A Midwesterner’s New England Guidebook

I’m a New England transplant. You can tell because I still own all my Rs. I use the water fountain, not the bubbla. I still call beef and macaroni beef and macaroni, not chop suey.

When I was a kid, my parents dragged us on those family vacations Griswold style, piled into the back of a seat-belt free station wagon. My dad was in the lumber business, a fickle work that ebbed and flowed with prosperity and luck. We did not take many family vacations. We never went to Disney World or Hollywood. I can count the number of vacations we took on one hand, and our trips were always dependent upon how many trees my father was able to cut down.

main-qimg-0242d4b436110730201a546f701a82f8-cWhen I was eleven, we drove for days to watch the Fourth of July fireworks from a hotel balcony in Plymouth, MA. We stared at a rock with the year 1620 carved into its side. We explored the Mayflower II. Did a walking tour of Boston. I begged my parents to visit Salem—I wanted to see witches. Real witches with real magic.

We found tiny curiosity shops nestled into little towns. That summer was the first time I had eaten lobster; the first time I sat in a fancy restaurant where we wore linen napkins in our laps. The first time I had ever seen the ocean. I purchased a folk art wooden sea captain statue. I don’t know what happened to that little statue, no taller than a hand. When we returned to our Ohio home, I stole a New England guidebook from the library. The pages held full photographic spreads of lighthouses, cranberry farms, and the ocean. I watched The Victory Garden and Bob Vila on PBS; I listened to dulcimer music and grew excited when excerpts of Walden were assigned in high school English. I made my mind when I was old enough, I’d move to New England to become a famous author like Stephen King. I was a weird kid.

For the year I drove a tractor-trailer, I was stuck in Connecticut over Christmas through the New Year with no loads going anywhere. All we could do was wait. My truck-mate unhitched the trailer. We bobtailed to a local sports pub where we drank martinis with olives. I was fascinated with this brunette waitress. She seemed happy. I was—well—I was miserable trying to figure out life and had left a family back in Ohio. I couldn’t figure out what the hell I was doing up North in this New England bar.

Why was the waitress so damn happy?

By this time the pre-teen New England dream had been forgotten, but on that New Year’s, I called my wife.

“Babe, we are moving to New England.”

“Fine. Honey.” She returned to the kids and her job.

Sometime after Connecticut I decided to return to school. Wyoming was my wife’s idea. We packed all our stuff into two vehicles and drove and drove. The boyhood fantasy to move to New England, to become a famous recluse author never came to fruition. My move to New England was one hundred percent serendipitous—something my adult subconscious devised.

We finished our degrees, and I loved Wyoming, but my wife’s heart did not like the seven thousand foot altitude. I applied for PhDs; my wife applied for her MFA. I was never accepted to any school. My wife only applied to one MFA program, and was accepted. We packed our things again and drove and drove until we reached New Hampshire.

We arrived at our new house at 4am. Slept in the driveway until I could no longer sleep. My daughter and I walked to the Dunkin Donuts for blueberry muffins and coffee. Everybody in town seemed to be at that particular Dunkin Donuts, except for the other half of town was at the other Dunkin Donuts. Because there are a lot of Dunkin Donuts in New England. Kind of like Meijer’s in Dayton or UDFs in Columbus.

We waited for our landlady to arrive with the keys, which seemed to be a forever wait—I had to pee. Searching the backyard looking for a suitable lieu, I wondered if we’d moved into a forest.

The trees in New Hampshire baffle me. They are everywhere. In my backyard, in town, along country roads. On a shopping trip a tree collapsed into the middle of the road. Just fell over dead exhausted. The driver in the car ahead of me stopped. He got out. I got out. Without a word because New Englanders don’t talk to each other unless they know each other. We moved the tree to the side of the road. Got back into our respective vehicles and continued our individual ways.

Growing up in Ohio we certainly had trees. Pockets of woodland quartered off by fence and No Trespassing signs, trapped between farm and field, corn and soybean. My father chopped down an entire woods once to make room for a golf course. When I married and moved to the city, Columbus trees were either tiny, sickly things, or giant untouchable heirlooms sitting on expensive properties. When we moved to Wyoming, trees stood too: gnarly pines, half blighted with disease. Grass in Laramie existed with support from sprinkler systems. If you drove into the country the distance between homes was hours of prairie spotted by lone windmills stretching into the colossal horizon, pumping deep water out from the earth’s veins.

All my life I have been able to see where I was going. I could look ahead for miles. Here in New Hampshire, two plus years later, I still use the GPS. Sometimes I ask people for actual directions because the trees block the GPS signal. The first time I was told bangha uey I only nodded. I wasn’t sure how to ask what that meant.

For a while, I thought I moved through a different language with clickers and rotaries, grinders and frappes—go ahead and ask for a milkshake, see what you get, it’s not ice cream. How everyone in New England has forgotten to use their Rs because Maine has stolen them for words that aren’t supposed to have Rs, like idear, as in that’s not a good idear. About a year into living here, getting lost among the trees and language, I finally realized New Hampshire is a part of New England.

Maybe that sounds incredulous. People from the Midwest view New England identity in terms of Boston and Massachusetts. A place of refinement and class, philharmonics and yacht clubs, vanguard Ivy League universities. We think too rich for my blood sea-side multi-million dollar homes and politics. Having moved here, my experience has centered on small, inconsequential towns, beach-going tourists, seagulls craping on my car, and dilapidated run-down, fire-prone hotels. The world here seems mysteriously out of sync and out of time with lousy internet service providers, home oil delivery, showers on the outside of houses, travel to Italy TV commercials that long went out of style in 1980s Ohio. Police clip-clopping down the streets on top giant Olde World horses.

I half-expect milk in glass bottles delivered to my doorstep, but there’s not.

In the cool of autumn, that is when the Leaf-peepers arrive—those who come to eye-goggle the burnt umbers, the fiery reds, and the crisp yellows before all the leafs drop to cover the ground in a mildewed petrichor, a kind of a heady enchantment, a magicking of the land.

Of course New Englanders understand their trees are beautiful, but they’ll cock their head sideways and say, “They’re just trees. You have trees where you come from, don’t you?”