Let's go for a spin

New Hampshire’s Interstate arteries pulse with development, money-bearing tourists from away and commuters. But despite some spectacular views, many folks never realize the beauty that lurks along the smaller veins that take us away from the big black and the history that endures along  the ever-thinning capillaries that lead to our semi-secret extremities. They do so not only in live, enduring wonder, but sometimes in amber-locked bits of old New Hampshire.

Robert Frost, our sometime resident poet, wrote famously of a road not taken and how the road he did take made all the difference. But how does he know? What was up the other path?

This column will be not only about the magic of our state, but also the joys of the automobile, a richly variant wonder that will let us match, sometimes for gutsy utility, sometimes for meld of design with destiny, and sometimes for pure fantasy, our journeys in automobiles we should own, would love to own or exotics we could never afford, but are worth sharing even if only in print. 

Sure beats the Ford family ’53 Chevy we took “off-roading” in the hills above Contoocook before the term was invented, or my father’s 1939 Ford convertible in which, as a child in the 1950s, riding in the rumble seat on a stretch of road in New London, I asked a local cop who had stopped us, him wearing a big-rimmed-hat, if he was Hopalong Cassidy, resulting in any notion of a ticket vaporizing in the mists of one cop’s sense of humor.

We’ll go for spins because I have never stopped spinning. As a child growing up in my native New Hampshire, the family “Sunday drive” often meant piling all seven children into the always well-worn family car and driving as far into the woods as possible until we got stuck; or spinning our car in a cold, late-December dervish over a hard frozen lake; or even as a child, learning to drive and skid about on the wet fields behind our house in some still-in-development variation of the latest stock racing car my father was building for treks to Loudon, Hudson, Manchester and other grassroots race tracks.

The automotive urge never left me, and in an odd amalgam of Faulkner, fuel and my father’s skills at driving and insistence that I read every book I could get my hands on, I became an English major, a writer, voracious reader and worldwide professional tester of cars on roads, race tracks and wild off-road paths, from the pounding Baja to slick and dangerous Moab to the technical and threatening Rubicon Trail.

But always I come back to New Hampshire, ever ready to go testing and exploring.
So let’s spin together, sharing those adventures on the pages of this magazine, trying when we can for the perfect meld of automobile and place, sometimes the journey itself pre-eminent, sometimes borne of utility and other times sheer rambles of fancy, yet fitting in our chosen route.

A Bentley, top down, cruises from Seabrook, through the fried-dough and pizza odor of Hampton Beach, and then along the mansion-pocked coast where the smell of salt is nearly overcome by the smell of money, as admirers of our ride wonder which mansion’s driveway we will enter.

The wondrous, time-preserved climb, twist, and descent of Route 112, what I like to call “The Other Kanc,” that wends from near the Vermont border and drops in precipitous curves into the ski-money-waxed town of Lincoln where its other half, the oft-clogged Kancamagus Highway, rolls in spectacular vistas, freshets of hissing streams and roaring waterfalls, and ends at the shopping mecca that the Conways have become.

We’ll drive the Other Kanc in a practical four-wheel-drive such as a Subaru, Saab or Volvo. We’ll need a big shopping spree-capable trunk on the latter half, so maybe an Audi A8 or a Cadillac DTS.

But most of all, let’s do the less obvious. 

Sometimes these will be short spins, simply to reach a sweet spot of relative obscurity. Often, I will ask you to leave your car and take a stroll just for the magnificence of what lurks down the path.

How about a short drive in southern New Hampshire where you can visit a tiny family cemetery and watch, simply by progressing along the headstones, disease decimate its future – a short history less than 200 years old and yet set amidst a volcanic ring reaching back millions of years and not far from a glacial-ground boulder field where the massive igneous “marbles” tower over you?

Or a cruise from Route 4 in Northwood, up and over and dropping into Pittsfield and then traveling incredible, preserved scenery to a town once rendered infamous and the Gilmanton Iron Works Cemetery where the best-selling, locally notorious author is buried – just down the hill from a couple of Royal Fords and other relatives. And keep in mind that despite Grace Metalious, this town’s most infamous character was not her, but a local “dentist” who went to Chicago and became a horrific serial killer of women.

And then there’s Pittsburg, where thousands flock to see the ambling, sometimes antlered moose who come out in spring to escape the flies and lick the road salt. These visitors seldom go all the way up “Moose Alley” to see the most tactile and nurturing bit of this landscape – a spot hard on the Canadian border where the first drops of what will become the Connecticut River trickle from the end of a bog and head for Long Island Sound.

And more: Let’s follow the classic, pre-interstate routes that brought folks to and through New Hampshire: Route 3, Route 4, Route 28 and others. And let’s find an old-time motor court with individual cabins and park a sports car, luggage lashed to the rear rack, in an old-time road trek.

Surprisingly and importantly, we’ll do a family outing on an airport runway – taking young drivers for whom traditional driver’s education is never enough through a highly technical course of advanced driver training where near loss of control – for educational purposes – is the mission.

There are routes that follow the green markers of New Hampshire history to be traced, a cemetery whose graves bear the hammer and sickle instead of a cross, star or American flag; a spot where you can look across into Vermont of a certain evening and see where the color “Ascutney Blue” came from; and a notch through which to drive, New Hampshire quarter dangling from your mirror like a Saint Anthony medal in honor of the Old Man lost to gravity, erosion and the force of winter ice.

Sometimes our chosen routes will end at long-lost farms, abandoned mines or beaver dams that bisect once-passable roads.

But no matter. We’ll always have the perfect car and, sacrilegious as it may be for an English major, we’ll do Robert Frost one better on this journey.

Frost took his road, but I stand instead with an eminent philosopher, Yogi Berra, the great New York Yankee catcher who once remarked, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” NH

Royal Ford grew up in New Hampshire but came of age as an automotive and feature writer in his 29 years with the Boston Globe.