We had now lived in the concrete jungle of New York City for over six months, and we needed a break. We felt like reconnecting with the greener side of life where things seemed simple and easy, so we decided it was time for a camping trip.
Once again, we packed up the car but this time we included a few camping supplies, then we set off towards New England. Our destination was a patch of woods in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Our mission was to catch the spirit of the American wilderness.
We were in search of natural adventure and the wild – getting free from the stresses of modern urban life. However, I had a secondary mission for this trip that was near to my heart. I wanted to come across the ghost of the American wilderness, the sacred being that encapsulates the very spirit of the natural untouched world. I wanted to see a wise old moose – a six foot beast that wanders the woods at dawn and dusk like a mysterious old sage. My eyes were peeled.
Soon enough the constant car horns of the city were but a distant memory, and we were crossing the border into a new state, lush with green forests and tall woods – the state of New Hampshire. There were no skyscrapers or reckless taxi cabs, and the sidewalks weren’t full of busy pedestrians speaking on cell phones. In fact, a lot of the time there was no sidewalk at all – merely a strip of grass and dirt to walk along at the side of the road. The state motto read: LIVE FREE OR DIE. It was bliss.
We choose to take an alternate route to our campsite, bypassing the more popular highway to see a bit more of the simple life, and that was exactly what we found. Everywhere we drove we passed old country houses and shacks, and it seemed that every single one of them had a bunch of antique junk out the front that was for sale. Everything here was old, wooden, and special.
We even passed a bunch of piles of firewood for sale along the roads, operating on an honesty system where you simply put a few dollars in a little slot in a jar then take an ‘armload’. We found one little wooden wheelbarrow full of firewood and decided to grab some for the night, and when I walked out with the money in my hand, ready to get an armload, a man approached from the house with a barking dog on a leash. I just hope he knows that I was going to honour the honesty box system even if he didn’t show up looking all intimidating.
Eventually, we came to our KOA campsite for the weekend and set up camp. One of the first things that we noticed was a sign that read THIS IS BEAR COUNTRY and then had a list of rules about keeping safe and not leaving food out to attract bears. Next, it had a list of things to do if you do attract a bear. This was getting pretty wild already, and I was excited.
Our spot was a little tent site with a picnic table out in the darkness of the woods, whereas it seemed most campers opted for a space out in the open to park their giant RV motorhomes and set up their flamingo lawn ornaments. We definitely noticed a very different approaching to ‘camping’ in the United States. Here in America, we found that camping simply means mobile living – you pack everything you possibly can from your comfortable house into a big, slow motorhome. In America, that is roughing it for a week.
Despite roughing it having nothing to do with camping in the States, here we were out in the woods with our tent and our firewood – our only modern camping comfort being an airbed (and our laptop connected to the campground’s Wi-Fi – it’s the 21st century, and if they’re offering it, so why not?). Before starting on our campfire, though, we decided to go for a walk through the woods near the river as it was still light out.
The walk through the woods showed us a river separating us from the highway and a dirty pond, but unfortunately we had no bear or moose sightings. We did, however, notice a strange omnipresent sound resonating from all around us – something like a cricket chirping but different. It was around 15 minutes after first hearing the sound that my eyes began to play tricks on me, or so I thought. I started to catch sight of odd movement along the ground, in the dead leaves and dirt. Crouching down for inspection I discovered the movement was actually hundreds of tiny frogs, no bigger than a fingernail, pouncing along in every direction. Horror rushed over me as I stood up and told Jessie to freeze in her tracks. Startled, she paused and I told her about our froggy situation. Every step we took was murder. This was no more a walk in the woods than it was frog genocide! We rushed back up to our campsite on the tips of our toes, watching where we stepped but the damage had been done. How many had we killed? My brain was racked with guilt, and all I could do was sit outside our tent in silent mourning.
Soon though, it was time for the campfire and that’s always fun, and as it turns out, a great way to forget about the mass murder of amphibians. This is when we got to take part in a real American camping tradition for the first time – the creation and eating of s’mores! For anyone who doesn’t know, these are treats made by toasting marshmallows then sandwiching them between two graham crackers (a type of biscuit) with some chocolate to melt with it. You’ll get very sticky fingers but the taste makes it worth the mess.
That night, we slept to the sound of nature, and also to the sound of the I-93 highway nearby. Actually, I didn’t really sleep all that much at all because the inflatable mattress had a hole in it and I could hear the air leaking out all night until I was flat on the ground. That’s camping for you.
The next morning was a brand new, sunny day, and so we headed out to explore. We quickly came to Clark’s Trading Post in nearby Lincoln, which is like a mini amusement park mixed with a museum. More importantly, though, it has a ton of black bears. After operating as a random roadside attraction and souvenir stand (or trading post) since 1928, Clark’s Trading Post began to train black bears in 1949 and kept it in the family, with the generations growing up to run the place and train the new bears. Now, you have a bunch of black bears that hang out in enclosures (and there’s a bigger sanctuary across the road for them) and they come out and perform tricks in a caged ring. You see them ride scooters, play basketball and roll around in barrels, all for an icecream reward. Some people won’t like this captivity, but the bears look happy enough.
Aside from the Bear Show, your one-off admission gets you access to a bunch of other attractions, such as a free Segway Safari, the optical illusion house of Merlin’s Mansion, and a lot of old Americana museums. You even get to ride along on the old White Mountain Central Railway and get chased by a bearded feral guy with a shotgun and buggy known affectionately as ‘The Wolfman’. It’s all part of the wholesome family fun of New Hampshire.
Considering we were getting back to nature with this trip, our next adventure was a hike at Flume Gorge in Franconia Notch State Park. Here, you pay an entrance fee and you get to go for a walk (there are different options) up into the forest to see some cool waterfalls and gorges. We opted for the full walk which took us a couple of hours at most and was a very easy hike, but that didn’t stop most Americans from donning their full hiking costumes. We even saw one weirdo hick guy with no shirt on carrying a giant knife in his belt. Maybe he was scared of bears. Or he just ate too many squirrels and chipmunks and they made him go a bit strange in the head.
Anyway, the walk is really pleasant and the actual Flume Gorge is an interesting sight, with a wooden boardwalk over a raging stream pouring down a narrow rift between two rocky cliffs. There are also a few traditional covered bridges if you’re into that sort of thing – it seems many Americans are.
Next, we headed further up the road to take the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway up to the top of Cannon Mountain. Up the top, there is another short walk to the observation tower at the summit and some amazing views of the area. Here, you also bump into real hikers that have walked up the mountain from neighbouring valleys. Soon enough, though, it was time to head back down and see a more famous New Hampshire sight.
Near the parking lot to the aerial tramway there is a path that takes you round to a small scenic lake where you also get a view of the symbol of the state of New Hampshire – the Old Man of the Mountain. Or if we went a decade earlier we would have seen it. This used to be a rocky side of a mountain that vaguely resembled the profile of an old man’s face, but to much local mourning it collapsed on May 3, 2003. It doesn’t look like anything now, but judging by the photos, I don’t think it ever really did. Still, it adorns the state’s vehicles’ license plates and they’re currently building a large memorial to it at the bottom.
After our adventures, we headed back to Main Street of the quaint little town of North Woodstock for dinner and a treat. Here, we found the famous Fadden’s General Store & Maple Sugarhouse, established in 1896 and known for its award winning Maple Syrup. We grabbed a little bottle, and headed back out for dinner. We ate a decent dinner at the Woodstock Inn Station & Brewery then headed over to Conehead’s Ice cream for some great dessert. After this, we had pretty much exhausted this tiny town of antiques and decided to call it a night.
Driving in the setting sun, I hoped to come across a moose, especially with all the ‘brake for moose’ warning signs everywhere, but it didn’t happen. The ghostly symbol of American wilderness wasn’t going to show itself to me. This made me sad, but having more s’mores over a campfire back at our campsite made me happier.
It was now our last day in New Hampshire before we had to head back to the Big Apple, but we still had a lot to see and do. The plan was to take the famous scenic Kancamagus Highway through White Mountain National Forest then drive up the Mt Washington Auto Road to the highest point in New England. So we packed up our tent, said our farewells to the chipmunks, our condolences to the frogs, and off we went.
The Kancamagus Highway is a two lane highway (part of NH Route 112) that cuts through the White Mountains and is known for its great scenery. Driving along, you pass tons of little scenic viewpoint stops, picnic spots, and waterfall treks. To park up at one of these, they have a sort of honesty system where you grab an envelope from one of the boxes at the area, fill out your car details, put a few of a few dollars in, then drop it in the box. This gives you parking in the national park for the rest of the day. A lot of the stops were quite similar, with similar views or similar little water falls on rivers, but we did see a beaver dam! Unfortunately though we saw no beavers. Towards the eastern end of the highway, there are a few scenic falls where we noticed people swimming – we had things to do but marked this spot on our map.
Finally, we made it to the Mt Washington Auto Road. We had heard that this historic winding road to the summit of the highest mountain in New England was pretty scary so we were a bit nervous, but as it turned out, none of that mattered. Driving up to the booth at the mountain’s base, we saw signs saying that it was the Auto Road’s 150th Anniversary, and that the only vehicles allowed up there today were those that were around when it opened in 1861 – those being horses and carriages. However, there were a few festivities taking place at the bottom so we opted for a quaint little horse and carriage ride around the base. I should mention that there is also a famous cog railway train that can take you to the summit but that thing is expensive. It was time to move on.
We still had our hearts set on returning to the Kancamagus Highway for a swim, and looking at the map, we saw a shortcut route that would cut down onto the highway from the north, right next to the swimming areas. We went about our shortcut but then we came across the Attitash Mountain Resort and had to stop. This place looks like it would be a major ski field in the winter, but in summer, it hosts a bunch of various adventure activities like waterslides, luging, and the one thing that made us stop – the mountain coaster. The mountain coaster is like a luge connected to a winding, zig-zagging rollercoaster track where a cable takes it to the top and then gravity takes care of the rest – your only control is the hand brake to slow you down, but I don’t recommend using it until you have to stop at the end. This thing is a lot of fun, and two people can go together. After wondering if we should pay for another ride, we looked at the time and decided to hit the road.
Our shortcut worked just as we had hoped and we opted for a swim at the Lower Falls scenic area on the Swift River. We got changed and then approached the river to survey the area. It was a quickly flowing river rushing past boulders and rocks and down little falls to a large calmer basin, and there were people everywhere. It was like a natural waterpark, with waterslides and kids jumping off rocks into the water. We threw our stuff down and got amongst it, having some of the most fun we’d had in New Hampshire while we did.
After around an hour, the sun was beginning to go down so we jumped back in the car and headed towards New York City. Deep down we knew that we would be getting home late but there was just one more thing we wanted to visit – a famous classic American diner in the New Hampshire city of Manchester. We arrived in Manchester, which looks like a decent sized city for not a lot of people, and quickly found a park near the amazing Red Arrow Diner. This place first opened in 1922 so it looks exactly how you imagine a classic American diner to look, both inside and out. Inside, you have a bar that you can order and eat at, or you can sit in one of the red table booths, where you’ll find plaques on the seats of famous celebrities that have sat there. Everyone is friendly, and the food is glorious – huge and hearty. They are also famous for their cream pies which taste both incredible and deadly. If passing through the middle of New Hampshire, you should definitely make time to stop here for an all-American meal.
Now our stomachs were full for our journey home, and darkness was upon us. In the end, I had got to see some caged and tamed black bears and had missed out on the odd creature known as the moose. The spirit of the American wilderness had eluded me… or had it? I got to thinking, and I realised that all the things I had experienced and done on this trip into New Hampshire had been a sort of adventure into wild America. Perhaps even though I didn’t get to see the ghost itself, maybe the ghost had actually possessed me. Did I have a bit of moose in me? As we drove past another BRAKE FOR MOOSE sign in the shadows, I swear that I saw the picture of the moose wink at me. Or maybe I was just tired. We arrived back in New York after 1am.
Jessie and I stayed in a tent at the Woodstock KOA campgrounds near the White Mountains from Friday, July 15th to Sunday, July 17th. KOA Campgrounds are a franchise of family friendly campgrounds all around America that have spaces for tents, RVs and even cabins to rent. They usually have a store, fire-rings and firewood, and full facilities, including Wi-Fi. They even put on fun activities on some nights to entertain the kids. After staying at this one, we instantly signed up for a KOA Value Kard to get cheaper deals and rewards for the future.
While in New Hampshire, we visited Clark’s Trading Post to see the famous bear show, Flume Gorge in Franconia Notch State Park for a bit of a hike, and the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway for some magnificent views of the area. We also drove along the Kancamagus Highway through White Mountains National Forest for the scenery, and then visited the Mt Washington Auto Road. On the way home, we stopped at Attitash Mountani Resort to try the mountain coaster and then had dinner at the incredible Red Arrow Diner in Manchester.