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Summer Series Kickoff: A Road Trip On Route 4 Through The Heart Of New Hampshire

This summer, NHPR is taking a closer look at U.S. Route 4 in New Hampshire. We’re answering listener questions and reporting on the highway that stretches through the heart of the state, from the Vermont border to the Seacoast.

So, naturally, this is a great opportunity for a road trip.

We're driving the entire length of Route 4 that covers New Hampshire, beginning at the Vermont border in Lebanon. And we’re taking Rick's Mustang convertible, more fitting for the open road than the NHPR Subaru.

(In the weeks ahead, we’ll be hearing a lot more from Route 4. You can submit your questions or story ideas for this ongoing series right here.) 

Credit Sara Plourde for NHPR

Though, there are clouds overhead so it looks like we’ll have to wait to put the top down.

There’s a decent amount of traffic, and we’re sharing the road with many cars sporting Vermont license plates. We pass antique shops and small diners alongside strip malls and car dealerships. There’s a blend of small businesses and bigger chain stores.

We make our way downtown and park in front of  Lebanon's city hall. This is where we catch Faye Grearson and her friend, just as they're leaving a meeting on affordable housing in the Upper Valley.

Faye grew up in this region. She says she spent more time on Route 4 before Interstate 89 was built.

Credit Dan Tuohy for NHPR
Faye Grearson and her friend Rosemary talk about their memories of Route 4.

"If my mom’s with me, we often go Route 4 because she doesn’t like going so fast," she says. "She likes to see things. When my kids were young, I’d go Route 4 because I could stop somewhere if they needed a break from the ride. We had our restaurant, our places we would feel comfortable. Now Route 4 has fewer mom and pop businesses and more commercial gas stations."

As we get ready to get back on the road, Faye and her friend give us a little piece of advice:

"You have to watch the speed limit. It changes so much."

A good thing to keep in mind; this is not the interstate, after all.

We get back on the road, and as we leave downtown Lebanon, we pass stately homes through residential areas. The closer we get to Canaan and Grafton, the fewer cars are on the road with us. The scenery becomes more rural, with densely packed trees and glimpses of water or farmhouses.

Credit Dan Tuohy for NHPR
The Grafton Center Meetinghouse bears a sign reading "Save this landmark!"

We plan to make a stop at the Grafton Country Store. But when we arrive, it’s closed, possibly for good.

So we keep going. We make it to Danbury at lunchtime. We decide to stop in the Danbury Country Store, located in the center of town. They have just about every road trip snack you could imagine, including local baked goods.

The walls are lined with black-and-white photos and newspaper clippings dating back to when the store first opened in the late 1800s.

Scott Surgens lives just up the road from the store. He moved from Massachusetts to Danbury only a few years ago. But he’s quickly become involved in the community.

Credit Dan Tuohy for NHPR
Scott Surgens tells Rick Ganley and Mary McIntyre what he loves about Danbury, New Hampshire

We ask what he likes about Danbury?

"I guess just how they try to keep to its roots. They’re not trying to be modern. They’re not trying to be a hip town or anything like that," he says. "They’re just sticking with the same old town, simple stuff and I think that’s part of the draw."

Scott says the store keeps busy with locals, police and fire officials, bikers and tourists. He says the rail trail that runs along Route 4 through Danbury also brings a lot of people here in all kinds of ways.

"See, we got horses. We got horses coming up the trail right now, which is pretty cool."

Right on cue, a woman rides off the rail trail and onto the side of Route 4. We sit down to eat our sandwiches, load up on some snacks and then hit the road again.

Credit Dan Tuohy for NHPR
A horseback rider exits the rail trail in Danbury.

As we drive, transportation crews are out in full swing, repaving roads and filling potholes. The summer construction slows us down.

As we enter Concord, Route 4 is broken up by Interstate 93 and we have to take a quick detour. 

"We might be experiencing what so many people have complained about now that we’re on the east side of Route 4," Mary says.

She's right. We've literally just passed through Concord and it’s the first time in the whole trip that we’re experiencing traffic.

There are many more stop lights on this side of Route 4. A traffic circle in Chichester is a bit congested...but the weather finally clears up. The sun comes out from behind the clouds. It actually feels like summer, so we decide to pull over and put the top down.

Credit Dan Tuohy for NHPR
In Concord, Route 4 gets a little more...complicated.

We make our way past some of the well-known sights along this half of Route 4, like the giant American flag flying in the lot of an RV dealership. A little further along, rows of antique shops appear as we enter Northwood.

Related story: Is N.H. really home to the longest mini golf hole on the planet?

A large sign for Johnsons’ Seafood & Steak emerges on the left side of the road. We see people lining up along the outdoor dairy counter waiting for their giant scoops of ice cream.

Shayla Ashley is working behind the window. She says the restaurant is very busy year-round, and so is this stretch of Route 4.

Credit Dan Tuohy for NHPR
Shayla Ashley works at Johnson's Seafood and Steak in Northwood.

"[It's] lot of people’s work route - goes from Portsmouth to Concord; at least that’s how I think of it."

And yes, we’re hitting lots of traffic as people are making their way home from work.

Once we drive past Northwood and head to the Seacoast, there’s less to see on the side of the highway. But then we pass a sign for Wagon Wheel Farm in Durham and decide to check it out.

The town-owned property is a local landmark with public gardens. Walking trails cut through fields of tall grass swaying in the breeze.

Credit Dan Tuohy for NHPR
One of Route 4's many landmarks, this wagon helps drivers find Wagon Hill Farm in Durham.

We get out to stretch our legs and meet Allison Davis at the top of a hill. She says this is one of her favorite places to hike.

"It’s just so beautiful. It’s just exquisite," she says. 

Allison has lived in Dover for about 20 years, and in that time she’s seen a lot of change. This includes development along the roadways.

"They were putting up these walls, walling off the view of the streams," she says. "They were saying, 'What’s wrong with you people,' that’s what we love about New Hampshire - being able to drive along and see all the streams, which I’m sure you’ll be able to see going north on Route 4. There’s a lot more of that. "

She doesn’t like seeing all the development, but she realizes other people want to live here too.

Credit Dan Tuohy for NHPR
Rick and Mary talk with Allison Davis at Wagon Hill Farm on Route 4 in Durham

We hop back in the car to finish the final stretch of this road trip to Portsmouth, and we soon see those walls Allison was talking about.

The large barriers stand tall across the highway. Some look as though they’re still under construction.

Credit Dan Tuohy for NHPR
The old Little Bay Bridge between Dover and Newington along Route 4.

Those Vermont license plates we saw in Lebanon have been replaced with Maine plates as we enter the traffic circle in Portsmouth that marks the end of Route 4. And in true New Hampshire fashion, at the end of the route is a state-run liquor store.

With that, we turn around to make our way back to the NHPR studios in Concord.

Credit Dan Tuohy for NHPR
The end of the line for Route 4 in Portsmouth.

For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.
Mary McIntyre is a senior producer at NHPR.
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