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In search of Souter: First, you have to find his house

"Where are we?" "Weare."

"We are?"

We were, more or less.

We had set out from the Boston suburbs an hour and a half ago on what was supposed to be a pleasant little 45-minute trip up to Judge Souter's house, and we were still nowhere near the place. In fact, we didn't seem to be anywhere near much of anything.

All the stories about David Souter describe the country's newest U.S. Supreme

Court justice as having spent most of his adult life leading a reclusive, ascetic existence along with his elderly mother in a remote farmhouse outside of Weare, N.H. Still, as we stood alongside Route 77 and tried to make sense of the map spread out across the roof of our rusted-out Saab, it occurred to us that none of the stories had really prepared us for just how remote (or, as it turns out, how ramshackle) David Souter's home would be.

Our reason for embarking on a pilgrimage to Souter's house _ aside from grabbing the opportunity to view the New England foliage before the last leaves came billowing down _ was to get a sense of the ways in which the judge's lifestyle might tell us something about what to expect of his performance on the Supreme Court. Here's what we wanted to know: Would Souter, like so many national leaders of another era, prove to be an independent-minded rural gentleman and scholar of simple tastes and limited ambition? Or was he just some creepy, idiosyncratic reactionary that the Bush administration pulled out from under a New England rock?

We intended to find out. But first, we were faced with an even more fundamental question: Where were we, anyway?

We'd have really been lost if we hadn't had the good fortune to get pulled over by a New Hampshire state trooper on the outskirts of New Boston. The young trooper,

who seemed to establish an instant rapport with my female chauffeur and guide, chose to let us go with a short, friendly warning about the inadvisability of driving 46 mph in what turned out to be a 30 mph zone on an unfamiliar road. And when he found out where we were headed, he offered us equally friendly _ but much lengthier _ directions to Judge Souter's place:

From the middle of Weare, we were supposed to head east on Route 77 until we saw the go-cart track and cow farm at Sugarhill Road. Then we were to go south until we came to "Silly Hill Road," which sounded like a notably undistinguished address for a Supreme Court justice.

The directions seemed simple enough _ until we couldn't find the middle of Weare. There's no town square, or even a concentration of four or five small businesses. Instead, there's little more than a intersection just down from Armand and Marcy's Country Store.

We'd already passed several other little stores, junkyards, restored farmhouses and double-wide mobile homes sparsely dotted along other little bends in the road, any one of which could just as easily have been the middle of Weare _ or South Weare or North Weare, for that matter.

People keep calling Souter a recluse, but we couldn't find much around here for him to be a recluse from. The best we could tell, there's no there there in Weare.

We're not sure we ever did locate the center of Weare, but somehow we did find where Souter lived. It was out past Sanborn's Lumber and the goat cheese farm, past the go-cart track and cow pasture, and up "Silly Hill Road" (actually Cilley Hill Road, a short dirt trail that dead-ends just past Judge Souter's house).

It's hard to imagine that any other major federal government official ever rose directly from less prepossessing circumstances. This is not the home of some country squire such as Thomas Jefferson, nor is it the self-consciously rustic second home of a rich lawyer with a lavish place back in the city.

It's just an old, weather-beaten wooden house with a crying need for a paint job. The sepia paint that covers most of it would be unsightly enough in the best of circumstances, and much of it has chipped away to reveal huge chunks of red and off-white pigment underneath.

Naked strips of clear plastic serve as haphazard insulation around one corner of its foundation. An unscreened front porch looks as if it wouldn't necessarily support the weight of a person any heavier than Souter. In the side yard, an abandoned wheelbarrow sits empty, and a lone horse chews forlornly at a crumbling wooden fence. Across the dirt road are the trash-strewn yards of two neighbors whose tiny shacks seem to have been lifted straight from the screen of a documentary exposing the shame of Appalachian poverty.

The inside of Souter's house is said to be even sparer than the exterior. The company that moved Souter's few possessions down to his new one-bedroom apartment in Washington a few days ago reported that the books and journals far outweighed the furniture.

No wonder the state trooper had given me a funny look back in New Boston.

"I hear the judge's house has been fixed up some since it became a tourist attraction," I had said, attempting to make conversation with our new friend who had chosen not to issue us a speeding ticket.

"Not really," he said, smiling. He was right. There's a new mailbox (which seems to be sturdier than the house itself), and somebody's mowed some of the grass that Souter occasionally has allowed to grow alarmingly high. Any other "fixing up" must have been done by vandals.

We headed back toward Weare proper, took a table at the Weareabouts restaurant, ordered a Weareburger and a bowl of soup and considered whether our excursion told us anything about our newest Supreme Court justice.

The public has been given plenty of personal clues about Souter, but precious few political ones. Even though Souter served as New Hampshire's attorney general and as a member of the state supreme court, the public record of his opinions on major constitutional issues is virtually blank. He has refused to venture an opinion on the subject of abortion rights, among others, but his testimony during his confirmation hearings was sufficiently intelligent and reassuring to win the support of 90 senators.

Even so, many people worry about Souter's past political associations with former New Hampshire Govs. John Sununu and Meldrim Thomson Jr. Thomson, a right-wing kook in almost anybody's book, chose Souter to serve as attorney general. Sununu, President Bush's doctrinaire bully of a chief of staff, appointed Souter to the New Hampshire Supreme Court. This summer, Sununu took it upon himself to attempt to persuade the president's conservative constituency that Souter is a closet reactionary.

At the same time, Democrats and moderate Republicans were led to believe that Souter's real political patron is U.S. Sen. Warren Rudman, a New Hampshire Republican whose politics and personality are far more palatable to most people than Thomson's or Sununu's. Rudman escorted Souter around official Washington during the confirmation process, and Souter even slept in one of Rudman's spare bedrooms for a few weeks until he found a place of his own.

The White House might have recruited Rudman (who happens to be solidly pro-choice on abortion) to embrace Souter for the benefit of skeptical Democrats. Even so, Souter's behavior since winning confirmation _ and winning the freedom to say and do whatever he wants, even if it upsets the senators who no longer have any control over him _ suggests that his relationship with Rudman is genuine.

That's the way most people in New Hampshire seem to see it. Souter is "definitely Rudman's boy," says Lucy Karl, a Manchester lawyer.

Souter also remains close to Tom Rath, a moderate Republican who served as his deputy attorney general and now is a central player in state politics. Rath, whose young daughter held the Bible at Souter's swearing-in ceremony, says Souter has made friends and admirers "across the political spectrum."

One of those admirers is Karl, a pro-choice Democrat. She says she's still worried about how Souter might rule on abortion cases, but she's generally impressed with his intellect and judicial philosophy.

She thinks that Thomson and Sununu may have turned to Souter simply because little New Hampshire didn't offer them all that many first-rate legalminds to choose from, regardless of their ideology. "We have plenty of lawyers who are fine on slip-and-fall cases," she says, "but Souter always had a broader reach."

We won't really be able to judge Souter's impact on the court until he's issued a few dozen opinions, but our visit convinced us that it's already past time to cut Souter a little slack on the question of his supposed personality quirks.

Some people seem to think Souter is weird because he has chosen to live a quiet, contemplative life in rural New Hampshire. Would they really prefer to have all our Supreme Court justices chosen from the ever-expanding pool of big-city corporate lawyers and ambulance-chasers?

Ralph Jimenez, a Boston Globe reporter who owns another remote house in Weare, points out that it's not at all unusual in New England for important people such as Souter to make their homes in the country, even on isolated dirt roads.

Jimenez, who is familiar with the condition of Souter's house and yard, does acknowledge that "physical surroundings and aesthetics obviously aren't a big factor" in Souter's life.

Which leads to another point. . .

Other people seem to think Souter is weird because he seems so utterly unconcerned with appearances and material possessions. Would they really prefer to have the Constitution interpreted by nine Jaguar-driving, Rolex-wearing, jet-setting lawyers with hundred-dollar haircuts?

And furthermore, why do some people act as if Souter should apologize for being so close to his mother? Would they really prefer to entrust our rights to some hard-charging attorney who'd run over his grandmother for a seat on the bench?

These were the kinds of thoughts we digested as we lounged in the Weareabouts and chewed on our Weareburgers.

Then we headed back to Massachusetts (taking a new route that allowed us to bypass our friend the trooper). We'd had a hard time finding what we were looking for, but the trip hadn't been a total loss.

We still don't know what David Souter thinks about abortion, but we have a better idea of what kind of person he must be. We can't say how sympathetic he'll be to the plight of America's urban poor, but we're confident he's quite familiar with rural poverty. We aren't sure whether people in California or Florida still think he's an odd character, but we know that folks in New Hampshire think he's a reasonably normal guy.

In short, we still don't know exactly where he's coming from, but at least we know he's coming from Weare.

Robert Friedman is an editorial writer for the St. Petersburg Times.