Equinox Mountain overlooks the town of Manchester, Vermont. It’s a mountain of hardwood forests, the mountain itself largely marble, and any buildings are few and far between. To get to the top, you have the choice of hiking up the side through the woods, or paying the Carthusian monks at the foot of the mountain for a token to drive up the five miles of hairpin turns of private road to the top. The road was created, and eleven square miles of this mountain was once owned, by Joseph George Davidson, who retired to Vermont after working as the head of Union Carbide’s “gaseous diffusion” project at Oak Ridge, in which uranium was refined and used in the fission of the atomic bombs of WWII. I myself would not relocate from temperate Tennessee to cold Vermont, but he must have had his reasons, just as I do mine.
I’ve never hiked this mountain, although I hope to some day. My husband and I have driven up to the top. When you do drive up, there’s a parking lot at the top surrounded by a low stone wall. This wall is topped with flat stones and during one visit I stepped up on that stone wall, and looked out from near the top of the mountain. The wind was pushing clouds along the sky. A cloud rolled up from my left, close enough to touch, wiping out the view below and ahead, first to my left, and then in front of me, and onwards this cloud rolled to my right, a wall of gray mist. It’s a singular experience, to be high enough that your toes are on the same level as a cloud rolling by. You can hike out along the ridge from the parking lot, along several trails. We hiked out to a point called Lookout Rock, where you can see the town of Manchester, and the mountains upon mountains beyond.
Ten acres of land on the mountain went up for tax sale by the town a few years ago. I really had a hankering to buy it, this ten acres on the side of a mountain with no real roads to speak of. It seemed like an opportunity to buy a piece of land that rarely goes up for sale, and a piece of a mountain that fascinates me to some degree. Mr. Davidson granted most of his mountain land (some seven thousand acres) to an order of Carthusian monks who still own it today, and have their monastery tucked onto a private corner of it. There are a few private parcels, but most of the remaining land is now owned by the Nature Conservancy or other conservation organizations. Practically speaking though, it was a ten acre parcel with no real road access, and no real roads to speak of. So, really, quite impractical as a woodlot, and I don’t hunt, so I’m not even sure ten acres would even be enough for that.
And then, how does one even identify the boundaries of such a place? Ten acres on the side of a mountain, one among many such parcels. No roads, no street signs. I don’t understand how, logistically, I’d even identify the boundaries. What would one do? Count corner stakes down the side of a mountain? By corner stakes, I mean iron pins used to mark the corners of a lot. These often get buried by drifts of leaves, forest compost, trees. I could have hired a surveyor to survey degrees of direction and angles of who knows what through the woods and mark the corners with pins. But why, for a ten acre lot with no real purpose? I ended up not bidding on it, because I couldn’t figure out how I would be able to identify it as mine on anything other than paper, let alone how I would practically get to and from it without any real roads, and for lack of a certain purpose. It was a strong desire, but I couldn’t pinpoint the why and the how. I couldn’t map it if you will.
My hankering for this parcel was, in the end, resisted, and this particular piece of land went to someone else, a private owner (and actually, several people bid on it, and they didn’t look at all deranged, so while it was considered on my part to be somewhat of a crazy hankering, it wasn’t, after all, just me).
Surveys and maps try to define the line between the known and the unknown. It’s a complicated sort of magic to me, all of the surveying of land and it’s paper translation: mapping. Early on, iron-linked surveying chains of predetermined length were used for land measures, and devices for determining degree and axis, and point of beginning.
The property we live on is pinned at each corner, and although the angles are not 90 degrees, we’ve walked the boundary and are pretty confident of where the edges are. It is known: I know the boundaries of our land, and the boundaries of our neighbor’s only where it meets our own, their other boundary sides diffuse and less definite, not something I keep track of. And onwards from there, through our rural area, the edges of towns marked on road signs, the boundaries traveling outwards from that point over hills and through woods and fields, I have only the most general sense of where that line actually exists, intemporal and somewhat unknown. It exists, but isn’t visible across fields and through woods and across roads. And then expanding further out, the boundaries of other states, and then other countries and oceans. Further out, the boundaries and borders of climate, language, custom and currency.
Traveling up to and across these boundaries is to experience the new and the unknown, to find similarities and contrasts and hopefully to enjoy differences that exist across those lines, real and imagined. Traveling can be an exploration of the new, where the only thing that may remain familiar is yourself. In a place where you don’t speak the language, and you are traveling alone, your known boundaries are the edges of you, and your ability to read a map, and your sense of direction. I remember being on a train near Budapest, not speaking more than a few words of Hungarian (butterfly being among those very few words) and being very aware that I absolutely had to keep track of where I was so that I could trace my way back because I wasn’t going to be able to ask anyone in my own language if I got lost.
Back in Vermont, I can trace the line where mountain meets sky, the curve of the road, the maple branches yet to bud, the track of the familiar stars and sun from this latitude, and from my particular corner of the world. My home, and the familiar and known.
If you wish to visit Equinox mountain:
By car to the top: the access road (known as Skyline Drive) to the top is located near Manchester, Vermont in the town of Sandgate. The road is closed in the winter, and it is necessary to buy a token in order to get to the top. There are picnic areas and lookout pull offs on the way to the top, and several marked hiking trails. It is the longest privately owned and paved toll road in the United States.
Hiking to the top: the Equinox Preservation Trust web site has information on access points and parking in order to hike trails on Equinox.
Some more pictures and another blog post about Mount Eqinox can be found over on Little USA Trips and on the Looking for Adventure web site, pictures of the grave stone on top of the mountain for Mr. Davidson’s dog, Mr. Barbo.