Where voting is as natural as a dump run
New Hampshire's character is evolving, but an ethos of independence still reigns
MERRIMACK, N.H. — According to one local weatherman, it feels like 1 degree below unbearable outside, but Harry Loranger, a glib white-haired bus driver, sees no point in paying someone else to do what he can reasonably do himself.
Along with hundreds of other residents here, Mr. Loranger has driven deep into the woods to carry his trash to the town dump. Born and bred in Merrimack, Loranger joined a majority of residents last year in voting against a town plan for curbside trash pickup.
"It would have cost me a fortune," he says. The monthly levy proposed by the town: $8. "Fifty years ago," he adds, "I could have done it for free and just dug a hole in my yard."
Merrimack's defiance of such modern convenience is not singular in New Hampshire, a state in which residents often equate parsimony with patriotism.
It's an ethic that is being tested, as more out-of-staters arrive, and the current character of the "Live free, or die" state will help shape tuesday's closely watched vote in the Democratic presidential primary.
A rare sort of moral reckoning hangs over the most mundane acts here, as though each individual's freedom hinges on daily forgoing dessert and a second cup of coffee. Efforts to take citizens' trash away from them have been beaten back in dozens of towns across the state. In Lincoln, about 50 miles north, residents have recently defended their right not to have their snow plowed.
On the eve of the Democratic primary here, evidence of Yankee individualism is as plain as these residents' plaid shirts.
But "lifers" here are feeling the pressure to relax their granite-strong resistance to change just a bit. A huge influx of residents from Massachusetts and New York has brought a new spirit of progressivism here. These emigrants are pressuring small towns to modernize, and even to consider raising taxes.
"People have a pristine lifestyle here, but they're realizing now that they're going to have to change for the very same reason," says Jim Walsh, a historian at New England College in Henniker.
Many of the state's cultural quirks are represented by the trash collection station here, a blue-roofed edifice that, like the topography of the state itself, seems to have been designed to maximize hardship. Once residents pull up in their cars, they must hurl the trash over a three-foot high cement wall, which serves no apparent purpose other than to burden, says resident Chip Underhill, who voted in favor of curbside pickup. Rather than load the trash directly into containers or a truck, as he did in New Jersey, Mr. Underhill has been told to throw bags onto a concrete floor, where they sit until a loader scoops them up.
"The way we do it here is insane," says Underhill. "Yankees in general are resistant to new ideas."
One reason for that is the sense that New Hampshire is exceptional. Its regions include the "North Country," "West Country," and "Seacoast," names which sound more reminiscent of Tolkien's Middle Earth than a humble jurisdiction in austere New England.
It is north of Concord, where the White Mountains cut a jagged spine through the state's midsection, that residents still seem to define community by their collective desire to be left alone.
Government action is often frowned upon. In Woodstock, a tiny town in the middle of the White Mountains, Charles Harrington was recently perturbed by a $10,000 grant to the city to plant new trees. "What do we need more trees for, they're already all around us?" says Mr. Harrington, whose "Charles' Barbershop" has been in operation 44 years.
A mile south, Vicky Long's general store is guarded over by a cigar store indian and a sleeping black lab. An emigrant from Natick, Mass., she was surprised by the remonstrations of some "lifers'" last year against buying the police department another car. "One man ranted for 20 minutes that because the PD didn't change their own oil, they shouldn't get any new cars," she says.
People in Lincoln, the next town over, recently voted down a town proposal to plow seniors' driveways for free. "The long-timers and the new people fight like cats and dogs there."
In southern New Hampshire, where most residents live, people say their towns are unrecognizable compared with a decade ago. "It's Massahampshire now," says Belinda Glennie of Bradford.
Many complain that an influx of people who often commute to Boston, has made their state much more similar to all the rest. Residents in Merrimack are now obliged to wear helmets when they ride a bicycle, a regulation many here believe was hatched by a group they generally describe as a progressive cabal of Massachusetts techno-geeks. "Everyone wants to wear a helmet now for everything," says Jonah Couturier, lifelong Merrimack resident who has 10 facial piercings and poker chips in his earlobes. "It's not government's job for that."
But even some hard-core Yankees, upon whose brows beads of sweat develop with the mention of "local taxes," grudgingly admit that the state needs to change. Some approve the small but comparatively significant influx of blacks and Hispanics into what has always been one of a racially homogenous state.
Others say the new residents often bring with them more money to spend, and jobs in technology companies and financial services that are propping up their local economies.
One example: Nashua (pronounced Nashaw by locals), which has converted a handful of former mills into condominiums. "The city is doing very well," says Dick Avard, who runs a haberdashery. Still, Mr. Avard says the city's "New Hampshire feel" is now virtually gone. "It's hard to put into words what we've lost," he says. "It's a way of life, no frills, a good and healthy lifestyle."