The Old Man of the Mountain in New Hampshire crumbled 16 years ago. But he’s still a tourist attraction, thanks to dedicated locals and optical trickery.
We’re staring up at a cliff face. Just your standard-looking cliff face. It’s not even the most impressive cliff face in view. Behind us are even more impressive cliffs, rising from the reds and yellows of the autumn foliage into the low clouds above this mountain pass.
So why are we staring at this other, less prominent cliff face? Because of what it used to look like, and “face” is the operative word.
What we’re looking at used to have more cliff, and more face. Prior to 2003, a series of granite ledges appeared, from where we are standing, to resemble an old man looking out across New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
Old Man of the Mountain/Great Stone Face means a lot to this New England state. “He” appears on the state’s quarter, licence plates and highway route markers. Two sitting presidents visited, and laws were passed criminalising any vandalism of the 12,000-year-old.
You can see him everywhere in the state, except for where he once stood.
The Old Man no longer exists in nature. Despite decades-long human attempts to keep him propped up against the forces of erosion, he went the way of his namesake in the “It’s Raining, It’s Pouring” nursery rhyme, collapsing one night in 2003 and failing to get up in the morning.
The bare rock left behind, the one we look up at now, looks faceless and unremarkable as any other mountainside. So why would we visit?
It’s a question New Hampshirites may have asked after the collapse, too. The state’s symbol has moved on; does that mean tourists will also pass by? What do you do when a natural drawcard, a literal icon, disappears?
An obvious solution would be the construction of a replica. That route was proposed in various forms: one architect designed a sculpture made of copper, another suggested constructing a walk-through glass replica attached to the remaining cliffside.
But wouldn’t that defeat the purpose of the attraction? The Old Man’s hold on the imagination was due to his being a 100 per cent natural phenomenom. An artist reconstructing him would essentially be asking people to visit a rough sketch of Mount Rushmore.
Locals decided against that idea. Their approach to the Old Man of the Mountain Memorial (yes, memorial) meant the cliff face wasn’t touched at all. The Old Man was a natural optical illusion, so they created some of their own artificial trickery to return him to his staring spot – all from 250 metres away at the old viewing area.
At the Profiler Plaza, opened in 2011, seven hockey stick-like steel beams rise from blocks. At the top of each of those beams are what looks like a group of Lego blocks mashed together in a line.
But when you stand in specially marked footprints in front of the beams, the blocks are arranged so that there he is! The Old Man appears to you, attached to the side of the cliff as he was for millenia.
Non-intrusive and tastefully made (except for the inevitable McDonald’s sponsorship marker carved into a bench at the edge of the plaza), you get the chance to see how the icon would have looked before erosion claimed its scalp 16 years ago.
Further along is an old viewfinder that contains a three-dimensional image of the Old Man, giving you an idea of what you would have seen through binoculars back in the day.
“It’s a shame, isn’t it?” another visitor said to us as we stood looking at the cliff through the beams. “I came here when I was young and it was magnificent. But they’ve done a good job here.”
That’s a sentiment we shared that October morning. Those who loved the profile did a great job ensuring it was memorialised, and the 10-minute walk from the car park in the autumn chill to the plaza was a lovely experience.
Should you drive all the way to see this memorial of rocks-that-were? No, but one thing working in the Old Man of the Mountain’s favour is its proximity to other tourist attractions. For one thing, it’s right next to an interstate, and a ski resort and the Cannon Mountain tramway is just around the corner.
Further down the highway is Flume Gorge, Loon Mountain and a bunch of different hikes, while Mount Washington is about an hour away. If the Old Man had come to be in the middle of nowhere, I’m not sure we’d have taken the time to visit, but his being smack-bang in the middle of a major New Hampshire tourist route certainly did the trick for us.
And despite being gone for 16 years, the Old Man still draws a crowd. We arrived early, but as we returned to the car park past the gift shop and bathrooms, weekend travellers were starting to fill up the spaces. Plates from New York, Massachusetts, Vermont and Pennsylvania were alongside our Ontario ones and, of course, the Old Man himself on the New Hampshire-registered cars.
Gone, but in no way forgotten, may he Rest In Pieces.
Where: Old Man of the Mountain Historic Site, Franconia, NH.
When: Year-round. The area will get busy in autumn as the leaves change.
How: A two-hour drive from Boston or three hours from Montreal. Take I-93 to Exit 34B and follow the brown signs to Old Man of the Mountain Historic Site.
We visited in: October, 2019