One morning in May, 2003, the people of New Hampshire awoke to the news that an ancient natural rock formation high on a mountain in Franconia Notch, which when viewed at a certain angle bore a craggy, amazingly stark outline of a man’s profile, had slid off into oblivion sometime during the night after enduring centuries of fierce weather.
The news of the sudden disappearance of the Old Man of the Mountains, as this natural wonder had come to be known, shocked people. It had jutted out from a cliff some 1200 feet above the aptly named Profile Lake for who knows how long, maybe 10,000 years? Since the last Ice Age some geologists said.
There are very beautiful pictures nearly everywhere of the Old Man, for sale at gift shops or convenience stores around the state, or available on the internet. Yet none of these images do justice to what this configuration of rock appeared like in “person,” as it were. But everything is different in the mountains, anyway. Ask any skier, hiker or rock climber. The peaks, the sky, the air, the shadows against uncountable trees and boulders bring a hugeness of scale upon ones senses that invigorates, clears the head, sharpens the eye. So when you drove along amid all this, turned a corner in the road and looked up, suddenly you saw this giant brow and nose and chin emerge against the sky, and of course, no matter how many times you passed this way, you just had to pull over, stop the car, get out and stand there and take in That Face. That Great Stone Face as Hawthorne called it.
After early 19th Century settlers happened upon him while mapping the wilderness, artists and poets were soon making the trek north on crude roads to paint and write about this visage. Before that, they say Indians venerated him. Certainly our forebears did. He was a sign that in New Hampshire “God makes men,” Daniel Webster supposedly wrote. In modern times the Old Man’s image was placed on the state’s license plates, highway signs, and official and unofficial government logos and stationary, to say nothing of hundreds of kinds of souvenirs and promotional material. Years after he disappeared into a thousand pieces at the foot of a cliff, his image remains everywhere. We just don’t have the heart to let him go.
Now, near an existing museum honoring his memory, we hear of plans to create a Stonehenge-type “monument” to the Old Man of several acres, consisting of pathways and giant monoliths of granite to be situated near Cannon Mountain and Profile Lake. The idea is that as one observes these slabs from a platform, an image of a profile will appear as one’s eye scans across them, just so.
Of course this is all preposterous. Well intentioned but preposterous. Not only will this not do justice to what the Old Man was, but these odd, unsightly configurations will disrupt a beautiful natural area, and create something that will lose meaning as years pass. Future generations will be as stumped about these strange shapes as we are about those weird face statues on Easter Island. They’ll probably think aliens placed them there. What we really need to be working on is something new for our road signage and license plates.
The Old Man of the Mountains is gone. It’s time to get over it and move on.