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I grew up in northern New Jersey, not far from where Tony Soprano and the gang plied their crooked trade. When my family took vacations, it was to the Jersey Shore. Once or twice a year we’d pile into the station wagon to visit my mother’s parents and their extended clan in Westchester County, New York. We called it “upstate.” It seemed to me and my siblings – some of whom were sitting in the rear-facing backseat – as if we’d crossed over into another country. I don’t know why; only the license plates were different.
With age, I’ve come to realize that our family vacations were essentially local getaways. We weren’t wealthy enough to go on far distant excursions. I went to the Poconos once in high school with some friends to ski. I thought I’d need a passport. When I got older, I spread my wings. My adult years have taken me from sea to shining sea. I lived for a few years in Southern California. I’ve been all across the South, the Midwest, the Great Plains, the Mountain states, and to the Pacific Northwest. I know how unique the regions and cities of this country are. Chicago is dissimilar from New York, which is different than Los Angeles, which is unlike Austin, which makes Boston look like the moon.
I know how special every state is, too, with its own unique character and distinct personality—sometimes more than one. Iced tea tastes different in Georgia than it does in Maine. Snow causes rejoicing in the resort towns of New England; it causes panic in Arkansas. From the redwood forests, to the Gulf Stream waters, this land is as wide and varied as a diner menu. We are a pizza with everything. A person looking for the heart of America could do worse than a grand tour of its state fairs.
Yet somehow it always comes as a shock when I haul my wife and kids the 225 miles from our southwestern Connecticut home to the Lakes Region of central New Hampshire to visit my mother-in-law. Most years we do it three times: at Easter, in August, and at Christmas. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a short hop. But if you’re paying attention, it’s another world.
Let’s start with the flora. We’ve been in New Hampshire for 10 days and I’ve spent several of them picking wild blueberries by the baseball-hatful. They’re everywhere, and delicious. We don’t have this in Connecticut—not in my corner of it, anyway. The fauna: There are roughly 5,000 black bears in the Granite State, some of whom are known to amble though my mother-in-law’s backyard. We don’t see much of Yogi and Boo Boo in the Land of Steady Habits. Thankfully, we also don’t get black flies and no-see-ums.
Here, fresh water is worthy of the name. Lakes, streams, ponds, and puddles are sparkling and inviting. The great outdoors is the essential and unrelenting backdrop for every daily coming-and-going in New Hampshire. Yes, we are in the Lakes Region, but even in Concord and Manchester the wild berries and sugar maple forests are never far. The mountains and valleys are truly those things, not merely hills and hollows. Every other radio station plays country music. You can listen to it with your kids in the car.
Though Connecticut and New Hampshire are both (technically) part of New England, the people couldn’t be more different. The accents are unmistakably not alike. So are the attitudes. Connecticut people are — mostly — soft suburbanites. New Hampshire people are — mostly — rugged ruralists. There are a lot of pickup trucks here, and tractors, and kayaks, and camouflage hats. In winter, there are homemade hockey rinks in every backyard.
We have a little bit of all of these things in Connecticut, but no one would mistake the man from Old Lyme with the Old Man in the Mountain. These are different countries, in the sense that the Founders thought of their home states as their countries.
I don’t mean to make it sound that one state is better than the other. New Hampshire has a bad, bad problem with opioids. The newspapers here are full of politicians’ promises to solve it. So far, this hasn’t become a huge issue in Connecticut, where the local newspapers are full of headscratching and thumbsucking about how the state with the 44th worst business tax climate in the country managed to lose General Electric.
I’m curious to hear from others who have done some interstate travelling this summer about things that have struck you as unique, special, and not at all the way things are done back home. Visiting the several states is one of the great joys and privileges of being an American. Though we think of ourselves as one country, we are still, in fact, many.