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Crankin' the Kanc
— in which Dr. Dirt embraces the open road, but keeps rubber-side down —
A New Hampshire has a plenitude of scenic highways and byways, great roads for a vacation or a Sunday drive — or even a commute, if the work aspect and the repetition don’t dampen enthusiasm. Even the major four-lanes — the “slabs,” I-93 and I-89 — unfold in places to spectacular views (or “viewsheds,” if you want to charge more per hour).
But the crème de la crème in New Hampshire, at least from my angle, is NH Route 112: the Kancamagus Highway, twisting and looping for 26 miles between Lincoln on the west and Conway on the east.
I discovered the Kanc in 1981 on a trip circuitously connecting the Adirondacks with New York City. My favorite season was heading into high color, and the air was crispening at night, hinting at the winter blasts to come but in a pleasantly teasing way. I was young (it’s all relative), had a bit of money in my pocket, and few cares, pre-children. On top of it all, I was in luuuuv, honeymooning with one of my wives. Cold nights and warm blankets can’t be beat. The world was just perfect on that trip, as it sometimes is when you’re not looking too hard.
I stumbled onto the Kanc blindly: it looked neat on the map — one of Least Heat Moon’s blue highways — and I’d never been through the Whites. Imagine my astonishment when I took the first scenic turn-out east of Lincoln: a panorama of mountain ridges, brightly feathered in the whole spectrum of color, accented by bald cliffs plunging a thousand feet into the valley. Spectacular!
The ride was leisurely that afternoon, taking it all in for the first time and basking in a general feeling of serendipity: wholly unexpected good fortune laying itself before me, unbidden.
Everything went to hell after that, but in some good ways, and then I ended up back in New Hampshire for the duration. I’ve made a deal with myself to cross the Kanc at least once each summer, and sometimes I make it. For good reason, NH Route 112 usually makes the “10 Most Scenic Highways in the US” lists in the slick travel magazines.
New discoveries are made most every trip. A stretch of the road hugs the Swift River, a crystal mountain stream in a hurry downhill. The river is strewn with stones and boulders, perforated in spots with chilly summer swimming holes. There’s nothing like jumping in until you’re purple, then climbing onto a warm sunny rock, feeling the summer sun dry you out.
A great detour, if you have the time, is Bear Notch Road, connecting the mid-Kanc with US302 to the north. It’s a skinny two-lane with trees to the edge of pavement and great views. Bear Notch has a state’s allotment of potholes and frost-heaves, but it’s worth it for the scenery. Bear and moose are likely obstacles. The road is closed through the winter to let the potholes develop naturally.
Many day-hike loop trails originate from the Kanc. I used to take a class up the “UNH Trail” on Hedgehog Mountain every year. The path travels through some interesting forest types and successional openings, eventually climbing to several outcrops with stunning views across the valley there. One fall day, 25 of us were lunching atop a cliff when a team of rock-climbers finished their ascent from the valley and panted across the rim of the cliff. We watched in fascination and they looked at us (mere hikers) with disdain. Other trails lead from the Kanc to waterfalls and overlooks, and still others take the through-hiker into wilderness areas. Forest Service campgrounds are available.
In the summer of 2012, as August rolled into September, it was looking unlikely that I would make it across Route 112 this year. Then late one Wednesday in mid-September, I got a call from a Ducati-owner inviting me for a day-trip to the Kanc that Friday. I was way too busy, but I signed the deal on Thursday, and we were riding by 8 the next morning.
That ride marks one of the highlights of my motorcycling life. The day was partly sunny and warm enough for wind-chill speeds. Here and there, especially in the swamps, trees were dressing for their fall fashion show. Traffic post-Labor Day and pre-weekend was fairly light, especially as we moved northward from the seacoast.
And in another absolutely serendipitous happenstance, the two of us were of similar riding styles and riding skills. I have another riding buddy, an ex-racer, whose style is to set the throttle at 65 and just keep it there. He calls this his touring mode. It’s pretty leisurely on the straight-aways, and doesn’t get the local constabulary over-excited, but gets very interesting in the corners.
That Friday, the two of us weren’t quite that far over the top and through the turn, but we did skin some rubber off the sides of our tires and cleaned out some plaque from the arteries by upping our pulses to aerobic levels. We stopped once for three moose in the road, two females and one drooling male. Shortly after, a black bear lurched up a hill in front of us. A roadside lake was sprinkled with early migratory waterfowl. On the Kancamagus itself, the main thing we watched was the next turn. Those yellow signs with speed postings, by the way, are not limits but suggestions. Generally, the turns are a lot more fun if you add 20 mph to the recommendations. So far, there hasn’t been a train coming around the corner.
A friend who carries a Narcotics Anonymous card employed motorcycles for a few years as a substitute: “It’s the only thing I’ve found that gives me that high.” He was speaking of the track and going really fast, but it’s a pleasant thrill to just sit on a hundred horsepower and two wheels, and toodle along at whatever speed you deem pleasant.
Friends in the landscape biz sometimes find this sort of peace and/or stimulation with their favorite pickup or excavator. That’s fine too, whatever works. Just make sure to check out the bigger view beyond the cab now and then.
Dr. Dirt sometimes rides along with John Hart, Professor of Horticultural Technology, Thompson School of Applied Science, University of New Hampshire, Durham.