By Matt Lancashire:
In many ways, New Hampshire was the most libertarian place I have ever visited. The hints started as soon as you drive over the state line, past the sign saying “Welcome Bienvenue / New Hampshire / Live Free or Die”. The confrontational choice of slogan certainly reflects the seriousness of the sentiment for the state. Before long, there was another sign: “N.H. LAW / BUCKLE UP UNDER AGE 18”. The inverse implication that you don’t have to wear a seatbelt if you’ve survived your first 18 years took a moment to settle in. Before long, another official road sign appears, advertising that the next service station doubles up as a “state liquor store”, which a more meddlesome local government might consider a poor combination.
It turns out that personal freedom is the cornerstone to the granite state, and they have fiercely protected their rights to apply common sense rather than being nannied. You do not have to wear a helmet on your motorbike. Still on the roads, you don’t legally need car insurance. You also don’t need a permit to openly carry a knife, sword, or even a gun around (the only exception being in a courthouse). As a foreigner used to being mollycoddled, it’s hard not to wonder if the slogan should have been “Live free and die”, but the state still exists, it works. It was jarring to reconcile this mindset with how familiar a lot of the country is, and how many similarities there are in the everyday details. It’s not like being in the Middle East, where the different attitudes are matched by a different language, alphabet and clothing.
As tourists spending a couple of days driving through, there is obviously a limit to how much the local psyche could affect us. But there were occasional hints. We stopped at the Lost River Reservation, a gorge filled with fallen boulders, which had formed a series of caves through which you could clamber and squeeze. Some holes could only have been managed by the most committed and flexible of adults or by small children with trusting parents, and the thought of such a venue existing in England which didn’t dish out hard hats and high-vis vests was laughable.
However, my main lasting impression of this state was not related to the constantly-tickling psychology, it was the grand scale of the landscape. As a man not used to mountains, it was hard to absorb the sweeping spread of trees as we drove along the Kancamagus Highway. This road runs for 34 miles through the White Mountain National Forest, lined with tree-coated mountains, with places to stop for hikes, gorges, and “overlooks” – car parks with especially spectacular views, which were impossible to resist despite the fact we were running late. There were no signs of civilisation, no distant towns or cleared logging areas. A skittish chipmunk and a discarded snakeskin were the only signs of animal life, despite the regular MOOSE CROSSING signs. This road apparently gets hugely popular when the leaves change colour to reds and oranges, which was only just beginning to happen on occasional trees when we were there, but it was still a beautiful spot. We left the car radio off all day, as our senses were already overloaded from the sights – we just didn’t want anything taking our attention away from the sights, our brains were busy enough already.
We drove on to Mount Washington, the highest mountain in the area, and took the ancient cog railway up to the top, along rails which charged steeply (up to 37°) up the mountain. At the summit was a large visitors’ centre, offering a viewing platform on the top and a respite from the biting wind inside. Away from the crowds, the peak felt like a different planet, well above the tree-line, and offering alien colourings – green-tinged rocks were peppered with orange grass, and mountain range upon mountain range in the distance were painted in an increasingly pale blue wash.
At the foot of the mountain was our hotel in Bretton Woods, a name which rang a faint bell from history lessons at school, as the location where the allied nations gathered during World War II to restructure the international monetary systems. The location was supposedly chosen to free the delegates from distractions, which in hindsight seems absurd – we spent all day overwhelmed by trying to process the glorious landscapes around us. This wasn’t a state we had thought of as a destination in itself; we expected it to be an interesting enough route between destinations. But it proved to be a highlight, for taking both beautiful landscapes and liberalism to new extremes.
Words & Pictures: Matt Lancashire