning, we didn’t even make enough money to fool our wives.’’
Joined by his brother Harry, they pushed on, adding a turbine in 1982 that powers the mill and pushes enough juice back into the grid for about eight homes for a year. They also got into post-and-beam home building that’s the bread and butter of their business.
Now, the mill runs seven months a year - the ones when the water isn’t frozen - and construction, from covered bridges in Ontario to local homes, goes year round.
After three decades in timber, Tom and Harry are transferring the business to their sons - slowly.
“I don’t have a lot of retirement options,’’ Tom says. “I’m going on 66. I work half to two-thirds time and intend to keep it that way. I’ll hang around.’’
Leaving the mill, I get a sense of his connection to the place by taking Lost Nation Road north to Routes 3 and 145, taking in Beaver Brook Falls, and follow the weaving ribbon of road across the 45th parallel on the way to the top of the state. It’s the kind of drive where every other corner has an atlas-cover view.
Later, on my summer-ending trip home from the lake, I stop at George Calef Fine Foods, a quiet institution that has been part of our drive to the lake since our first trip there more than 30 years ago. Walk in and you’re greeted by a smiling staff, homemade moon pies, and duck decoys made by Grandpa Calef. It’s one of the last untouched places on this stretch of Route 125 that’s also called the Calef Highway. Head to the back of the store and find the butcher shop of your dreams: beautiful meat, custom cuts, and instant assurance that this is where you want to buy your meat.
“I’ve been cutting meat for 35 years,’’ says owner Jim Calef, whose herculean working hours give him a wiped-out, proud-father-of-a-newborn look. “I’m 47 - I’ve been doing this since I was 12.’’
“And he’s still got all of his fingers,’’ calls out his wife, Becky, from across the store, triggering chuckles from the staff.
Though they do a cleanup job at their deli (their roast beef sub with tomatoes and crunchy pickles is a trip-to-the-lake staple), their skill as butchers keeps them afloat in a tough-margin business.
“Our baseline is meat,’’ adds Jim’s son Royce, with a tone of friendly expertise uncommon in 16-year-olds.
I ask Royce his favorite beef cut and without hesitation, he responds, “The flatiron. It’s like a Delmonico, but it cooks fast.’’ It seems to be a stock response fed to him by his parents, so I pull a meat cut chart from my wallet and ask him to point to the cut.
“It’s in the front shoulder in the top half of the blade,’’ he says, pointing exactly where he should. I’m sold. I ask how he got so good at this and he replies, straight-faced, “It’s my whole life.’’
Leaving home again, the authenticity I’ve been missing is still here. I might have to drive farther or look harder to find it, but it’s here.
Joe Ray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.