Adventure on a Mountain Toll Road

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I had an experience a couple of days ago that is really hard to describe. I did something that I have wanted to do for a very long time, and we were in a position to let me do it. I wasn’t quite sure how the experience would be, but I am so glad that I got to do this, and it will be something that I won’t forget for a long time to come.

Martha and I, along with her sister and fiance, spent a couple of days over in Bennington, Vermont. It was some long-awaited and needed down time that we had been trying to plan for quite some time. While we were there, everyone else wanted to tour around the town of Manchester, which they did. Manchester is a fairly affluent community with lots of high-end real estate including the home of Robert Todd Lincoln (son of our beloved sixteenth President), marble sidewalks, and a shop that specializes in upscale men’s clothing and highly-priced firearms. I thought this was a strange combination, but the theme of the store is hunting. A story for another day, I’m sure…

Anyway, while everyone was in Manchester, I drove to the nearby town of Arlington, approximately 10 miles away. I did this because I wanted to drive to the summit of Mount Equinox, which is the highest point in that area as well as the eastern Taconic mountain range. It’s kind of a strange place to go, but I had my reasons for wanting to have done this.

The road starts at the base of the mountain, right off of Vermont Route 7A. From bottom to top, the road is just over five miles long. The elevation at the time is 3,848 feet above sea level. It is the oldest privately owned paved toll road in the United States. Originally, the property of the mountain was owned by Dr. Joseph Davidson, an engineer who specialized in designing hydro-electric power plants, among other things. Apparently he was a high-level executive at Union Carbide for years prior to his retirement. Plus, he was involved in the development of a number of systems and devices used during both world wars. He and his wife, Madeleine, made their home there until his death in 1969. On the road there are two privately owned homes. I don’t know if either one of them belonged to the Davidsons, but it wouldn’t surprise me if at least one of them belonged to them at one point. The other, this monstrous brown house, sits on a relatively small parcel of well-maintained property. It is gorgeous.

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When I drove by it on the way up, there was a sign that pointed cars up the mountain and away from the driveway.

IMG_0844 In itself, I didn’t think that was unusual. But I spotted something that I couldn’t quite make out on the back of the property out of the corner of my eye. I thought it was worth checking out. So I did on the way back. There is a turnout in front of the house, which I parked in (it is on the other side of the sign I mentioned), took my camera, and walked along what I thought was the driveway, but it is actually a road. The driveway is off to the left in the photo. When I got around to the back side of the house, I found a simple but rather formidable looking gate.IMG_0845 Needless to say, it got my attention. And I didn’t want to go any further, because I knew where it led, and I didn’t want to be having to explain to local law enforcement why I was trespassing on property that has a history of belonging to a rather austere monastic order that has been part of the Catholic Church for over 1,000 years. The road, incidentally, goes back to their monastery. From where I took this photo, the road, as can be seen, forks left and right. To the left it is paved. To the right is dirt. The fork to the right leads to the monastery. The distance from here to the monastery itself is approximately three miles down that dirt path.

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As I said, the monastic community that lives beyond that gate is part of an order that has been in existence for over 1,000 years. They are known as Carthusians. And the word “Carthusian” is thought to be a corruption of the French word “Chartreuse.”

For lack of a better way of describing them, they are hermits who live in a community. I have a friend (a Trappist monk; incidentally, Trappists are nearly as tough as Carthusians, in terms of the rule they live by) who described the order as “the Marine Corps of monasticism” because of the austerity of their lifestyle. Their founder was Bruno of Cologne, a German who was raised in and lived in France during the eleventh century. The rule of life Carthusians live by, known as “Statutes”, are attributed to him. While they are not the same as the Rule of St. Benedict, developed approximately 500 years earlier, they are similar in many ways.They live in solitary cells and pray most of the Liturgy of the Hours on their own. They study, do manual labor, and eat – one substantial meal and one light meal each day, when they are not fasting, that is – on their own. They do come together three times each day to pray, however, one of those for the celebration of Mass, the other two for Vespers (evening prayer) and Matins or Vigils and Lauds (nocturnal prayer, from Midnight until 2:30-3:00am). They do not see each other except for these times, the one day a week they eat together and go for a community walk, which is the only time they really speak, also. They only see their families maybe once or twice a year at the most. Otherwise, they are solitary and silent.

It’s a tough life. Not one that I could live, even if I were so inclined. But the people that choose, or more accurately, are called to do this, have my respect and admiration. I highly recommend the movie “Into Great Silence.” Regardless on one’s views on religion, or faith, or spirituality, or Catholicism in particular, it is a highly fascinating insight into the sort of life these monks lead. The monastery in the movie is La Grande Chartreuse, located in the Grenoble region of France. When this monastery was founded, it was by monks from La Grande Chartreuse.

I got up to the summit, and I discovered two things. It was cold, and it was windy. But I got some incredible photographs of the view.

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This is Lake Madeleine. It was named for Madeleine, Dr. Davidson’s wife. It is man-made, damming the outflow from the nearby Battenkill River to produce electric power. I believe the capacity of this dam approaches 200,000,000 gallons. It produces power for the mountain, the monastery, and the residents in the area. I’m not sure what the actual area is that is covered, but I do know that it is not just this area in Vermont but also some to the west in New York, as well.

This is a view of Mt. Greylock, located in western Massachusetts. IMG_0788 (2)

I’m not sure of the distance, but I know it is a decent drive. Greylock is supposed to be a decent hike, and like any other mountain, you have to be prepared for what can happen. That is true anywhere where there is altitude, but it seems to be especially true in the Northeastern United States.

These two sets of antenna arrays were a surprise. One of them belongs to the Vermont State Police as a part of the agency’s microwave relay network. IMG_0790

The other is the transmitter antenna for a local radio station. IMG_0833I don’t know the call letters of the station, but I don’t think it matters much.

This is the visitor’s center on the summit. It is an interesting place. Nobody was there; no staff, no other people, nothing. I had the summit to myself for quite a while. Truthfully, I expected the building to be locked up tight. But it was wide open. Apparently it is from May 1 to October 31 every year. And inside I discovered all kinds of information about the mountain, the Davidsons, the dams (there is a second one in addition to Lake Madeleine that I didn’t get photos of), and the monastery.

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When I left the mountain, I felt a little different. About myself, and about a lot of other things. But it was different in a good way. It was as though I had checked an item off of a bucket list. And if I ever have an opportunity, I may go back, if for no other reason, to take more photographs in a different season.

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Adventure on a Mountain Toll Road

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