Reflecting on the Old Man

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(Host) Commentator Tom Slayton reflects on the recent collapse of New Hampshire’s number one tourist attraction, the Old Man of the Mountain.

(Slayton) When the array of ledges known as the Old Man of the Mountain finally succumbed to gravity and thundered down the side of Cannon Mountain into Franconia Notch a few weeks ago, New Hampshire lost its most widely known symbol and a historic landmark.

Vermont doesn’t have a symbol as famous as the Old Man of the Mountain. To generate the equivalent shock in Vermont, Camel’s Hump would have to spontaneously implode or the water would have to drain out of
Lake Champlain overnight.

The destruction of the Old Man of the Mountain was a natural event, and no actual living person was injured, so it couldn’t be called a disaster. The collection of ledges that from one point looked like a craggy human face, and the cables supporting them, simply crashed into the notch unnoticed one rainy spring night.

Yet almost immediately broadcasters and newspaper columnists began doing their best to wring maximum sentiment out of what amounted to a spectacular case of mountainside erosion.

One of our most enduring human traits is the ability to project our own personalities, thoughts, even human physiognomy onto nature. And so quite a number of people were deeply saddened to see the Old Man collapse. Several of the newspaper writers called their tributes to the fallen stone face “eulogies,” and the State of New Hampshire sent people up to the highway turnout where the old man was best seen from to talk to people who stopped
in – doing something that sounded a lot like grief counseling.

Though the face wasn’t a living being, it came to symbolize the sturdy self-reliance New Hampshire people associate with themselves, and, as we all know, people can sometimes show more love for symbols than they can for other human beings.

For me, however, the Old Man of the Mountains symbolized not just self-reliance, but an earlier and simpler kind of tourism. Nowadays, people think nothing of going to Paris for an art show or to Nepal to hike in the Himalayas.

The Great Stone face was something humbler – just the sort of local wonder that people would pile the family into the car and pack along a picnic to go see on an afternoon drive or a weekend excursion.

Franconia Notch is replete with just that sort of 19th century natural wonder: a huge natural pool that Henry David Thoreau visited called the Basin; the Flume; and of course the many nearby hiking trails. Probably none of those will replace the Old Man of the Mountains as a New Hampshire symbol. (They don’t, after all, resemble us, the noble homo sapiens!) But they’re equally fascinating – and they all share that aura of an earlier, gentler era of do-it-yourself tourism.

Perhaps now the White Mountains themselves will emerge as the true symbol of New Hampshire. Or perhaps we’ll learn to appreciate those wonderful mountains in their own right and won’t need to see them as a symbol or an emblem of ourselves.

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