Granite State of Mind, #124: Hampton Beach, Hampton
As the longest day of the year and the official advent of summer is upon us, it seemed an appropriate day to highlight one of New Hampshire's most popular, most touristy, and most enduring hot-weather spots. Hampton Beach is over a century old as a destination for sun-worshipers, and is the only place of its kind in the state. The Seabrook waterfront to the south is home to private cottages and working boats, while Rye to the north has some delightful, more secluded sandy points (and the coast's gem, Odiorne Point), but Hampton's strip stands alone for sheer abandon and kitsch.
Growing up in Stratham, my family tended to the Rye beaches (or, more frequently, lakes inland). It wasn't until high school in Exeter that I became familiar with the attractions and pitfalls of Hampton Beach. The water is always too cold in New Hampshire, not that it stops hardy sons and daughters of the Granite State from some blue-lipped splashing. No, the water is more for surfers and the sand for skin cancer farms. What sets this spot apart is the boardwalk, that paean to seedy novelty and depravity, God love it all. Vintage arcades (where a kid in a Blue Hawk football jersey takes his life in his hands if rival Warriors lurk about). Gift shops with dollar-store wares at ten-dollar prices. Motels bursting at the seams with central Massachusetts refugees in the summer and low-rent drifters in the winter. Bars, including the Sea Ketch where Jen used to tend bar (hit that spill button again!), the karaoke dens Christopher Scatamacchia prowls, the Ashworth-By-The-Sea where the Exeter High Class of 1993 had a memorable 10-year reunion in 2003. The McDonald's is finally gone, so the drunken hordes rely instead on fried dough and lobster rolls and other goodies from the joints that line the boardwalk. Some are partial to the Casino Ballroom, but I have a different musical memory. Listen, when a Pee-Wee-Herman imitator introduces you dressed as the Blues Brothers to perform with tuba and trumpet, you don't forget that. (Am I right, Nate Oxnard?)
It was a summer thing, cruising the 1A strip northward, crawling along looking for - what? Attention? Girls? Momentary distraction from a banal middle-class existence? I'm sure many of my classmates and friends got into more adventures than I did. I was only good for two or three laps around the block before my appetite for it all waned. Nowadays, the Beach is apparently more family-friendly. Sand-sculpting competitions, clean public bathrooms. Still, there's something to be said for a place where women in bikinis once strut along with pythons wrapped around their shoulders and grumpy biker dudes on their arm. Maybe it still happens at night in the summer. After all, it's still the strip.