The Old Man of the Mountain has been gone, crumbled to the
valley floor, for 12 years now. But I know I am not the only one who still
looks for him there.
On May 3, 2003, when storm clouds lifted to reveal a naked
slab of granite where the Old Man had clung to the mountain for countless years,
it was a national news story. People flocked to Franconia Notch to see for
themselves. Reporters – myself among them – gathered with their microphones and
cameras and notebooks, waiting for the governor to arrive, speculating over
what forces of nature had finally dislodged the Old Man. Many people cried that
day. Some still do when they look up to that changed place on the mountain.
For people beyond New Hampshire, the Old Man’s demise – and Granite
Staters’ reaction to it – was a passing curiosity. Some saw the profile as
merely a geological wonder, a pile of rocks chiseled by the fantastic forces of
nature to resemble a human face from a certain vantage point. But to many, the
Old Man was much more: a tourist attraction that drew flocks of visitors to the
area, an inspiration to artists and writers, New Hampshire’s state symbol since
1945, but also an indescribable sense of security.
It was a point of reference for those of us who traveled
through Franconia Notch, letting us know we were almost home or approaching a
favorite vacation place. Promising that in an ever-changing world, this one
thing was, indeed, carved in stone; seeing the Old Man meant all was still good
in the mountains we love.
For the past three years I have worked with the Old Man of
the Mountain Legacy Fund, the volunteer group that evolved from the task force appointed
in 2003 and charged with developing a long-range plan to commemorate the Old
Man. The result of their tireless efforts is the Old Man of the Mountain
Profiler Plaza along the northern shore of Profile Lake.
There are seven steel “profilers” that allow visitors the illusion
of again viewing the Old Man by lining up a series of notches and looking
toward the mountain. The Plaza is lined with granite benches and paved with granite
stones engraved with the names and memories of folks from all over the state
and far beyond. In my administrative role with the Legacy Fund, I have learned
the stories of people who have some personal tie to this place, these
mountains. The Old Man is a piece of that connection, but not all of it.
One woman shared the story of her first date with her future
husband: a drive to the Old Man in 1940. From that first date, they went on to
hike the mountains around the Old Man, eventually bringing their young son
along and picnicking at Profile Lake. Both the son and the husband died many years
ago, and the woman purchased an engraved stone in their honor – and to honor
the experiences they shared here. After she had visited the Plaza to see her stone,
she wrote again: “Oh, my – a thousand and one wonderful memories came flooding
I’ve heard from so many others with a connection to this
place. A couple who was married on the Old Man’s forehead. People who have
grown up in the White Mountains and moved away, but carry New Hampshire in their
hearts. Others who came here as kids with their parents and are now bringing
their own children – and grandchildren – back to the same trails and mountain
vistas and campsites.
The Plaza is immediately adjacent to the rumbling traffic of
I-93 as it weaves through the Notch, and yet it is a sanctuary. This has become
a place not only for remembering the old Man, but for reflecting on family
stories, on loved ones no longer with us, on the beauty of this peaceful space
nestled among big mountains that mean many things to many people.
My own parents, who met on the other side of Cannon Mountain, brought my brothers and me to the
mountains from the time we were little. We came to ski and to hike, to splash
in the cool rivers and explore the vast forests. Two of us live now in
Franconia, close to where our parents have retired. The third visits each
summer with his family, sharing favorite childhood haunts.
My own children are growing up here, in the mountains, every
day. They have been to the Profiler Plaza with me many times, dragged along as
I walk in to check on things. While I tend to work duties, they splash in
Profile Lake and watch the ducks swimming there. They read a few of the paver
stones. They stand looking up through the profilers until they see the Old Man
there, on the opposite side of Cannon Mountain from where they spend their
When we have traveled south, away from home, my children mark
our return by our passage through Franconia Notch, as I did as a child. But
their eyes are trained on other things: the outline of Eagle Cliff, the tram cars
moving up and down Cannon, the still waters or whitecaps of Echo Lake. My
children have seen the Old Man in photographs and through the profilers, and so
they know what he looked like.
But they will never know that magical anticipation of
peering upward from a car window as it travels through the mountains, waiting
for the face to come into view, catching it just at the right moment, before
you’ve traveled too far and it disappears back into the mountain. They don’t think
to look toward that spot as we drive through the Notch. And although I know
better, have had a dozen years to get used to the fact that the Old Man is
gone, I still look up every time.