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Somewhere Between Obscurity and Oblivion

" Men hang out their signs indicative of their respective trades. Shoemakers hang out a gigantic shoe; jewelers a monster watch; even the dentist hangs out a gold tooth; but up in the mountains of New Hampshire God Almighty has hung out a sign to show that there He Makes Men."
- Attributed to Daniel Webster
March 3, 2003:
(taken by Peter Smith)

Farewell, Old Man

On the morning of Saturday, May 3, I awoke to the phone ringing. On the other end of the line was my mother, calling from home in Littleton, New Hampshire.

My parents and I have a very scheduled routine when it comes to talking on the phone. Every Sunday evening we talk for an hour or so. Rarely do I call them at other times of the week, and almost never do they call me at other times. So when I first heard my mother's voice, I immediately feared something was wrong. Her voice was steady and she did not sound upset, so I was hopeful that the news was not bad. She said, "Have you heard the news? It's quite sad actually."

Uh-oh. My mind began to race. What sad news could be so big that she would call, yet not so sad that she would be audibly shaking?

"The Old Man fell down last night."

My initial sense of relief that all family and friends were okay was soon replaced with a deep sense of sorrow. It was not a loss of life, but it was still a huge personal loss.

(For those who don't know: What is the Old Man of the Mountain?)

For those who are not from New Hampshire, it is hard to explain the deep connection we have with the Old Man. He is the State Symbol. He is on the N.H. state quarter issued a few years ago. He is on every single road sign and almost every license plate. Losing the Old Man is like Philadelphia losing the Liberty Bell, or New York losing the Statue of Liberty. In a world of change, he was always there. Always keeping an eye over the North Country, reminding us all of where we came from. He was a symbol of the life we embraced.

Like every New Hampshirite, I have a strong personal connection with the Old Man. I grew up 15 miles up the road from him. I developed my passion for the outdoors from playing in his front yard. Through most of my childhood, I spent every single winter day that I was not in school downhill skiing on his backside at Cannon Mountain (before I saw the light and turned to cross country). I have climbed every mountain that the Old Man could see from his perch in Franconia Notch. I have skied, run, hiked, rollerskied, biked and driven by him hundreds and hundreds of times.

But every time I passed by, I still turned my head to look up and see him. It was a silent way of saying "thanks for being there." People who have explored into the bowels of this website know that one of the first web pages I ever created was a tribute to the Old Man. Even here, 4,000 miles away in Alaska I still have a framed picture of him hanging in my dining room.

Most people who know about the Old Man, also know the Daniel Webster quote, written above. I, like many others, am very proud to have been raised in Northern New Hampshire. That quote, and the Old Man himself, are major part of the pride I feel.

But for me, my feeling for the Old Man run deeper. It is a spiritual, even religious feeling.

When the subject of religion would come up in every day conversation, my father was fond of saying that he goes to church everyday - every time he straps on his skis or gets on his bike. Exercise is his religion.

When I was younger, I used to think that was just a cute little quip. But as I have grown older, I have found a lot of personal truth in that statement. I believe in God, but I am a bit uncomfortable with the personification of God - thinking of him/her as a person, albeit an all-powerful person. To me, God is more like Mother Nature - a spirit that controls the ebb and the flow of the natural world. In fact I think God and Mother Nature are one in the same.

Though I rarely attend church, I experience God almost every day when I exercise. Every time I get out into the woods, it is a powerful, peaceful experience. I feel closest to God when I am skiing alone in a snowy wilderness, or traversing a remote ridge line, or gazing at the stars. I give thanks for the amazing world around me and for my ability to experience it. Most of the natural world can be explained with science, but it's beauty contains an indomitable spirit as well.

The Old Man of the Mountain was a perfect face for that Spirit. A synergy of God and Nature. Geologists who had examined the Face in the past said there was no scientific explaination for how it still hung there. To me, the Old Man of the Mountain was a very strong symbol of God and the wonder of the natural world. He was sacred, which is why I would pay my respects every time I passed by.

More than once, while I was skiing, or hiking, or rollerskiing in Franconia Notch, I stopped and talked to the Old Man. Mostly I would thank him for the stunning beauty of nature, and for watching over us, and occasionally I would vent my troubles. He always listened, and in his own silent way, was very reassuring and encouraging. He never seemed scared or worried, why should I? Talking to the Old Man was like going to church and talking to your best friend at the same time.

The proud Old Man was a source of State Pride for a million people. So it was only fitting that no one saw his demise. A proud animal who knows its time has come will slink of into the woods to rest in peace, not letting anyone see his weakness. The Old Man, too, slipped away under the cover of clouds and darkness, leaving behind a bare mantle of rock where he once stood. Like a mythical being, or Jedi Knight using the Force, he simply vanished, leaving behind only the chains that once held him in place.

People say he fell to the ground, and many souvenir seekers will probably clamor at the base of the Cannon cliffs to get a small piece of granite that might possibly have hung 1200 feet up as part of the Old Man. The rock might have fallen, but the Old Man did not. He is still there, just as he is still here in the mountains of Alaska. The Old Man raised generations of New Hampshirites who will keep his spirit alive and well for years to come. We will continue to raise him high in our hearts whenever we visit the mountains, whether they be in New Hampshire or halfway around the world.

I continue to visit the Old Man every time I step out the door with my running shoes on. In fact, after my mother woke me up with the sad news yesterday morning I knew that I needed to see him. Later that day I did a four hour run, high in to the Alaskan wilderness. I needed to visit the Old Man's house to say goodbye. There I was, miles from civilization, without anyone in sight. But the Old Man was there, just as he always is whenever Nature overwhelms me with her beauty. From that spot I could see glaciers, lakes, mountains, ocean and sky - signs of the Old Man's work everywhere. I paused and tried to say goodbye, but I just couldn't do it. Despite what people may say, I knew he wasn't gone. He had just moved on to another part of his beautiful natural kingdom.

I only stopped for a minute before continuing on my run. After all, the Old Man's kingdom is endless and I still have a lot more of it I want to see.

So long for now, Old Man. I'll see you again soon.

Manchester Union Leader:
Old Man of the Mountain Falls
Nature Reclaims Classic NH Icon

© 2003 Cory Smith. All Rights Reserved.