Winter Wanderland




A sleek Saab and a wide open road ahead. By the time we got to Woodstock we were ... wondering where everybody had gone. Sorry, Joni Mitchell, but ... I'd  just rolled up Interstate 93 beneath crystalline sky, a dome so clear that the White Mountains, completely covered by the seemingly ceaseless snows of this winter, loomed like pure cumulous clouds as they towered above the darker, lower hills just before us. Took the Lincoln exit, checked in at the tourist information center and then rolled west to Woodstock - away from the throngs. Of course, I knew where everybody had gone. East. Toward the ski slopes, the rising and dipping Kancamagus Highway and the shopping meccas of the Conways. In our 2009 Saab 9.3 Aero XWD wagon, I was trying to match perfect ride to perfect car. That's why I  took  Route 112 west. The "Other Kanc," as I call it, seemed perfect. It would be twisting, undulating, slippery in spots, downright rough in others. Again, perfect. This is not a path pocked with campsites, scenic pulloffs with expansive views. Traffic was light because the folks who usually drive this path - as a destination route to the Vermont border or to come here from there or just a way to get to work - had done their driving earlier in the day. It does feature the Lost River with its gorge and boulder caves, several wooden bridges off side roads and beautiful pools in the rivers that flow beside it. I'd stopped at the Woodstock Inn, Station & Brewery for lunch and to chat with folks about this "Other Kanc." Forbiddingly, I thought,  Kai Pousse, of Campton, asks, "You're going over there?" And added, ghostly in tone, "Wooooooooooo!" Not that I hadn't earlier been given a glimpse of what was to come. While stopped at the tourist information center I'd spoken to Allison Gilman,  a marketing assistant there. "There's not a whole lot of people who go that way," Gilman said. But Pousse did add that river-sluiced notches and gorges carved by the Lost River "are really beautiful." So I headed into that beautiful yet by equal turns desolate territory. Thankfully, I was held firmly in a bolstered leather driver's seat. In fact, the leather interior belies the fact that this Saab is not only swank and fast, but also a potential utilitarian workhorse, with its spacious rear compartment and folding seats. The 280 horsepower, 2.8-liter, turbo-charged  V6 is from last year's Turbo X. And so, too, significantly, is the all-wheel-drive system. I tested that car in Sweden before its launch and even on the slickest of test track - simulated ice, mud, gravel, torturous tar corners - could not make the thing spin out. That is enough to make me feel confident as I set to tangle with Route 112 west. So, too, is the 295 lb.-ft. of tugging torque. It allowed me to shift the manual transmission (automatic optional)  from third to sixth gear to save gasoline on the way up here, and it certainly came in handy on the various climbs and crawls the rolling road tossed my way. Roads can be like ribbons. Rolling perfectly, smooth as silk, every contour fun yet approachable. That would be the fabulous, scenic, carefully unwound Kancamagus Highway, from Lincoln to the Conways. And they can be sticky, like the  underside of duct tape, in either mud or heavy southern tier commuter traffic. There are the slick and slippery roads that winter ices, and the bog of mud season. That's what helps make this car perfect for the mission. As I roll along I am constantly accompanied by the black of rushing water - Lost River and then the Wild Ammonoosuc on our way from North Woodstock to Bath. The trees are black and clicking against each other in the cold.  This is not, at the moment, a forest to draw tourists for foliage or green hikes. Not that the road brings hordes of them, though some come in tour buses from the west. Not that they slow down to consider what is probably the largest business along the route, the Swiftwater Way Station. "It's an east-west route, and it's hard to go east-west in New Hampshire,'' says store owner Bill Matteson, reflective of the fact that New Hampshire, indeed, all of New England,  was settled  south-to-north along the big rivers. "They don't stop here,'' he says of the buses, but the area does attract motorcyclists and folks panning for gold. Wini Matteson, his wife, adds, "We don't have the big box stores, the malls - nobody's making their living off tourism" on a road she said is traveled mostly by the working class on their rounds. Spoken well by folks whose store, as do many in the outlands of smalltown New Hampshire, offer a one-stop, if small, experience. "Beer, Wine, Soda, Deli, T-shirts,"  says one sign out front. "Laundromat. Wood. Videos," reads another. But the store sits perfectly placed on a road where the seasons can be rough, where no white scars of ski slopes mark the land and where great eddies swirl in the rivers. It's about 55 miles from Conway to Bath along Route 12. But Woodstock perfectly separates one type of life from another, one sort of economy from another, one sort of lifestyle from another. And yet this Saab would look good and offer great utility at either end.
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