Old Man or Big Wind?
Could a tour of the state’s singularities cause some unintended consequences?
As a kid growing up in the machine-polished state of Massachusetts, I considered New Hampshire something of a madman’s paradise. America’s answer to Australia — a land of assorted pirates and wild persons. A rickety riot of hard work and rifle shots and mysterious shoutings from the woods.
My home state, on the other hand, felt like the museum version of itself — a life-sized diorama under glass, well-preserved and on display. A place to visit, but not to live.
So ever since I can remember, I wanted to live here, in New Hampshire.
I wanted a truck and a gun — preferably in some form of inseparable tandem. I wanted to eat things I’d pegged in the forest (using the gun, firing from the truck) or snatched from the river (using gun from truck). A cabin on a hillside with a snow-globe view of the old-fashioned stars. A winter garden of garlic and kale. I’d pile rocks, cut down trees and become the mountain man I always dreamt I’d be.
But some kind of butterfly pin fastened me to Massachusetts. I couldn’t find the will or nerve to leave until I read a warpath quote from Daniel Webster about the Old Man of the Mountain: “Men hang out their signs indicative of their respective trades; shoe makers hang out a gigantic shoe; jewelers a monster watch … but up in the Mountains of New Hampshire, God Almighty has hung out a sign to show that there He makes men.”
That was it exactly! My invitation to “Man Country.”
I moved to Dixville Notch on April 28, 2003. The following day I made a pilgrimage to God’s shingle — the Old Man of the Mountain.
“Old Man, take a look at me now, I’m a lot like you …” I sang over the shimmers of Profile Lake. Maybe it was the girl-bird strains of my Neil Young delivery that finally loosed that flinty face from its rocky roost, but I was there to see it fall. With two or three others, I stared in disbelief as the Old Man trembled into a liquid form and poured like a smoky river into the gravel below. The avalanche had the bone smell of a bad visit to the dentist.
A bystander tried to cheer us up, “At least we still have the Big Wind …”
“The big what?” I asked. “The big wind,” he repeated. “231 miles per hour. You’d have to visit Neptune to find a stronger gust.”
It takes a peculiar effort to visit the spot where the wind most fiercely blew, and so another seven years elapsed before I journeyed to Mount Washington.
It was January 26, 2010.
Entering the visitors’ center at the summit I sensed a curious air of sorrow.
“What’s wrong?” I asked a cashier. “The Big Wind has been out-bigged by some dumb cyclone in Australia,” she said.
So the Old Man was a calamity of gravel and the Big Wind had been blown away. “At least we still have Dixville Notch,” she continued, meaning, of course, that my adopted hometown was still the first in line to vote for the President.
I haven’t myself yet voted for any President, the duty not blending with the careless philosophy of a still fairly green mountain man. But if it’s the only tail on the donkey left to pin, I plan on voting in the next election. All I can say is that I hope my streak of bad luck comes to an end there. There’s no way the world can take that from us, is there? NH