Roving Route 4
From east to west in a very spiffy ($56,000) car
You can go back in time – or at least drive to places its evolutionary passage seems not to have touched.
Our journey: cross New Hampshire on the First and Fourth New Hampshire Turnpikes. Combined, they are Route 4, from the Piscataqua Bridge in Durham to the Vermont border at Lebanon.
So step into my time machine: in this case a $56,000 Land Rover LR3, bulked up to that price by a heavy load of accessories.
Set off from this wonderful river, named by the Abenaki and meaning a place where the paddlers’ boats and canoes, according to historian Ralph May, could break off on several routes besides the sea, branching from the beating heart that is Great Bay.
You quickly come upon, frozen not only in time but also in God knows how many photographs, Wagon Hill Farm, where the wagon on the bluff in any photograph is etched against the sky. The farm is now owned by the town of Durham and it is free to drive in, go to the water and hike its trails.
A great way to kick off the first leg of our journey – The First New Hampshire Turnpike from the coast to Concord.
This being New Hampshire, its construction, which began in 1796 and ended in 1801, involved a lottery and tolls; the lottery being for those wanting a slice of the pie, the pie being the right to build, own and charge tolls for passage at various segments.
I do not know if, when Lafayette, the Revolutionary War hero, took the 36-mile trip to Concord on a goodwill tour, he had to fork over any tokens.
In the middle of the route time itself is for sale: Antique Alley sprawls like a strip mall through Northwood, though the shops are old houses, not cement and glass constructions. Indeed, all along this section of Route 4, you will see an incredible crucible of mixed architecture – homes that Lafayette passed on his journey, new homes, the low-slung edifice of Johnson’s Dairy Bar – famous for its ice cream for decades – and even a seller’s giant collection of big RVs, ready to ramble the roads as homes away from home.
And there is, of course, just before the Epsom Traffic Circle, the partially burned, mostly abandoned remains of a farm made famous for its wooden Trojan Horse (now that’s going back in time) formerly surrounded by crosses, a quirky political statement about “captive nations” around the globe.
And then there is a detour off 4 at the circle, west a few hundred yards, a quick right and a stop at the Circle 9 Ranch and campground.
This was the home base of Clyde and Willie Mae Joy, who made a big name for themselves singing country tunes at dances and on television. And old Clyde, recently passed away, lead the true country singer’s life: the original Circle 9 was demolished by a tornado, Willie Mae ran off with a guy from the band, his son was killed in Vietnam, he became a drunk (later sobered up), but kept on singing the blue notes of country music.
We stop at a shop in Chichester called The Healthy Buffalo (www.healthybuffalo.com) – though I don’t know what’s healthy about being dead and frozen – purveyors of meats out of America’s past: wild boar, bison, venison and other healthy meats such as ostrich. People come here from all over the Northeast, say owners Jim and Clarisse Kersch, and summer traffic involves, “a lot of people driving campers who stop by to stock up on something healthy to eat while they’re traveling.”
Rolling into Concord across the Concord Heights – known as Burglar’s Island when I was a boy growing up there on what was then a barren swath of sand and pine where mostly the poor lived – the LR3, in its stitched leather elegance, 300-horsepower 4.4-liter engine, Galway Green paint job and sheer presence, gleams like the Golden Dome atop the capitol below this sandy and now heavily developed plateau.
Now the time warp begins. We pass through Penacook, where my father once tossed hides in the old, odiferous and polluting tannery, and branch off where a Y junction, church at its center, defines the continuation of Routes 3 and 4. We are on the Fourth New Hampshire Turnpike, which linked Concord to Lebanon (and the eventual railroad center of White River Jct., Vt.).
And here it gets interesting. This was the route to my grandparents’ house in the ’50s and ’60s. Little has changed. No big housing developments, old homes just as I remember them, wonderful swaths of forest, rising and falling road, at this time wracked with frost heaves that the LR3, with adjustable suspension, handles with a smooth easiness, and on to Andover, passing a field to the right where I recall, as a child in my grandfather Royal Adam Ford’s Willys Wagon – a contrapuntal clash with this LR3 — a plane crash, where unsightly things hung from trees on the field’s edges.
Andover, though the names of businesses may have changed, remains the same, centered around Proctor Academy, its ski slopes off to the left, and just before Ragged Mountain, a ski area of some size this far south.
Potter Place is bypassed if you choose to go to New London. We don’t and drive through the still extant old village where even the railroad station still stands across from a restored post office museum, lovingly preserved by the Andover HIstorical Society. Up near Eagle Pond, we pass the home of the great poet and writer Donald Hall, who has the pulse of this neck of the woods finely metered.
And then a road in Danbury with a favorite name of mine: Roy Ford Road. Never knew the man.
And then Danbury itself, where we pass a low overlook hard by where the railroad tracks once ran and snowmobiles now do, called Hippie Hill, where today outdoors seating and tables still exist, and on to where I spent years of my summer youth up at Waukeena Lake, where my grandparents lived. My grandfather worked the B&M Railroad yards down in Concord, my grandmother made clothes for dolls in a home production project and she rented boats to anglers down at the lake. I sold “Worms and Crawlers,” and my grandfather taught me to have a sign imprinted on both sides, one saying 1 cent and 3 cents, for cars with New Hampshire plates, the other saying 3 cents and 5 cents, which I would flip to whenever a car with plates “from away” would pull up.
After Danbury comes a wonderful sprawl of timelessness: few new buildings, vast swaths of road with no businesses, no houses and only snowmobiles passing the 300-horsepower LR3 on the abandoned railroad tracks that follow Route 4 most of the way.
In Grafton, there is a road to the right that I recognize. It leads to the house where my father, Newt, was born, and to which he took us one day as children telling us they had put up a sign at his birthplace.
We believed him and he was right. The sign, however, said “EGGS.”
We pass the sign for Ruggles Mine, known mostly for its feldspar and fool’s gold, but also near the spot where uranium for the Manhattan Project was pulled from the ground.
And then, back to civilization in the form of the small town of Canaan, where for lunch we get to choose between a Chinese Restaurant and a home-style place called Rosie’s Diner, where the food is great and owner Rosalie Sanborn tells us that she realizes we have just traveled a vacant path, where “even the towns aren’t much more than a fire station, your basic library and a town hall.'”
And then civilization begins to clot the free-flowing artery, starting at Enfield and ever-thickening as we approach Lebanon and leave Route 4, time standing still behind us, and head south on Interstate 89. NH