It was Christmas Day. 2006. I unwrapped a gift from a dear aunt of mine and found a framed picture of a sign for a highway called Kancamagus. My fascination with this mountainous region of New Hampshire developed a few months prior, when I forced her to take the very picture I held in my hand. Fast forward to the present day and that framed picture is hanging just above me where I sit writing this, on the wall of my college dorm room.
Those middle years saw my fascination grow beyond the name (which apparently has been incorrectly pronounced by my family as Kangamangus – I know, sounds way cooler so I’m keeping it). The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I couldn’t remember ever spending real time in the natural surroundings of the Kancamagus Highway, even though we drove up and down it a lot throughout my childhood. Now, not remembering it isn’t saying that it never happened (my memory is absolutely terrible), but still – I only had the faintest recalls of those car rides. Naturally, adolescent Cassie was too busy with her Game Boy and books in the backseat to admire the outdoors.
With my impending move down south, I’ve become increasingly aware of the fact that my time with having all of New England at my fingertips is running out. The White Mountains region that holds the sign in the photograph deserved a respectful send-off, full of admiration and devoid of Pokemon Sapphire Version.
My hometown by the sea is stunning in those A.M. single digits. When I left first thing, I had a difficult time keeping my eyes on the New Hampshire prize instead of on the beckoning beach.
The rain started shortly after I crossed the border into Massachusetts and my windshield wasn’t the only thing it dampened. Despite the amazingly bad old mixed CDs I haven’t listened to since high school (Track 1 – Drake, Track 2 – Phil Collins, Track 3 – Marky Mark, Track 4 – 3OH!3… case all the way closed), the weather really bummed me out. As the drops grew heavier, I started to feel more discouraged about my adventures.
Crossing the border into New Hampshire lifted the rainfall and my spirits with the anticipation of seeing mountains. I wouldn’t call myself outdoorsy, but I love being outside and I’m awed as heck by nature – especially mountains. My body has this natural response to being close to them that my best friend and I jokingly refer to as a vibe. That vibe gives me such an energy that I feel like I could Fred Flintstone my way up to the nearest peak.
One of the highlights of this journey was navigating myself up to Concord without a GPS (isn’t it sad that doing something without the assistance of technology is so exciting to me?) Try it out next time you take a relatively short distance trip. Instead of being concerned with how many miles are left until the Garmin gives you a reminder of the next step in the directions, pay better attention to the road signs. It’s one of those circumstances that literally allows you to focus on the journey rather than the destination.
With my newfound attention to signage came seeing the names of other places that sounded interesting enough to make me want to come back and visit them some day. Most notably, I passed a sign for a Robert Frost Farm somewhere along I-93 and got so instinctually excited that I almost swerved my little blue VW off-road. Maybe I need to start planning a landmarks-of-authors-inspired-by-New-England voyage?
Upon arrival in Lincoln, NH I made the game plan to drive straight along the whole thing first and make mental notes of places to stop on my way back. That lasted for all of 5 minutes until I noticed what felt like a familiar roadside inlet. Kancamagus Highway is peppered with stop-off points, ranging from actual National Park areas for picnics or hiking trails to a few yards of dirt and gravel that have been habitually worn down thanks to dozens of others noticing the not so organized and official opportunities. Since my “drive first, stop later” plan completely fell to bits I found myself wishing I had allocated more time to explore. I only spent a moment or so in every place I pulled over before jumping back into the car and continuing on my way.
As far as foliage viewing is concerned, my arrival to the White Mountains was inopportune. A month or so earlier and I probably would have seen the trees in all their golden glory. Instead, I was there for the in-between phase. Most of the trees were skeletal, with the exception of the conifers (I have absolutely no idea which kind of conifer they were so go right ahead and skip over that question). Deadened leaves lay dried out at my feet, swept into piles which I took the happy advantage of stomping through as I trekked down paths and trails. The silence of the forest felt like it was holding it’s breath in anticipation of the first major frost to welcome it into winter.
Although the upper trails provided almost complete silence among the mountaintops, the first thing I noticed every time I threw open my door on the lower stretches of the highway was the sound of water on the move. It’s like a homing beacon, making me that much more excited to rush down the leaf-covered slopes to get to the banks. Earlier in the day, I’ll admit I thought about dipping my hands in but couldn’t find any good rocks while I was still bold enough to face that temperature change. Later on, when I got to the better shores, I was much too cold for that.
The best part about this highway is that it starts you low and it seems like a gradual climb until suddenly you round a few curves and you’re on top of the world, looking out to all the neighboring peaks before it winds you back down to the river. That middle mountaintop stretch gets you to Kancamagus Pass, which I’m gonna go ahead and infer to be the highest point of the highway at an elevation of 2,855 ft. It’s all downhill, or rather downmountain, from there.
Speaking of downmountain, I’ve got a theory. On the western stretch of the Kancamagus you’ve got a dozen little branches and brooks that feed water down from the mountains but for the most part you’re next to Swift River. Standing on the shores and hearing the rush of the water felt like listening to the culmination of a thousand ancient voices. One can only imagine the amount of people who come to these very banks and spill their secrets, whether in conversation with friends and family or to the rocks and ripples themselves. Those words are then carried downstream and hushed back at other visitors, who can’t quite decode them from the language of the river.
Spending time on these banks were the parts of the day I had to heartbreakingly tear myself away from. This river has been listening for many years before I came into the world and it’s going to be listening for many years after I leave it. I’ll be back when I’ve got some better stories to tell.
As I drove the morning away, I watched the little snowflake symbol appear in the corner of the temperature gauge on my dashboard – which dropped into the mid-thirties. Every time I stepped outside I could feel the actual nip of the air on the tips of my fingers and nose, no doubt worsened by having the heat on full blast in the car. Even though my chest was covered in multiple layers, it didn’t matter because this wasn’t that type of chill. It didn’t care to raise goosebumps on my skin; it bit into my bones. Encountering this kind of cold that works from the inside out isn’t something that happens often for me but I could read what it was trying to tell me: that it was only a matter of time. The air had a certain smell to it, a certain feeling that every New Englander is born knowing – the harbinger of snow.
The Conway side of the road signaled the end of the highway, and thus my turning back point. As I started the return journey to Lincoln, the 3 ft tall metal reflector poles that line the roadside caught my eye. Large sticks, probably over 6 ft in height, were tied to the tops of each metal pole. “For what possible reason?” I thought to myself. To be honest, the sticks had an eery Blair Witch Project feel to them, but after a few more miles it hit me that maybe, just maybe, they get over 3 ft of snow in these parts and so the sticks are there as a backup for drifts so drivers can still see the edge of the road!
Couple this new knowledge of the sticks with the feeling of the cool air and you’ve got a me driving back wide-eyed, anxiously hoping against hope to see a few flakes fall from the sky before I leave. Spoiler: I didn’t.
Coming home for Thanksgiving break meant time with family, but also time for more of those wonderfully introspective moments. As I said in the beginning of this post, I’ve become more aware of my very short time left in this part of the country. Those childhood memories deserve a chase or two while they’re only a short drive away. The Atlantic Ocean is home to me and I doubt I’ll ever find a place I love more than by it’s side – but isn’t life all about finding the places you want to be in, and the people you want to be with? Is that not why we travel?
It’s why I do.