By Telly Halkias
When you arrive at Mount Equinox, the first thing that grabs at you are the flags.
Sitting on the west side of Vermont Historic Route 7A in a small strip of Sunderland, just shy of the Manchester town line to the north and the Arlington line to the south, there are more than a dozen of them: Banners from foreign countries and a number of U.S. states.
Jerry Tarr, a trustee of the Equinox Foundation, the nonprofit that manages the mountain, said that each flag represents the home of a monk cloistered in the nearby Charterhouse of the Transfiguration. The monastery is the only Carthusian facility in all of North America.
“There are flags from all over,” Tarr said. “The mountain is a beautiful place and the Carthusian brothers want to share that natural beauty with the public.”
Founded in 1970 as a result of land willed to them from Dr. Joseph Davidson, former Union Carbide executive and board chairman, the monastery houses 13 monks with several more inbound in the near future, according to Father Lorenzo Maria de la Rosa Jr., who hails from the Philippines. He has been here since 1984 and was elected prior in 1999.
Lorenzo, who like other members of the Carthusian order has taken a vow of silence and eschews most non-vocational communications with the outside world, did note though an email (the only internet access the brothers allow themselves) that there are now 13 monks in the monastery and more slated to enter. There are currently no Carthusian Charterhouses in the U.S. for women.
The Foundation, established to run the business operations of the mountain, supports the Carthusians. Its greatest draw, the 5.2-mile journey up Skyline Drive to visit the summit of Mount Equinox, at 3,848 feet, is a favorite attraction for visitors and locals alike.
Sue Williams of West Arlington, who has been with the Foundation for two years, works at the Toll House, an attractive structure at the bottom of the mountain that doubles as a gift shop.
She welcomes visitors coming through the door and directs their attention to all the products therein as well an informative brochure about the journey up Skyline Drive “We have thousands of visitors each year who make the drive to the summit,” Williams said.
The Toll House and gift shop offer an extensive and interesting selection of religious and devotional books and gifts, including tracts published by the Vermont Carthusians on myriad subjects. The shop also carries rosaries made at the monastery as well as crucifixes hand-crafted by the monks from ash, beech, cherry and oak cut from trees found on Mount Equinox.
Also on the shelves are a variety of snacks and souvenirs, as well a selection of Vermont-made products, including the state’s world-famous maple syrup, and maple sugar candies, soy candles and pancake mixes made on a nearby Vermont farm.
Once a visitor buys a toll coin, they then can proceed in their vehicle through the gate and up the winding length of Skyline Drive, a salamander of a road which is billed as the longest paved private toll road in the nation. This is a journey for cars and trucks only, no buses, RVs, campers, pedestrians or cyclists are permitted on the pavement.
The road, finished in 1947 under the aegis of Davidson, who then owned the land, is very well maintained. Except for the last mile to the summit where some year-long heaves from winter will almost always offer up gentle bumps, it’s a smooth ride, and safe the entire way, with guardrails lining the road where needed, and more than you would see on many similar public roads.
As you rise in elevation, there are a number of scenic pullovers, with tables and benches where a family and friends can break out the lunch for the day. Just one mile up the drive is a beautifully shaded multi-terraced picnic area perfect for a warm summer day.
Along the way, there are also several interpretive signs that explain both the history of the sites as well as the background for much of the Carthusians’ connection to the land and their faith.
You’ll drive through a diverse hardwood forest where white-tailed deer, porcupine, black bear and bobcat roam, as well as numerous colorful species of birds filling the silence with song. And even in the presence of other visitors and cars coming and going from the summit parking lot, silence and solitude is the prevailing vibe.
It makes good sense, then, that the Carthusians chose this spot for visitors to share in their mountain in 2012, when they built the St. Bruno Scenic Viewing Center. It has spectacular views of panoramas from its north and south decks. From there, you can see Vermont, New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and, on clear days, Montreal’s Mount Royal.
Inside, from interpretive exhibits and videos, you can learn more about the contemplative monastic order founded in France in 1084, their life at the Charterhouse of the Transfiguration, and about the history of Mount Equinox.
For those with more reflection of their own in mind, the meditation room is open to sit in silence, much like the brothers at the monastery. And of course, picnic tables abound on the greens around the viewing center.
Another point of interest at the summit is the trailhead end of the Equinox hiking trails that lead to the summit. The trails, according to Williams, do not belong to the Foundation, and are maintained by the Equinox Preservation Trust.
“Starting access to the trails can be found at two trailheads just a bit north [of the Toll House], by Equinox Pond and behind the Equinox Hotel in Manchester,” Williams said.
If you are anywhere along Historic Route 7A this summer, this is one trip worth the drive and the toll.
While the views from the top of Mount Equinox are breathtaking, especially on clear days with low haze, one can’t help thinking how impressive is the devotion of the Carthusians monks, who are far more stewards of these surroundings than actual landlords and owners.
The commitment and dedication to make their home in the shadow of this mountain, and what a visit here can offer visitors, can perhaps best be captured in the words of Lorenzo, who noted that it was providence that brought the Order of the Carthusians to Vermont: “Natural surroundings have a direct connection with the pursuit of our spirituality. Our monasteries were from the beginning of our Order
(11th century France) located in solitary and remote areas, on mountains or in valleys. This safeguards our silence and solitude which are at the center of our spirituality. … The rugged or austere beauty of the place in founding a monastery has its role as well. Beauty elevates the soul to its Creator.”
If you go …
The Skyline Drive Toll House is located on Vermont Historic Route 7A to your left driving north and to your right driving south.
GPS address: 6369 Skyline Drive, Sunderland, Vermont.
Mailing address: Mount Equinox, 1A Saint Bruno Drive, Arlington, VT 05250
Toll House/info: 802-362-1114
Hours: Open Memorial Day to October 31, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, weather permitting
Toll: Car and driver, $20. Children under 10, free.
Motorcycles: $12, for driver and rider.
Telly Halkias is a national award-winning, independent journalist. He lives and writes from his homes in southern Vermont and coastal Maine.