Last Road Trip of 2020: NH's Wild West
Updated: Dec 30, 2020
To echo the sentiments of many in the US and around the world, thank God this year is over. I needn't summarize the difficulties for the umpteenth time, but suffice it to say that traveling has been severely limited among all the other, more important calamities.
With decent weather (mid-30s, mostly sunny) and a free day during the holiday week, I packed up the car and headed off to see some of New Hampshire's less famous but still worthwhile sights. 225 miles, 6 hours, and 7 stops later, I returned, rejuvenated. History, scenic grandeur, and evidence of humankind's persistence in difficult times were what did it for me. As I've said before, there's a lot packed into the tiny state of New Hampshire!
The westernmost of New Hampshire's 13 cities has a bit of a bad rep within the state. A blue collar, post-industrial mess that's out of the way, and for good reason. Right? As someone who seeks out beauty in hidden or forgotten places, I had to check it out for myself (I had driven through in the past but never stopped).
Approaching from the east, one passes through a sad, tired collection of strip malls that are common in just about every US city these days. Getting closer though, one is hit with a view of the handsome, 100+ year-old brick Opera House/City Hall clock tower.
Despite a quirky/bizarre traffic pattern at its center, I found the downtown surprisingly agreeable and inviting. It had a solid feel to it, three-story brick buildings enclosing a snug central space. Of course, being a chilly Sunday in late December during COVID, it was nearly deserted. While perhaps not the perfect small town, it had good bones, and I can imagine it being a desirable spot for young artists and professionals to seek out for its (presumably) lower cost of living. Of course, there'd have to be jobs first to get that process started.
With nature nearby and prominent, 3,144' Mount Ascutney looming to the northwest, it was far from the worst little city I'd ever seen. After a lonely, windswept perambulation, my photo-taking fingers were getting bitten by the cold; it was time to continue west, making a right on NH-12A and following a part of the Connecticut R. Scenic Byway north.
2) Cornish-Windsor Covered Bridge
The northerly drive alongside Vermont's border, with the sun's rays dancing on nearby hillsides and snowscapes, was exquisitely enjoyable. I could see immediately why this was a nationally-designated scenic byway.
My next stop was the 1866 Cornish-Windsor Covered Bridge, by some measurements the longest in the country at 449 feet (apparently one in Ashtabula County, Ohio eclipsed it in 2008). In any case, the view of the bridge was grand enough, but turning around one is treated to equally if not more enticing views of Ascutney and Vermont's handsome hills.
The 15-minute stop was well worth it, even if I did have to dodge a couple cars emerging from the bridge like jacks-in-the-box.
3) Dartmouth College
I was going to call stop #3 Hanover, which is technically correct. However, I spent all my time here on the Ivy League campus. And what a campus it is. As with everything else these days, it was nearly deserted.
I almost felt like a kid playing on an NFL field after a game, humbly awed at the historical and intellectual gravitas of the area. I almost didn't even feel qualified to be on the campus, the reverential silence lending a pensive weightiness to the December air. Perhaps it's just as well though - not everyone is cut out for Ivy League prestige.
Insignificant snow piles complemented semi-green grass to reinforce the school's proud colors. I really wanted to explore inside a building or two, but grave, austere signage on almost every door forbade it.
After maybe 30-40 minutes it was time to return to the car. The cold was getting to my ears and my bladder had gone from full to a category 3 burst warning. I had wanted to walk around downtown Hanover as well, but it was 2:15 and I had a good deal more miles and several more planned stops before the 4:30 sunset.
4) Lake Tarleton
I kept to NH Route 10 with the Connecticut River in sight to my left. It was almost shocking how little snow was on the ground this far north in late December. To my right spread undulating fields interspersed with forest and a stately old home here and there.
The already-low sunlight illuminated sections of mountains like theatre lights shining on star performers. A minute or two after their big solo the light was out, focused elsewhere. I had wanted to capture the brilliance, but by the time I'd have pulled over, surely the angle would be wrong or clouds would have intervened. Memories will suffice. Vermont's ancient, rounded peaks possessed a rugged beauty like that of a respected elder who, though weathered, maintains a kind of elegance, a glow undiminished by years of tribulations.
At last, amid the scattered clapboard structures of Piermont, it was time to turn eastward on NH Route 25C. The road twisted up and about, picturesquely gurgling Eastman Brook never far from sight. Down the road a ways was Lake Tarleton, which I hadn't heard of prior to a few weeks earlier. I passed it at 50 mph before realizing my desire to make an unplanned stop. I turned around in the middle of the deserted highway and doubled back, descending a steep, rutted dirt path to the shore. There was one other vehicle there, but I did not see the person anywhere. I got out and was surrounded by transcendent, icy silence.
Mount Moosilauke's 4,800' visage made a brief cameo but then vanished, smothered in clouds as quickly as it had revealed its powdered flanks. The ice to my right cracked, and given the isolation my imagination ran wild, thinking it might be a bear or simply the person from the abandoned vehicle. Alas, no one appeared and I was left wondering.
When you think of a tiny New Hampshire town surrounded by mountains, you might think of a white wooden church, town hall, post office, and a towering missile. Wait, what? On arriving in Warren, the latter item is exactly what you're greeted with.
I had done some research on the 'Redstone Rocket' beforehand, learning that it was gifted to the town in 1971. I even read something about it having to do with Alan Shepard, who was born in Derry, probably 100 miles distant. Having read the informational placard I'm still a bit perplexed, but it made for some interesting photos. I have to applaud this tiny town for displaying something that looks entirely out of place. Way to be bold, Warren!
I made one more brief unplanned stop in the nearby town of Wentworth, attracted by yet another white steeple and covered bridge, the latter intended for pedestrians and cyclists only. This time I left the car running, as I had wanted to visit a geological site in Groton before sundown.
6) Sculptured Rocks
After crossing the remote, rough-hewn town of Groton I found the parking lot to this far-flung natural attraction. It was a mixture of haphazard snow piles and sheer ice. I was a bit apprehensive about pulling in with my sedate Mazda sedan but I took a chance. I had read about these curious rock formations but had never visited.
My feet crunched through several inches of snow on my way down to the Cockermouth River, which roared mercilessly through the smooth rocks as it had for millennia. The dying light, seclusion, and volume of angry water lent an eeriness to the scene that was exacerbated further by the rusty bridge and unkempt surroundings. I imagine there'd be dozens if not hundreds of visitors here on a 75-degree summer day.
I was ready to head back, but not before one final stop in a town with which I was more familiar.
In a way, the last stop was the first. Though I was born in Laconia, I spent the first two years of my life in a small Bristol condo above Newfound Lake. Of course I don't remember living here, but stories, photos, and home movies proved it. Wheeling south along NH 3A in Hebron and Bridgewater, Newfound Lake appeared to my right. The sun had retired, a faint orange horizontal glow complementing frigid, ice-flecked water.
Much has been made of gritty Bristol's small-town renaissance in the last few years. Another blue-collar NH town of about 3,300, its tiny, tidy downtown has become increasingly inviting of late. There's a particular spot in town I've always enjoyed. There's a little view of old wooden buildings leaning out over the Newfound River that's always seemed vaguely European to me (wishful thinking, I know). I arrived at about 4:30; the moon had already replaced the sun on the sky's night shift.
As another icy river rushed by and darkness descended, I noticed a warm light glowing in the windows of a peeling four-story edifice. There was a woman inside at a table. Was she reading? Painting? Knitting? It hardly mattered. Seeing humankind thriving was an absolutely perfect ending to my day on the road. Other than one 'Hi, how are you' I hadn't spoken to a soul in 5 hours. I hadn't entered a single building. As stunning as landscapes are, all the landscapes in the world lacked the warmth of that single glowing window at the end of the day. The world is a brilliant, bold, brutal place, but sometimes we just need human contact; to love and know we're loved. It's more important than ever these days.
Although there was no one else around, I didn't want to be a creeper and stare for too long. My own glowing window was waiting. I started up the Mazda and, after a circuitous day of travel, headed straight home.