While most states have chosen to brand themselves, through their license plates, with innocuous mottos like “Famous Potatoes,” New Hampshire has selected the arguably more militant slogan, “Live Free or Die.”
It’s quite a demand to makes of one’s citizens, many of whom no doubt find themselves mired in thankless careers, loveless marriages and general desperation, just like residents of every other state. It is the only state in the union that brands itself with a command. “Don’t Mess with Texas” is adhered to more than a few four-wheel drive bumpers from that region, but remains unsanctioned at the legislative level.
“Live Free or Die.” I spent a considerable portion of my youth in North Conway, New Hampshire, a once-rural parish that has since erupted in a seizure of wanton, visible-from-space outlet shopping. Though most of the local fauna has since become imitation Ugg boots and snowmobile casualty, it remains a very worthwhile area to visit, and last weekend, on a lark, that’s just what I did.
Escaping the city is something that only a person who lives in the city can do, which ensures that people who are in the process of escaping the city are some degree of asshole. City people are jerks, and we’re jerks in a way that we don’t even realize until we roll into Insignificant Town, U.S.A. and ask the gas station attendant where to find a bistro with a really good raw bar.
The wonderful thing about leaving the city is that all of your urban skills — your knowledge of restaurants and designers and media outlets, your ability to navigate an overpriced wine list, your punchy cell phone conversational abilities — become mildly embarrassing in a rural setting. You’re not just a tourist, you’re a tourist with a PhD in know-it-ology. Speaking like you’re the end-all authority on random topics becomes as ingrained as checking the peephole before you open the door of your city apartment. I personally spend a lot of time pretending I know exactly what Pilates are.
City conversations frequently require an understanding of socially agreed upon references. Joan Didion. William Safire. Jean-Luc Goddard. These are names that city people like to use because they’re the names of smart people, and they make you seem smart by association. People dollop them onto their sentences like latte foam.
In New Hampshire, they’re not impressed. Your knowledge of Howard Kurtz’s current take on Rupert Murdoch’s latest antics is pretty irrelevant if you can’t tie a kayak to the roof of your car, and while my personal knowledge of ropes is largely confined to activities that also include nipple clamps, there’s something refreshing about getting up to country where practical wisdom is valued over posturing.
More New Hampshire: Swimming in the Saco River where 12-year-old straight boys are doing back flips off of a 30-foot bridge with the kind of courage that only 12-year-old straight boys could have. This makes me nostalgic for a childhood that basically never happened. Growing up queer means flipping the channel on some really good episodes of being a kid. Just like many 12-year-old gay boys, I grew up semi-alienated from the boys by differences that were rapidly making themselves apparent, and semi-alienated from the girls because I just wasn’t one of them.
Unlike its neighbor to the south (my home state, the recent Chapel O’ Love for queer sodomites), New Hampshire is no bastion of sexual liberation. Live Free or Die, but do it while you’re married. I have piles of affection for the state, but just like the 12-year-old nature that thwarted my attempts to fully absorb into the boys’ or the girls’ clubs, New Hampshire makes it tough to fully belong.
The city isn’t accepting so much as it is ignoring. I could walk down the Bowery with a plant growing out of my anus and still get served at a Chinese take-out with no second glance. I was recently at Coney Island — considered a trip to the country by many New Yorkers — and noticed that the freak show (Lobster Boy, the Two-Headed Baby) had basically no takers. Why would it?
Lately, it seems that gays are pioneering out into the country the same way we move into bad neighborhoods. You drive an hour upstate, past bait shops and Christian bookstores that sell Guns ‘N Ammo, and happen upon tastefully furnished cottages with rainbow windsocks fluttering from verandas. I find this sweet and a little bit strange, like the gay ghetto concept revving its engines in reverse.
Cities, in part, are for outcasts, and it appears that our status as outcasts has softened enough so that we at least have the option of settling down in a town built for heterosexual family units. It might not be such a bad thing to learn how to fasten a kayak to the roof, and with today’s proliferation of cell towers, you can carry on a pithy, city-like conversation on the way to the river.
Constantly pushing for acceptance in new places — politics, high schools, the media — gets old, but challenging places like New Hampshire to live up to their mottos might be worthwhile. The outlet shopping is fabulous (if that’s what you’re looking for), the kayaking is great (so we hear), and in time, even the townies will be seeing up the same way that New Yorkers see Lobster boy — without a second glance.
Will Doig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears bi-weekly.