New Hampshire: The taste of freedom

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Taxes? Seat belts? Motorbike helmets? New Hampshire just isn't interested. Justin Webb encounters a small US state where the glorious scenery is only matched by the desire among its citizens to pursue personal freedom at any cost

If you truly believed in freedom, you would not be reading this. The state with the best motto in the Union – "Live Free or Die" – would already be your home. For this relatively tiny piece of land (180 miles long and 70 miles wide), tucked into America's north-east corner, is the focal point of a radical experiment.

I was there in 2003, in a chintzy hotel near the airport at Manchester, New Hampshire's biggest city, when they launched what they call "The Free State Project", an effort to get 20,000 people (I think they probably have to be American citizens, but since when did these folks get hung up over passports?) to move to New Hampshire in order to make the state into a libertarian nirvana.

Or, to be more precise, even more of a libertarian nirvana. The Free State Project signatories had already decided that New Hampshire was the freest state in the Union. It was created by folks who thought Massachusetts was getting too cosy; as one writer put it, "by people for whom independence was more important than community".

What the Free State Project wants to do is build on that atavistic desire for liberty at all costs. Followers, who must be at least 18 and not motivated by racism or violence, make this pledge: "I hereby state my solemn intent to move to the state of New Hampshire. Once there, I will exert the fullest practical effort toward the creation of a society in which the maximum role of civil government is the protection of life, liberty, and property."

And they are doing it. Bit by bit, year by year, in a world where government is not exactly going out of fashion, the Free State Project is rolling it back.

So what exactly can you do in New Hampshire that you cannot do in, say, Boston, a short drive south, or in tree-filled Vermont to the north?

Umm. Well you have to be there to get the full picture. But here is a start. How about hire a motorbike and ride it without wearing a helmet? New Hampshire roads – un-American in their windiness, sometimes almost Cornish, with steep banks and single tracks – are a haven for the bandanna-and-nothing-more set. For New Hampshire riders, shaggy beards and shades are in; helmets are for Marxist-Leninist scooter-boys. Packs of motorcyclists roar around the state proclaiming, with the very breeze in their hair, that they are free.

And if your biking days are over but you still fancy taking a risk on a road, how about driving with no seat belt? You have to be 18 to do this. And you must be sure not to make the mistake I did and hire a car manufactured by state-controlled South Korean automata and therefore engineered to emit a pinging noise every few seconds if the belts are not on. Assuming you check in advance, though, and get a model with a disabled pinger, you can really take some risks. Should you crash, you should feel yourself crump satisfyingly into the windscreen before being catapulted through the fresh breeze and landing on ground that is minimally controlled by any authority other than the privately owned. The motto really could be "Live Free and Die."

Did I mention taxes? There are none; well, none to speak of. New Hampshire has no state-wide income tax and no state-wide sales tax. It's not that big on public services as a result, but hey, the roads get cleaned and most indexes of quality of life put New Hampshire near the top, in fact sometimes at the very top: Nashua (the second-largest town) has twice been voted "Best Place to Live in America".

I should point out that the voters were the readers of Money magazine, but I am not sure that New Hampshire's poorer residents would disagree. There is a flinty, gutsy side to the New Hampshire character (the Granite State they call it – and they are referring to more than geology) that speaks of tough lives lived in the full knowledge that whatever minimal safety nets are available elsewhere in the US are probably not available here. You can succeed very handily in this state; but if you fail, you can fall pretty hard.

On a trip this summer to see Hillary and Barack have their first big post-primary get-together (Unity, New Hampshire was the venue – there is a town called Freedom as well, and probably one called Vigor) I stayed in the Backside Inn near Mount Sunapee in the central southern part of the state. Stop giggling over there: they mean the back-side of Mount Sunapee.

The innkeepers were too busy for smutty jokes. Too busy for booze as well – an enquiry about a drink before bed brings iced water and the friendly but firm admonishment: "We're not big drinkers in these parts." It's no wonder; keeping the place going is tough. American tourists are staying at home more or travelling less far because of the price of fuel, and these domestically focused hotels – basic but far nicer than the gloomy motels that line all the major highways – are feeling the pinch.

New Hampshire is beautiful. Indeed, the scenery is the show-stealer. Along with Vermont and Maine, New Hampshire has the greatest percentage of American land covered by proper forest. And the forest is not flat. Mount Sunapee is mighty enough to be a respectable ski resort in the winter and a walkers' paradise in the summer. It is not as high as Colorado and the resorts don't match Vail or Aspen, but this place is just a drive from Boston and, like all US ski resorts, it works. They even claim that you can get an espresso at the summit, which as Robert Frost (New Hampshire's greatest son) might have said, "has made all the difference".

But not all of New Hampshire is beautiful. Nor is it as cutesy or tourist-oriented as Vermont, to the west. The trick when visiting New Hampshire is to stay away from Manchester, unless you happen to be here during the political primaries (next up in early 2012 when Obama or McCain will be seeking their second terms). At primary times the place really buzzes – you can be knocked over by candidates and their teams, you can be serenaded by over-friendly students who fail to register (or care) that your accent gives you away as a non-voter. At night you can dine with the temporary New Hampshire beau-monde: at one meal I had Jon Snow on one side of me and the Mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, on the other.

But beware. Messrs Snow and Villaraigosa are fair-weather friends. They hop it the moment the count is finished. And those of us who are truly New Hampshire aficionados return at other times to discover a more quotidian truth about the place; they do not stay up late at night here. On my way to that Unity meeting – after a late flight via Boston – we tried to find a place to eat open in Manchester after 8pm, but with no luck. Once a mill town always a mill town. The red bricks frown at excess.

The other area to avoid is the few miles along the main roads into other states, in particular into highly taxed Vermont. One of the effects of New Hampshire's tax phobia is to attract business here. It is great for the economy but not so good for the look of the place. The sprawl of car dealerships and cheap malls and general crappiness is depressing to behold. The sheer volume of mattress stores is what amazes me – how can folks get through so many mattresses? What are they doing?

Outside Manchester, though, and away from the state borders New Hampshire's towns are clean-cut and appealing and have the look of a film-set, particularly in the winter snow: neat, colonial architecture, everything spruce and gleaming, the prettier side of the freedom coin. There are even a pleasant few miles of Atlantic coastline and a seaside town, Portsmouth, with a wealth of colonial history in its winding streets. This is bed-and-breakfast land – sometimes a little too Olde English for my tastes (doilies, doilies, doilies) – but usually comfortable and always friendly in that no-nonsense New Hampshire way.

One of the paradoxes I try to explore in my book, Have a Nice Day; Behind the Clichés: Giving America Another Chance, is the fact that much of the United States feels so safe and yet is teeming with weapons. People sometimes assume that the guns are in the ghettos; not true. New Hampshire, which has no ghettos to speak of and a very low crime rate, echoes – at least metaphorically – to the sound of gunfire. When Manchester Republicans held their social get-together a year ago they decided to hold a machine gun shoot at a local gun club. Groups of concerned citizens sometimes hold armed litter walks, during which they clean up the streets while packing heat.

New Hampshire is one of the most liberal states when it comes to gun rules. Basically, you can buy a weapon if you are not obviously raving mad – and nobody is allowed to keep a list of what you have. Even big weapons, Uzis and the like, are OK here. And you need no licence to buy a gun or carry a pistol in a holster. There are federal laws limiting gun rights which exist in New Hampshire as elsewhere in the US, but basically the local view is that gun rights are sacred.

Think that's crazy? Here is a riposte, from a correspondent writing to the Manchester paper earlier this year: "One of the reason [sic] this state is so crime free, is because criminals never know when someone is going to shoot back! I 'carry' all the time... legally. This does not mean that I want to shoot someone... I just hate the thought of becoming a 'victim' in the event I (or my family) am targeted by someone with a gun. How many times do we hear of shooters taking advantage of areas that are 'gun free'? No...I won't go down without a 'fair fight'. If people have a problem with me being armed, then too bad. Move to Britain."

Take that, suckers! Imagine Chipping Norton with automatic weapons. You think: bloodbath. They think: all is calm.

By the way, New Hampshire welcomes Democrats and gay people and even (I am guessing here) atheists. This is not a right-wing state or a socially conservative state; it's certainly not a religiously inspired state. When they say they like freedom they really mean it. So Bishop Gene Robinson – the gay clergyman whose elevation has caused the Anglican Church such trouble – is a New Hampshire native. Both the clergy and the laity of the state backed him.

And while Republicans have certainly prospered historically in New Hampshire, both houses of the local legislature went Democrat in the 2006 elections. In 2004, New Hampshire was the only state in the Union to turn from Bush to Kerry.

Now that's freedom.

New Hampshire, as the sun sets across the old mill buildings or the smell of wood-smoke welcomes you home after a day hunting, manages to be the surprising state; the quintessential state; the state that captures the spiky essence of America and cries out, "Boy, these guys may have named themselves after English counties and English cities, but they have ploughed their own furrow!" Visit New Hampshire with an open mind; you'll leave with increased respect for all of America.



Justin Webb is the BBC's North America editor. His book, 'Have a Nice Day; Behind the Clichés: Giving America Another Chance' (Short Books, £14.99), is out now

State lines: New Hampshire

Population 1.2 million
Area approximately the same size as Wales
Capital Concord
Date in Union 21 June 1788
Flower Purple lilac
Motto "Live Free or Die"
Nickname Granite State

Traveller's Guide

Getting there

There are no direct flights available between the UK and New Hampshire, however Boston is a little over an hour's drive from the New Hampshire border and is served by several carriers, including British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com), American Airlines (020-7365 0777; www.americanairlines.co.uk) and Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747; www.virgin-atlantic.com) departing from Heathrow.

To reduce the impact of your flight on the environment, you can buy a carbon "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).

Staying there

The Manor on Golden Pond, Holderness, New Hampshire (001 603 968 3348; www.manorongoldenpond.com). Doubles start from $227 (£130) for the room only. A cottage is also available during summer for $455 (£250) per day or $2,700 (£1,480) per week.

More information

New Hampshire Division of Travel and Tourism: 001 603 271 2665; www.visitnh.gov

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