When it comes to back roads, New Hampshire takes a back seat to nobody. I remember driving somewhere in the Monadnocks one summer and winding up on what was described, by a helpful sign attached to a tree, as a “Class 6 unmaintained road”. In other places, this would have been called a “hillside”.
Another time, heading out to a dairy farm to buy some milk, my wife and I drove over a rickety bridge across a fast-running stream under the shadow of a mountain. That was picturesque enough, but a bit later in our trip, while studying the map (this was back when “maps” were still a thing), we decided to try a way that looked even farther off the beaten path. About a mile in it turned to a dirt road. A mile further on, and we were steering around pits and huge rocks that turned up in our path. Then we came to a sign that informed us: “Vehicle damage possible. Proceed at your own risk.”
Apparently, nothing up to that point had warranted a warning. That was our cue to make an extremely careful U-turn.
Undeterred by these memories, I chose the other day to take a state highway, instead of the interstate, to drive up to a visit with my doctor in Concord, New Hampshire. (Not to be confused with the Concords in Massachusetts, Maine, and Vermont. New England was colonized smack in the middle of the Great Place Name Shortage, and the thrifty Yankees had to re-use the few names they had left.)
The trip took me just about ten minutes longer than usual. For that bit of extra time, I got a quality of life upgrade and possibly even some writing ideas. Well, ideas come up when you’re driving on the interstate too, but they usually lead to stories about soul-crushing dystopias.
On the state highway, the landscape isn’t blurred, and you’re part of it. There are people out working in their yards, checking their mailboxes, or walking around. Strangely, none of them are standing inside toll booths. All the houses you pass look like they have histories, and could be interestingly haunted. Everything feels more like it’s on a human scale. You could imagine taking a walking tour around this countryside, like people in vintage English novels were always doing.
You see signs that tell you “Historical Marker Ahead”. Sometimes, you even get to see the
historical marker. One of them advertises the historical glories of a Revolutionary-period “Watering Trough”. If I’d been riding a horse, I’d probably have stopped there. You come across town boundary signs, some with quaint mottoes meant, I guess, to entice people to settle there. One reads “Where neighbors and rivers meet”, which has some funny implications if you think about it.
There are none of the clusters of fast food restaurants and gas stations that plague the interstate, but you pass plenty of quirky little businesses: gun and ammo shops (“Gunsmith on Site”) or ice cream shacks, or farm stands (“Grown in NH. Period!”). One small building, set well back from the road, had a sign up saying simply: “So long, see you in the spring.”
I couldn’t even tell what they’re selling. But I’m pretty sure I’ll see them in the spring.
2 thoughts on “In Praise of Back Roads”
When we were road-tripping through New England, we took some back roads just because we liked the sound of the name of the place on the road sign.
We found ourselves, therefore, in rural Massachusetts in a town named Shelburne Falls. It had a beautiful country town feeling to it and the most delightful candy store. To me, that town is quintessential New England: old and slightly-less-old buildings, a river with a walking bridge, quirky store names, and very friendly people.
If you’re ever there, try Mo’s maple cream cups. They’re divine.
Thanks for the tip! Haven’t been through there yet, but if so I’ll stop there.
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