Sept. 11, Gorham, N.H. – I hadn’t planned to leave Vermont, but before I knew it was driving over the Connecticut River and headlong into New Hampshire. I stopped at TJ’s Truck Stop in Lancaster, just over the state line, and got a bag of ice and a cup of Kuerig Green Mountain Coffee Roasters Coffee.
The woman at the register was a peach. She called me “Sweetie.” She made me feel better about leaving Vermont. The parking lot roiled and pitched with the hysterical sound of a woman scorned. Her man was getting an earful. As was anyone else in the vicinity.
They were parked side by side, him in a black pickup, her in a white SUV. She was an ample woman; he was a diminutive fellow. From what I could hear, she did most of the talking.
I believe I would’ve heard her just fine if I had parked on the other side of the Connecticut River. According to her viewpoint, the main problem was that he was “a total fucking asshole” when ever he got on a job site. She made this point more than once. This was nonnegotiable.
Her door was open, and I could see her left hand gesticulating wildly.
Eventually they drove off, one after the other, hopefully to make up in tawdry fashion. I continued heading east along the lonesome highway, in this case U.S. 2. I looked at the map and was startled to realize I’d be in Maine soon if I weren’t careful.
In another 25 miles I reached a crossroads at Gorham. I turned left on New Hampshire 16 and headed for Berlin. My memory was foggy, but I seemed to recall there was an Aldi or a Planet Fitness or someplace I might want to visit there.
There’s no Aldi there. No Planet Fitness, either. There’s a barely a there there. Seems like there’s nothing in Berlin but hard times. The granite-backed White Mountains glower down at Berlin from their perch at the edge of town. There is a streak blue in the sky above the Presidential Range. Above Berlin town, nothing but a big, black, brooding cloud.
In its heyday, which was some time ago, it was a bustling pulp-and-paper town. Now the mills are gone, long gone, and most of the jobs went along with them. I took a walk about town. It’s been a while since I’ve seen such depressing sights.
I passed by the Budget Inn of the White Mountains, which has closed up shop. Looks like it closed its doors some time ago. It’s an old-fashioned, U-shaped motor court. Weeds grow through the pavement in the parking lot. Up around the corner at the post office building, the U.S. Armed Forces Recruiting Center is open for business.
I heard the tell-tale, beep-beep whistle of autumn. Kids are playing football nearby. I followed it. Soon I was walking past a wire fence. On the other side, youth football practice was in full swing in the field below Bartlett Elementary School.
The parking lot between school and field is cracked and sprouting weeds, just like the Budget Inn of the White Mountains. You see a lot of that around town. Empty lots full of weeds and despair.
The center was having a little problem with snapping the ball over the head of the quarterback. “You see this clipboard?” one of the coaches barked at the offending player. “You know where I’m going to put it if you keep making mistakes.”
I circumnavigated the school. In one of the windows a teacher had strung together cardboard letters to read, “Kids are Beary Important.” The Bartlett Elementary mascot, it turns out, is the Bears. I’m not cynical enough to make fun of that sentiment. My son is in elementary school 500 miles from here. And I miss him. Kids are Beary important.
By now I am thoroughly depressed. Perhaps more depressed than Berlin, New Hampshire.
I return to the Behemoth and drive along 16 a bit farther. Actually, first I turn the wrong way onto one-way Pleasant Street. I look up to see flashing headlights and a stream of vehicles bearing down on me. A nice guy in a pickup stops to let me turn myself around.
Back in compliance with the law, I head north along the Androscoggin River. I stop briefly at the North Country Heritage Park. Rain falls on the river, which is full of man-made islands which mill workers could stand on and corral logs as they bubbled and rolled on their way downstream from the great north woods.
Those logjams haven’t filled the Androscoggin in more than 50 years, and the economy around here has been struggling to get back on its feet ever since.
I make my way onto 16 south toward Gorham. For the second time, I notice an intriguging second-hand store high on the hill above town. It’s past 7, but the open sign is still illuminated. I turn the Behemoth around and pull into the lot.
I tour the store looking for something to buy, worried its about closing time. Lots of cool stuff, but mostly out of my price range. I chat with one of the owners, Dave Patry (his partner is his wife, Maureen). She owns a clothing store downtown. He is superintendent of the Gorham water and sewer department.
He grew up in Berlin, and appears to be in his mid-40s or thereabouts. I ask him about the forlorn state of Berlin. I hope he wasn’t offended.
“It’s not as bad here as it was four or five years ago,” he said. “A lot of people left town and relocated to find jobs. There used to be 22,000 people in Berlin. Now there’s 9,000 on a good day.”
The last mill closed in 2001, and nothing’s come along to take its place.
“This area used to support itself on paper,” he said. “We’re so far north, and there are no interstate highways that come close to here. Nobody wants to transport products here or transport them out. That’s the real problem.”
He said the moose population is declining as well. Among other things, that means you’re not as likely to die in a head-on-ungulate collision as you used to be. Seems like they’re having the same problem here that decimated the moose population in parts of Minnesota. Worms bore into the brain and literally drive moose crazy. Next thing they’re walking in circles till they keel over and die.
This place used to be a music store until the Patrys bought it last year. He plays guitar and piano, and he made sure to stock the store with new guitar strings to keep local players happy. They opened up on Thanksgiving Day, and business is going great. He said they’ve been surprised by the traffic they’ve gotten from tourists.
I thank him for his time and wish him well, return to the Behemoth and head back in the direction of Gorham, eyes alert for them Golden Arches.