Friday, May 8, 2015

Old Man Memories

I still look up each time I drive through Franconia Notch. Old habits indeed die hard, and I’ve been looking to that particular spot on the mountain’s edge since I was a kid coming north the Friday nights of my childhood and heading south on Sunday afternoons. Whichever direction the family car was traveling, I peered out the window, craning my neck until we reached that magical place where the Old Man appeared, just for a moment, a stone face on a mountain’s edge.  

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 back.”

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 winters skiing.

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. 

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the May 8, 2015 edition of the Littleton Record.

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