You could see it from miles down the road, an odd protrusion from Cannon Mountain in Franconia, New Hampshire. As you got closer, the image began to make sense. You saw the same thing that inspired centuries-old Abenaki and Mohawk legends, the phenomenon that Daniel Webster and Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about: you saw the Old Man of the Mountain.

Even if you never saw the Old Man up close and personal, you’ve probably seen him. Made up of five granite cliffs formed by post-glacial erosion, the forty-foot-tall natural rock formation became the official emblem of New Hampshire in 1945. In addition to countless maps and souvenirs, the Old Man’s likeness appears on the state’s license plates, route signs, even the back side of the state quarter.

I last saw the Old Man on a road trip from Quebec in 2002. This turned out to be good timing, because sometime between midnight and 2:00 a.m. on May 3, 2003, the rock formation collapsed into a pile of rubble, and the Old Man was no more.

This was not unexpected. People first noticed in the early 1900s that the Old Man’s contours were shifting. A series of face lifts followed. In the 1920s, a crack in the Old Man’s forehead was repaired with chains. More extensive repairs followed in the 1950s, including drains to help siphon out water. When the Old Man finally fell, he left behind cables and epoxy jutting from the remaining rock. He’d become a victim of the same factors which had formed him: erosion caused by freezing and melting water within the crevices of the rock.

What do you do when the symbol of your identity literally bites the dust?

You can absorb the loss, shrug, and simply accept the new status quo. This can work, but it may mean that important lessons and stories drift into obscurity once the last generation that experienced them passes.

You can try to replace the loss as exactly as possible. There was a brief rally to rebuild the Old Man a la Mt. Rushmore, but much of the symbolism attached to him was wrapped around the fact that his profile was created through natural circumstances. Sometimes, attempts to re-create something border on mockery of the object you mean to commemorate.

You can do your best to memorialize what you’ve lost and move forward, carrying the essence of the thing into the future even if its physicality no longer exists.

New Hampshire opted for the third choice.

Today, you can still experience the Old Man, just in a different way. Profiler Plaza, nestled in Franconia Notch State Park, directs visitors to stand in specific spots where they can see the mountainside the Old Man once occupied and view his past state with the aid of strategically placed steel sculptures (“profilers”). Nearby museums share the Old Man’s legacy through educational displays. Although the famous profile is no longer physical, New Hampshire has found a way beyond license plates and route signs to keep its memory relevant.

To me, the Old Man’s demise is a reminder of something more. New Hampshire is the Granite State. Granite is one of the hardest materials on Earth. Although people knew the Old Man couldn’t last forever, he was one of those things you expected to hang around at least through your lifetime.

You can’t take anything for granite.

(The decades since the Old Man plummeted have provided new ways to study what exactly happened to him. To take a 3-D tour of the Old Man’s history and fate – courtesy of Dartmouth grad student Matthew Maclay–click here.)