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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Granite State of Mind, #7: Old Man of the Mountain, Cannon Mountain, Franconia

Legends of the Fall

On May 3, 2003, Sarah and I were in Boston for the evening. While out for an after-dinner drink, it came up in casual conversation with some other patrons that we were from New Hampshire. "Shame about the Old Man," one said. It felt a bit like the kind of weak jibe a big brother might level at a younger sibling (New England bands together against the rest of the world, but within the region there are dynamics like in any other family, and the rivalry between Massachusetts and New Hampshire can range from friendly banter to near-fisticuffs). In those waning days before smart phones (at least, neither of us had one), it was the next day before we could verify the story in the morning paper. The Old Man of the Mountain, the iconic granite face from our prodigious hilltops, had come crashing down.

The Old Man had been there for thousands of years, of course, the product of the grinding Wisconsin glaciation of prehistory. Europeans first noticed him during a survey in 1805, when Francis Whitcomb and Luke Brooks were startled to see the profile of then-President Thomas Jefferson in stark relief on the mountainside. The Old Man's fame grew as Nathaniel Hawthorne immortalized him in his short story "The Great Stone Face", and even more so when New Hampshire's own (eat it, Massachusetts) Daniel Webster wrote his famous paean to his home state: "Men hang out their signs indicative of their respective trades; shoe makers hang out a gigantic shoe; jewelers a monster watch, and 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."

New Hampshirites are a historically rock-ribbed bunch, the most Yankee of Yankees, flinty-eyed and reticent and self-reliant and civic-minded, and the Old Man was our totem. The emblem of our granite roots, sunk deep into the land. The emblem of our fierce devotion to liberty, our conviction to live free or die. Most importantly, the emblem of our inexhaustible yearning for a better life, clinging to the mountain and yet gazing into the firmament with vision and hope. He was our identity, our sense of self and place, and his falling was a great shared tragedy for all of us who call New Hampshire our native soil.

He's still there, though, on all the highway markers and state documents, and in the hearts and tribal memories of those of us who were among the last to see him on his lofty perch. And though his stones fell, those characteristics we took from him and made our own are still with us, and always will be. Because the true bedrock of New Hampshire isn't the haphazard configuration of ledges on a cliff - it's the goodness and generosity and spirit of her people. And no matter how the winds blow or the ice threatens, those rocks will never fall.

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