Old Man of the Mountain fell on May 3, 2003. What now?
The trail to Profile Lake is still littered with reminders of the Old Man. The old ice-cream stand remains but has gone out of business, and the carved signs along the road advertising “Old Man Viewing” have taken on a funereal tone. From the lake you can clearly see the debris field high up on the mountain. “It’s kind of like a graveyard to me,” reflects Dave Nielsen, who continues his work as one of the fundraisers.
Two weeks after the collapse, Nielsen led a small group of friends up through the debris. It was overcast and raining, and the granite was dangerously slick. They had come to say goodbye and to see where the remains had fallen.
They found a few stones they knew were the Old Man’s, still marked with the paint or epoxy that Nielsen had likely applied himself. Nielsen had been the Old Man’s caretaker since he’d inherited the title from his father in 1999. For four decades the two of them had lowered themselves over the side of the cliff to measure and fill cracks in the Old Man’s face. It had been dangerous work, and neither had ever drawn a salary as caretaker. At most the state would supply $1,250 a year, so they’d been forced to beg and borrow the majority of their supplies. Whenever they’d needed a skill they didn’t possess, someone from the community would volunteer. The friends who joined Dave Nielsen that day were just a handful of the scores who had risked their lives to help them.
The group gathered in a circle to say some words. Everyone knew the moment meant more for Dave. When his father passed away, Dave had left his ashes in one of the Old Man’s cracks. They were now somewhere amid the rubble. Nielsen recalls what happened next with a touch of awe: “All of a sudden, the fog opens up. We can clearly see all the way up to where the Old Man was, and then the fog rolls back in. No one said anything else. We put some flowers on the ground, and I cut them loose. Nothing else you could say.”
Nielsen doesn’t regret the work he’s done for the Old Man, either before the collapse or for the Fund. When he talks about it, his speech is littered with the phrase “the right thing to do.” He often retells a lesson his father taught him: “You have to do something as a volunteer to give back to your community for the privilege of living here.” When you talk to people about what the Old Man meant, this sentiment comes up over and over again. The Nielsens saw a problem and they fixed it, without asking anything in return.
It might have seemed natural, then, that the Old Man memorial would be built in similar fashion–a grassroots outpouring to restore the state’s fallen symbol–but that wasn’t the case. Committee members opted for a corporate fundraising approach. They focused on quietly soliciting from businesses and the wealthy and did little to spread the word about their project. Press coverage was anemic, and few people were even aware of the Fund’s existence.
This approach infuriated Nielsen. “The people who have $5 to give should be able to do that,” he grumbles. “There’s nobody out there asking school kids for their pennies.” While it’s impossible to know whether such an appeal to the masses would have worked, it couldn’t have done worse than the corporate approach. The Fund was hamstrung by its volunteer status. Large donors wouldn’t contribute without some kind of government guarantee.
“If I won Megabucks, I’d fund this project,” Nielsen says without a hint of sarcasm. “Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of money. Those who do have a lot of money haven’t stepped up, for some reason.” If people like Dave Nielsen and Dick Hamilton could have chipped out the granite they needed with their bare hands and dragged it to Profile Lake on their backs, the monument would have been built by now. But they couldn’t–it was just too big. The monument has outgrown the memory, and in doing so might have left behind the people who cared about it most.
By the end of 2008, the Legacy Fund had hit a wall. It had few donors, and public interest had all but dried up. To save the project, committee members reluctantly took a step they knew would move them further from what the Old Man had represented: They asked the state for money. Their reasoning was simple: After all the money the state had made on the Old Man, it was time to pay a little back. Besides, it was an investment–something to bring back the tourists. “This thing is the right thing to do emotionally,” Nielsen says. “This thing is the right thing to do financially.”
The right thing? Perhaps. But like everything else with the Old Man, that’s a matter of perspective.