Monday, January 11, 2016

Hiking Mount Equinox

Some of you know that I have an aversion to hiking mountains that have roads up them.  There's something about sweating your way up a mountain to find a parking lot with people sitting on rocks all cool and comfy. 

For this reason, when my Adirondack Mountain Club friend and fellow leader, Karen, suggested a year or so ago that I lead a hike up Mount Equinox in Manchester,Vermont, I resisted.

Then, this past September, Karen led a trip to Equinox. I read the write-up she posted in our chapter outings schedule: "The trail rises through a very old forest directly to the imposing summit.  The property is owned by the Carthusian monks, who dedicate themselves to prayer and solitude.  The decaying old hotel at the top has been taken down, and the Carthusian order has built a beautiful open sunlit and green building for the public to enjoy the views and learn about their order, a place of repose and quiet."

That sold me.  I wasn't available the day of Karen's hike, so I put Equinox on my must-do list.  When I emailed Karen to tell her that I planned to hike Equinox, she wrote back, "You'll want to join the Carthusian order after going through their building."

(Not your typical trail head parking!)

Manchester is not far from Albany. On Election Day, this past November, my friend, Rachel, and I headed to Vermont for the hike. The day dawned clear, with unseasonably mild hiking temperatures.  We pulled into the parking lot behind the very old and luxurious Equinox Hotel and began the hike through the edge of town and into the woods.

(A very nicely made trail kiosk)

November can be a great time to hike.  With the leaves down, the woods are open, and views through the trees, otherwise not visible during the foliage seasons, make the hike interesting.  Dappled sunshine lit up the beech leaves still clinging to the trees and those at our feet.

The second highest mountain in Southern Vermont, Mount Equinox offers a trail with an elevation gain of nearly 3000 feet in just over three miles.   The first two miles are on an old mountain road, with a cobbly stone surface. Even though we set a steady moderate pace, the relentless upgrade occasionally left us panting.

(Although beautiful, this photo does not show how steep the incline is.)

We chatted the whole way.  Well, I chatted some and Rachel more.  She is much better at talking and breathing than I am!

Rachel is a stalwart  hiker, who has not only hiked the 46 Adirondack high peaks and the 111 Northeastern peaks, but she lived and worked at Yosemite National Park for three years.  She could ride on that reputation for the rest of her life, but, instead, regularly proves that she still has the stamina and natural ability to do just about anything.

(Those Vermonters know where to place a nice bench.)

We began to tire of the ongoing road. While beautiful, its sameness and steady incline began to feel relentless.  We were glad when we saw the sign for a turn-off onto a more rustic hiking trail, the final mile to the mountain summit.  Finding a bench at the junction seemed so "New England,"... a far cry from the typical Adirondack "sittin' stone."

(A relief from the road.)

This trail provided a nice change -- lined with mosses and young hemlocks, narrow and varied with twists and turns through the woods.  What a surprise and shock, then, as we emerged from the trees, to see first, not a view, but a parking lot.  Welcome to the paved summit!

Walking straight to the doors of the building, we tried every one.  Locked!  What!?  We wouldn't decide to be monks after all?  A sign on the door said that the Viewing Center would re-open in May.

(The Saint Bruno Viewing Center)

A cold wind whipped.  We dug into our packs for layers of clothing that we had shed early on.  Walking along the deck of the building, we found a place to sit on the cement floor out of the wind, feeling somewhat let down.

Two motorcyclists arrived.  They greeted us and then retreated to another sheltered location.  We smelled the pungent aroma of marijuana.

(The Visitor's Center has a deck all the way around.)

Once we felt revived from having lunch, were relaxed from a sit-down (even if it was on cement), and had dressed in all of our warm clothes, Rachel and I were ready to more thoroughly explore the summit.  First, we read the signs posted on the deck.  A map designated the names of the surrounding mountains.  We peeked in the Viewing Center's glass windows. The inside definitely appeared inviting. We would have to come back, so that we could appreciate the owners of this mountain, and the building they had built to commemorate their faith.

(Views from the deck are stunning.)

Views spread out in many directions. We realized, now, that the deck served the purpose of raising visitors just high enough to see for miles. We reveled in the beauty stretched out before us.  I had not expected southern Vermont to look so wild.  Rows and rows of blue ridges appeared infinite. We took pictures, and stood and stared, until the cold wind crept through our layers of clothing. We knew that we had to get moving.

(Could this be mistaken for the Blue Ridge Mountains down south, instead of our local Greens?)

We chose to vary our descent by taking an off-shoot to the Overlook Trail, promising us more views from rocky outcroppings.  Within a short distance we came upon this stone, constructed in memory of Mr. Barbo, the beloved dog of Dr. Davidson, who once owned the property.  Dr. Davidson was heart-broken when his dog was shot by a hunter in 1955. We were sure Barbo had lived a good life over his 12 years as the doctor's companion, despite his tragic end.  And Dr. Davidson goes down in history for having given the gift of these 7000 mountain acres to the Carthusian monks.

(Mr. Barbo, 1943-1955)

During World War I, having just completed his doctorate in chemistry, Dr. Davidson worked on the development of mustard gas.  During World War II, he worked in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, refining uranium for the future atomic bomb.  Although he felt strongly that the bomb had been a necessary evil, those who knew him wondered if his interest in helping the Carthusians was part of a need for atonement.

The Carthusians are a 900-year-old Roman Catholic monastic order devoted to silence, solitude, and contemplation.  Dr. Davidson's friendship with a Carthusian Brother gave his post-war land-conservation interest a greater purpose.

(Why did hikers in 1883 choose this particular rock in the woods for carving?)

Rachel and I continued along the comfortable needle-covered ridge path on its gradual descent. Half-buried in dirt and moss, a flat carved rock offered testament to hikers here over a century ago.  At that time, they might have been out for the day or been guests at the small Mountain House that existed here in the late-19th century.

(Rachel at one of the overlooks)

We liked this path.  It smelled of evergreens and opened to a couple of beautiful views.  On a day like this day, lunch at one of these view points would have been more comfortable than at the windy summit.  These spots might also be quieter on a summer day when tourists are more numerous.

Every view on this hike had been so different from the previous one. Here, we could see the town with its church spire in the Village of Manchester, and roads that spread beyond to farms and mountains. This view begged for binoculars.

(Manchester Center below)

We had to be careful hiking down the old road that we had ascended hours before, with its dense layer of leaves covering loose rocks.  Walking on "ball bearings," as Rachel called a stony down slope like this. 
When we reached the parking lot where our day had begun, we decided to go inside the Equinox Hotel, as suggested by the brochure at the kiosk.  The doorman did not question our attire, despite the contrast we made to the formal decor.  We poked in a few rooms, but were especially taken with the diningroom, which had views to the mountain.  Three women passed us with large rolling luggage, as we left the hotel through its elegant front entrance.

(Iconic Vermont as we reach the edge of town on our return.)
On the ride home, we discussed our day. I had an appreciation for the access that the Equinox toll road, the Skyline Drive, provided to others, but I continued to be surprised by the completely developed appearance of the summit. Other mountains that have scenic toll roads, such as Mt. Greylock in Massachusetts and Whiteface Mountain in the Adirondacks, retain some of their natural landscape, despite their motorized access.

With the addition of the Overlook Trail, our entire hike had been 7.8 miles. Having a significant elevation gain, the mountain had taken us 2.5 hours to hike up, and 1.75 to descend.  I would definitely come back and hike Equinox again when the Viewing Center was open, maybe with an eager crew of Adirondack Mountain Club participants. However, if you want to drive up the mountain, the toll road costs $15 for the car and driver, and an additional $5 for each passenger.

Regardless of how you get there, these views are worth the trip!