Every four years the clichés are trotted out on the evening news: "crusty, renegade" New Hampshire; "flinty, old-fashioned" New Hampshire. Anchormen set up camp in luncheonettes straight out of a Pepperidge Farm ad, and presidential primary voters are beamed into America's living rooms in all their feisty glory. You know the types: guys in L.L. Bean boots and unironic trucker hats, farmers' wives wearing no makeup. These, we're told, are the echt-New Hampshirites, and they're a stubborn bunch indeed. In the midst of last winter's primary, the national media reported (with uncontained delight) that New Hampshire's legislature was mulling a proposal to rescind the federal income tax. The federal income tax. The bill was abandoned when someone pointed out that one state can't nullify the Constitution, but not before another coalition proposed that the state mint its own currency.
This is how the rest of the country sees New Hampshire, when—every 48 months—it bothers to look. What such coverage fails to convey is how varied the state really is. Eager to portray New Hampshire as a Thornton Wilder-scripted anachronism, reporters neglect to mention that it is also the homeland of Aerosmith, Adam Sandler, and the Segway transporter. Nor do they note how dramatically New Hampshire has evolved in recent years. More than half the state's current inhabitants were born elsewhere, so whatever crankiness they possess was presumably learned, not inherited. The influx of newcomers, coupled with rising incomes among native New Hampshirites, is bringing a newly cosmopolitan outlook to the state.
The "old-tyme" elements, however—those sepia-toned clichés, as familiar as a screened porch or a country store—are what endure, and what make New Hampshire so engaging. "It's all true!" my wife remarked, dumbfounded, on her first visit north. She's right. What's more, the new milieu (sybaritic resorts, urbane restaurants) coexists easily with the folksy, homespun one, which is still embraced by all, albeit with a wink and a nod. So while software firms, balneotherapy spas, and other newfangled imports make their mark, New Hampshire feels refreshingly grounded. In a world obsessed with authenticity, this is where you find it—right next door to a tiki lounge.
I grew up in southeastern New Hampshire, the region we call "the seacoast," as opposed to simply "the coast," for no fathomable reason. Like many local families, my parents and I vacationed in more exotic locales, such as Maine and Vermont. Only later in life, returning with the longing of a city dweller, would I fully appreciate the singular charms of my home state. Not least is the dizzying variety of landscapes (far more than in Maine or Vermont), from salty seaside towns to White Mountain glacier fields, from the manicured village greens of the southwest to the rugged Great North Woods.
New Hampshire is not about epic, sweeping gestures—for that, we go to California. It's the intimate moments thatdefine the place: the crunch of pine needles under your toes on a lakefront beach; the aroma of oatmeal bread at Calef's Country Store in Barrington; the wheeze of an accordion at the Shannon Door Pub in Jackson. In that spirit, here are 20 people, places, and things that epitomize this quirky corner of New England.
1. The porch at the Mountain View Grand, Whitefield
In the early 20th century, the White Mountains held more large resorts than any other region of America: sprawling clapboard palaces with dedicated railway lines, 36-hole golf courses, and 400-seat dining rooms. Nearly all have burned down or faded away. But on the heels of a $20 million rehab—it opened again in 2002 after sitting empty for 15 years—the Mountain View Grand Resort & Spa has rescued the cult of the grand hotel. The butter yellow Colonial Revival, constructed in 1865, sits on 400 acres of wilderness at the edge of the Whites.
Pull up a rocker on the front porch and look: a swath of pine stretching as far as the blue peaks of the Presidential Range and, above, a sky as big as Montana's. It was on the porch one evening that I met an elegantly attired couple from Maryland: he looked like Neville Chamberlain, she like Queen Elizabeth II. They'd honeymooned here in 1958. "Such a shame this view went unnoticed for so long," he mused as we watched the moon rise over Mount Lafayette. Then he taught me how to play pinochle.
2. Grandma's Kitchen, Whitefield
Breakfast at the MVG is good enough, but if you have any sense you'll take Route 3 into town and stop in at Grandma's Kitchen, a diner that looks exactly like its name, and you'll order some eggs for a dollar, maybe a slice of pie first thing in the morning. (Go on, everybody does.)
3. Old Man of the Mountain memorial kitsch
After 200 million years of keeping watch over Franconia Notch, and another century of gazing out from license plates and highway signs, the Old Man of the Mountain collapsed in a landslide in May of last year. The 40-foot profile, carved by ice and wind from five granite ledges, had been crumbling for years, its sagging cheeks held up by epoxy and wire cloth. The collapse was a shock nonetheless. Local papers ran 48-point headlines normally reserved for primary results, and the governor set flags at half-mast. Seeing as the Old Man was New Hampshire's only recognizable symbol, the state was in a quandary. Well, the Great Stone Face is now more visible than ever. Within days, shops were flooded with refrigerator magnets, Old Man bobbleheads, and T-shirts with slogans like NEVER TAKE HIM FOR GRANITE and MAY HE LIVE FREE AND NEVER DIE. Some defiant souls have made noises about rebuilding the face. And the former Old Man viewing area off I-93 is now twice as crowded with mourners as it ever was with sightseers. If that's not America, I don't know what is.
4. Driving Route 12 south at sunset
Thirty minutes of sheer glory. The road in question wends through the Connecticut River valley between Claremont and Walpole. Just south of Charlestown (boyhood home of legendary Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk), the valley widens to a few miles across. The smell of manure and cut hay fills the car; between the road and the river stretches a fertile pasture dotted with cows. Suddenly you're driving through a Thomas Cole painting, especially at dusk when the Connecticut goes all glossy and gold.