Issue 43.1 Summer/Fall 2022
He was on the back of every New Hampshire State quarter, on every state driver's license, on every local license plate, and on every kid's mind while motoring through Franconia Notch. Once revered by Nathaniel Hawthorne, he graced oblong fridge magnets, gas-station postcards, and countless highway signs from the docks of Portsmouth to the church steeples of Bethlehem. He weighed fourteen and a half million pounds and two U.S. presidents had visited him. He was the most famous granite rock in the entire Granite State.
With a sharply-jutting chin, prominent nose, and bulging forehead, the Old Man of the Mountain was a series of granite cliff ledges—a rocky outcrop near the top of New Hampshire's Cannon Mountain—forming the unmistakable image of a man's face. He could be seen in profile from the north of the Notch, the result of twelve-thousand-year-old glaciers cutting through the valley like angry traffic. To many, at forty feet tall and twenty-five feet wide, the Old Man was evidence of the divine. But the divine's work isn't always safe from the divine's other work—namely time, gravity, and the brutal exigencies of nature.
A large "fissure" had broken out across the Old Man's forehead over half a century ago— the result of a seasonal freeze and thaw, an accordion of water in its cracks—and between the hours of midnight and two a.m. on May 3rd, 2003, the Old Man's chin and nose snapped clean off, dropping a thousand feet down the side of Cannon Mountain. They scraped against the rockwalls below, leaving deep, white gashes in the mountainside like thoughtless chalk marks. The loose boulders eventually came to a staggered halt, their fall broken by a heavily-stressed treeline—an army of spruce, hemlock, beech and maple. Only a chunk of jutting forehead remained above, along with four metal "turnbuckle" steel-rod reinforcements, installed in the late 1950s, suddenly left exposed like lone flamingo necks at the cliff's edge.
Down below, under a piece of the Old Man's granite chin, was the body of a twenty-three year-old man, crushed to death.
Every cop in town hated him with a vengeance bordering on homicidal. He had more speeding tickets than anyone in the North Country—and local businesses looked twice when he stepped through their doors. If Rilo Kilborne didn't eventually become a cop, he was more than likely to get shot by one.
He threw massive parties out on the compound when his parents were away. They usually resulted in the rat-a-tat of thrown punches, a few dozen keg-stands, and the imminent threat of doomed romance. If there wasn't at least one relationship ultimatum made at a party, it wasn't deemed a success. But among friends, Rilo was well-liked. He'll do anything for you, just ask. That's what everyone told me. He had so many favors owed to him by the time he graduated high school that he could've easily coasted, but what made Rilo especially respected—what made him loved—was that he never called those favors in.
The cops were a different story. By the time he was nineteen, Rilo had chalked up six run-ins over the course of eighteen months. Some thought he was entitled; others thought he was mentally ill. A few thought he was simply a punk in need of a lesson—a rebel without a cause—although Rilo would argue he was a rebel with many causes, none of which were your business, especially if you were a cop doing the asking. Whatever he was, Rilo had the unique ability to uphold an argument at a volume and intensity far beyond its welcome, largely because he managed to learn just enough to talk his way out of anything. Roaring around his parents' property on his motorbike late into the night, he earned himself a few noise complaints—which he brushed off like summer rain from a leather jacket.
But Rilo always knew how to endear himself to people. He once paid his ex-con cousin, a short-order cook at Friendly's Restaurant, to sneak him twenty Jubilee Rolls out of a company warehouse so he could throw an ice cream party for a friend of ours who was struggling with leukemia. He randomly paid people's tabs at restaurants without telling them, then disappeared before he could be thanked. He got some kind of perverse thrill out of being generous and not claiming the reward for it. He probably did it to offset how much of a pain in the ass he knew he could be.
More often than not, Rilo was on people's minds. Small towns work like that, and everyone needed something to talk about. If he were present for it, Rilo might've even joined in the conversation about himself. Which way he argued—in his favor or against—would be entirely dependent on his mood that day.
In the early spring of '03, I worked a waitressing gig at the Woodward Motor Inn Steakhouse in North Woodstock. Once I finished my associates degree at the White Mountains Community College and got myself out into the working world, a certain type of man began to notice me. Truck drivers, trial lawyers, and divorced businessmen often left me their cards, urging me to give them a call "for anything, anytime." Mostly I just took the cards and chucked them in the trash.
"Really, Esme," Roberto, the Peruvian cook, teased me, "you gotta stop seducing our customers."
"I'm not seducing anybody!" I cried, putting up three more order slips.
He really got a kick out of how many men hit on me, and liked to complain that they weren't hitting on him. "There's four gay men within ten miles of this town," Roberto said. "And none of them want anything to do with me."
"Then let's get out of here. Let's go to New York," I said.
Instead, we always made ourselves overloaded sundaes at the steel-encased, rollable ice-cream bar when the dining room shut down at an absurdly early eight-thirty. We had a running bet on who could pile the most maraschino cherries on top. Roberto won because he couldn't stand to lose. But mostly, I let him win.
"I think I might be in love with Rilo," I confessed. "And it's a problem."
"That boy has demons," said Roberto, as he lowered his spoon. "Maybe that's what you're in love with, not him." He scraped the bottom of his sundae bowl. "Isn't that what happens? We fall in love with a person's potential, or their flaws, but rarely with the person." He shook his head and smiled. "That said, Esme, when you're done with him..."
I pointed at him like a truancy officer. "Don't you dare."
Roberto chuckled, threw me a sly grin, and got back to work wiping down the grill.
After sleeping late one rainy Sunday morning, Rilo picked me up in his sticker-covered Volvo 240. The one with front-seat headrests that had those weird sideways prison bar slats, as I called them. We sliced through the backroads of Franconia, past churches and farm-stands. Only a few people lived out here.
"Chutter's in Littleton," announced Rilo. "You wanna go?"
"You think I need to be convinced?" I replied.
If there were ever a town that Norman Rockwell would be jealous to paint, Littleton was it. Nestled between a small hill and a busy river, the main street had a movie theater with one showing per day. There was a bookstore filled with Brio train sets. And there was Chutter's—officially the longest candy counter in the world. We stopped in for some fudge and licorice, and then ate a green pepper pizza at a brewery overlooking the Ammonoosuc River. A crimson-red covered bridge crossed the water a few hundred feet down from where we sat. It was one of those postcard-worthy sights that made people want to visit New Hampshire and never leave. I couldn't take my eyes off it.
"What are you looking at?" Rilo asked.
I turned back to him and smiled. "Nothing. I'm looking at you."
There's a famous Native American legend about the Old Man of the Mountain—it involves an Abenaki man who fell wildly in love with the daughter of an Iroquois chief. Eventually, a deal was struck between the two tribes for a marriage. The Iroquois woman moved to Franconia Notch to live with her new Abenaki husband, and years later, when word of the Iroquois chief's deteriorating health reached his daughter, she traveled to see him one final time. Her husband spent that winter perched atop Cannon Mountain, where he could see every visitor coming into and out of the Notch. He waited the entire winter for his wife's return, but it never came. As the legend goes, his bones were recovered the following spring, and his spirit is said to be embodied by the Old Man—forever waiting on his bride to show.
Just across Franconia Notch hangs another rock profile, something less talked about and lesser known, called "The Watcher." She looks down upon the valley below, part of an outcropping of Eagle Cliff, a shoulder of Mt. Lafayette. Whether or not she and the Old Man ever had anything beyond a staring contest, we'll never really know.
Rilo and I dated for seven weeks and broke up at least four times. He truly excelled at apologies. I once even found him passed out on a mossy, humpback-whale of a boulder, right next to the quiet brook that crawled its way through his family's property. He was shirtless, facedown, an empty bottle of Jim Beam clutched in hand, in forty-two-degree weather. I'm amazed he didn't end up with pneumonia.
I quickly came to realize that I was competing with something else—a dark undercurrent that wanted Rilo's attention, something powerful and arresting that he couldn't easily shake—and I was really only a third party to that relationship. I think Rilo knew this, which is why his apologies were always so sincere.
Our relationship finally unravelled that spring—I couldn't take any more of his run-ins with the cops or his late-night mea culpas, no matter how heartfelt they were. Two weeks after we broke it off for good, and suddenly three tequila shots deep, I found myself at a house party in Laconia, making out with Bryan Robinson.
It was about 11:45 p.m., and Bryan wasn't shy about telling me he liked me. I'd rebuffed him for well over a year, but my friends—who soured on Rilo long before I did—said I should give Bryan a shot. He was from a working-class family in Sugar Hill and spent his summers as a fry cook at Polly's Pancake Parlor. He worked the rest of the year as a mechanic at his cousin's auto garage in North Woodstock.
My two best friends departed the couch, leaving a vacuum for Bryan to edge closer. These friends watched me through the stream of partygoers, like an eager, nervous parent. Meanwhile, Bryan told me how much he couldn't get me out of his head. In fact, he was probably trying too hard for my liking, but I went with it. Maybe it was because I suddenly saw Rilo across the living room—a very late arrival to the party—eyeing me like a tax collector. At that moment, I just really wanted to get back at him.
If I have one special talent, it's the ability to go all-in on something.
So I downed another shot, climbed on top of Bryan, and started kissing him—as he slid his hands around my lower back. After a moment, I pulled back to meet Bryan's euphoric gaze, then patted him gently on the cheek and climbed off. I needed air. That's when Rilo emerged from a dark corner and punched Bryan in the face. It took three people to pull him off.
After multiple friends intervened and talked both parties down, Rilo apologized to everyone, grabbed his old Race Team coat off the kitchen counter, and took off out the door.
Outside the party, I smoked a cigarette, nearly freezing my ass off.
As Rilo stepped past, he simply grabbed the cigarette right out of my hand, took a deep drag, and chucked it into the grass. Then he got on his motorbike and roared off into the night.
He could've burned down all of New Hampshire with that cigarette.
A month later, Rilo asked if I could meet him at the old brewery overlooking the river in Littleton. It'd been weeks since we'd spoken anything of substance to each other. We occasionally crossed paths at the Price Chopper, usually in the cereal aisle, but nothing beyond a terse "hey" was ever exchanged.
I was well into dating Bryan at that point, and he proved to be far cooler than I expected. He wasn't initially happy about my going to see Rilo, but he relented because he trusted me.
Looking out at the red covered bridge, Rilo smoked a cigarette and ordered us a round of apology beers. "I'm sorry about the party," he said. "I'd like to think I'm better than that."
"I would hope so, Rilo."
"Is your boyfriend still mad at me?"
"If I was your boyfriend, I'd still be mad at me." He smiled.
After a moment, he asked, "You ever gonna get out of New Hampshire, Esme?"
"Why? Should I?"
"Yes, otherwise you'll turn to granite, like me."
I looked away and took a long drink of Hefeweizen. "Well, I am saving up," I said. "I'm thinking I could go teach somewhere. Maybe abroad. I just don't know yet."
He coughed into his elbow. I wasn't ready to share more details of my deepest plans with him, like I once might have. He could sense that reticence, so he did what he did best—just started talking nervously.
"When we were dating, I always thought you were the kind of person who just, I don't know, could look in a window of a passing house and see an entire life play out. You have that ability." He anxiously picked at the edge of his coaster. "I don't, but you do."
I thought about all the backroads we used to drive together. I kept thinking back to that day in the rain, when we started dating.
"If I leave," I said. "I'd like to think I'd come back."
Rilo looked at me for a long moment, then he raised his beer.
"No, you won't."
We drank a bit more in silence. Then his eyes lit up, as he pointed out a snow-capped ridge in the distance. "Did I ever tell you about these mountains?" He gathered his thoughts excitedly, like he couldn't wait to tell me the news. "They used to be trees..."
"They're made of petrified rock." He dragged hard on his American Spirit. "Trees with trunks two miles wide... Can you believe that?"
"You're full of shit," I said, laughing.
"Yeah, maybe. But if the trees were that big..." He paused. "How big were we?" He pulled another cigarette from his yellow, crumpled pack. "How big were we?"
"Maybe we were giants walking the Earth," I whispered, egging him on.
"Petrified rock." He shook his head. "Fuckin' petrified rock."
I watched him for a moment, watching the mountains. "What if I said you should come with me, Rilo? To wherever I'm going..." I leaned back and just waited for a response.
He slowly turned to look at me, taken aback, and got very quiet. He crossed his arms and swallowed back something—something that he wasn't sure he could ever say. Then he stared out at the Ammonoosuc River, endlessly flowing underneath its still-frozen sheath.
"I'm not leaving here," he said. "I'm never leaving here."
On a drizzly May night, just after the bars closed, word spread around town that three police cruisers were chasing Rilo down Route 93. He had finally taken an actual swing at a cop—a cocky junior officer whom Rilo claimed harassed him constantly—just before jumping in his car and taking off.
Pushing a hundred in a sixty-five zone, helping his rickety Volvo discover its true limits, Rilo barreled down into the Notch, past Artist's Bluff and Echo Lake—places where, as a kid, he'd left behind half-eaten tuna sandwiches for hungry ants, and where he'd caught pinch-happy crayfish with a flimsy net from the hardware store where he now worked, part-time, as an adult.
When he caught sight of the Cannon Mountain Tramway in the distance, he roared off the highway and sped down into the Profile Lake Campground.
Mist covered the mountains like a fat, wet dog. Rilo swerved to a stop at the trailhead, just as the cops sped down the highway exit ramp right after him. He caught a quick glimpse of Mount Jefferson, and nearby, Mount Lafayette; the Presidential Range, as it was called. Everyone knew of Mount Washington, of course, with its white-capped summit and ancient cog railway, but these were lesser presidents, Rilo liked to say, which meant "they got put in time-out over here."
Through the mist, he raced along a dirt path toward a paved roadway, dotted with empty camping lots. Nobody was out camping this night. Not a soul.
Rilo sprinted through the campground toward a newly-constructed lodge, where he once told me the bathrooms "had no business being that nice." Not bothering to stop, he bolted toward the Lonesome Lake trailhead and straight into the woods, beginning a half-drunken sprint up Cannon Mountain, heaving the entire way.
It was only a matter of time before he heard the crack from above. Before the ancient forces of granite, the weight of all of New Hampshire—fourteen-and-a-half million pounds' worth—came crashing down on him. A heaving accordion of water hidden within cracks, expanding and breathing, claiming a new life.
I left Franconia behind on a cold June morning. I said goodbye to my coworkers at Woodward's, hugged my parents and friends, and gave Roberto a handwritten letter saying that we'd go to New York someday. I piled into my friend's secondhand Saab to begin the drive south toward Portsmouth International.
I'd broken up with Bryan a few weeks after Rilo's funeral. He took it better than I expected. Certainly better than Rilo ever did. Bryan understood that I needed to go, and told me that if I ever came back to the North Country, I should look him up. Chances were, he'd still be there, up to his arms in grease at his cousin's garage in North Woodstock.
As the Saab chugged along through the Notch, past the campgrounds and hiking trailheads I knew so well, I squinted up at Cannon Mountain. I tried not to stare for too long, and if I did, a canopy of trees would eventually pull my attention back to where it belonged. But as the car wound around Profile Lake, and past the candy-red Tramway, I gazed up at the empty space on the mountain where the Old Man once held court.
It was an overcast morning, the kind that held the promise of afternoon rain. This mountain—this mighty tree of petrified rock—could only wait behind the clouds, peering down on all those who passed into and out of the Notch, waiting for a return that might never come.
Photo by Evan Leith