I’ve never quite known what to make of New Hampshire’s state motto but have concluded, on my own, without asking anyone, not even Google, that it has something to do with the fact that the state doesn’t have any sales tax – the live free thing has to be tax related. It’s an improvement on that I thought the first time I was there many years ago. Then I was sure it referred to guns and radicals and anti-everythings. It was, after all, the first state to declare its independence six months before the Declaration was signed. [Turns out my initial opinion is closer to the mark.] I was ambivalent about going back but I am glad I did.
It was here that the first potato ever was planted in the USA, back in 1719. It’s also home to the first free public library in the country. And it was in New Hampshire the first legal lottery was adopted in the 1960s. In 1828, it saw the first American women’s strike in the country. And perhaps, most endearingly, it’s the birthplace of Sarah Josepha Hale, she who penned ‘Mary had a little lamb’ (which, incidentally, was what Bono wrote on a scrap of paper back in 1983 when he gave me his autograph in the TV Club in Harcourt St., in Dublin; that I hadn’t a clue who he was is neither here nor there).
Having woefully overestimated the size of New England, we decided to stay two consecutive nights in the suspiciously named Swiss Chalets. It is owned and operated by a native of Mumbai who had arrived in the States 23 years ago and, via Texas, had made it to the back end of North Conway – the embodiment of the American dream. And it worked.
Our plan was to spend a day driving through White Mountain National Forest and its 48 mountains which are at least 4000 feet high – the tallest being Mount Washington. It was here that New England in the Fall demystified itself and after the somewhat wishy-washy experience that was Maine, it felt like we were driving through God’s own country. Having failed spectacularly, through no fault of our own, to sit in a room where political history had been made, we decided to try once more. This time, we were headed for Dixville Notch, where, on the eve of each US election, 100% of the town’s electorate gathers in the Balsams (a hotel) to cast their vote. We drove for hours to have coffee in this ballroom and when we got there, it was closed for renovation – by a business man from Maine. And not just the room – but the entire hotel.
Undaunted, we continued on our way, heading towards the Vermont border where the map promised a Marian Shrine. And I was in need of some prayer and devotion to lighten my soul. But would you believe, it too was closed. For good. We could still visit but the Oblate Fathers are no longer maintaining it and the hundreds of bikers who used to come here every June to have their bikes blessed will have to look for another venue.
The Canterbury Shaker Village was open though – but on a day, the only day, where we had torrential rain. And not even my innate curiosity could make me brave the floods and risk having to drive while drenched. I had met the Shakers before while in Kentucky last year with the late, great RB. And though they’re dying out, too, with very few remaining, their skill with wood is still something to behold.
It was North Conway though that got my vote. If circumstance dictated that I had to live in New Hampshire, that’s where I’d choose. A mountain resort town with good restaurants, a thriving antique trade, not one but two theatres, and an interesting looking main street. It has quite an arty feel to it and is busy enough to satisfy my temporary need for people and yet remote enough for me to be on my own. Perfect.