hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues October 2018


Sharing the solitude
Mount Equinox drive offers revelatory vistas near monks’ retreat

Scenic drive and solitude atop Equinox

Mt. Equinox Telly Halkias photo

Funds raised from the 5.2-mile toll road up Mount Equinox, seen here just below the summit, help to support the monks cloistered in a nearby monastery, the Charterhouse of the Transfiguration. Telly Halkias photo


Contributing writer


They stand there, proudly, like soldiers on parade, colorful yet distant to the gravity of their original mission.

They are one of the first things a visitor sees upon arriving for the trip up Mount Equinox.
Standing guard on the west side of Route 7A in a small strip of Sunderland, just shy of the Manchester town line to the north, there are more than a dozen of them: flags of foreign countries and a number of U.S. states.

Jerry Tarr, a trustee of the Equinox Foundation, the nonprofit that manages the mountain, said each flag represents the home of a monk cloistered in the nearby monastery, the Charterhouse of the Transfiguration.

“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.”

The complex is the Carthusian Order’s only monastery in all of North America. Established in the year 1084 by Bruno of Cologne, the Catholic religious order of enclosed monastics is also known as the Order of St. Bruno.

Sharing the mountain with the public is not only a generous gesture by the monks, as Tarr suggested, but also supports the Carthusian quest for solitude, prayer and contemplation in faith.
The Charterhouse was founded in 1970 after Joseph Davidson, a former Union Carbide executive and board chairman, willed the land to the Carthusians.

The monastery houses 13 monks, and several more are expected to arrive in the near future, according to Father Lorenzo Maria de la Rosa Jr., who hails from the Philippines. He has been at Mount Equinox since 1984 and elected prior in 1999.

Lorenzo, like other members of the Carthusian order, has taken a vow of silence and eschews most non-vocational communications with the outside world. But he agreed to communicate through e-mail, the only Internet access the brothers allow themselves. He said there currently are no nuns at the Charterhouse of the Transfiguration.


A road to the sky
The Equinox Foundation, the nonprofit set up to run the business operations of the mountain, uses the funds it raises to support the Carthusians. Its greatest draw, the 5.2-mile journey up Skyline Drive to visit the 3,848-foot-high summit of Equinox, 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, a structure at the bottom of the mountain that doubles as a gift shop. She welcomes visitors as they arrive and directs their attention to the shop’s offerings as well as an informative brochure about the journey up the mountain.

“We have thousands of visitors each year who make the drive to the summit,” Williams said.
Access to the toll road up the mountain costs $20 per car and driver, plus $5 per passenger, with children under 10 free. Motorcyclists pay $12 for driver and rider. The property is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily from Memorial Day weekend through Oct. 31, weather permitting; new vehicles are not admitted after 4 p.m.

The Toll House and its visitor shop offer a selection of religious and devotional books and gifts, including works published by the Vermont Carthusians on a variety of subjects. Also available are 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.

The shelves also display a variety of popular Vermont-made products, all for sale to help support mountain operations, and by extension, the foundation’s mission to support the monks, Williams said.

Toll coins purchased at the shop allow visitors to proceed with their vehicle through the gate and up the winding length of Skyline Drive. The twisting, 5-mile climb is billed as the longest paved private toll road in the nation.

It is a journey for cars, light trucks and motorcycles only. No buses, recreational vehicles, campers, pedestrians or cyclists are allowed on the pavement.

The road, built under the direction of Davidson and completed in 1947 when he owned the land, is well maintained. Except for the last mile to the summit, where frost heaves from the winter freezes and thaws may persist year-round, it’s a smooth ride, with more a more extensive system of guardrails than on many similar public roads.

As the road rises in elevation, there are a number of scenic turnoffs -- stops with tables and benches where families and friends can break out a picnic. The first of these is particularly large and well shaded.

Interpretive signs along the way explain both the history of the sites as well as the background for much of the Carthusians’ connection to the land, and their faith.

Cars make their way through “a diverse hardwood forest where white-tailed deer, porcupine, black bear, bobcat roam, as well as numerous colorful species of birds filling the silence with song,” according to a foundation pamphlet for visitors.


View from the summit
Even in the presence of other visitors and cars coming and going from the summit parking lot, the prevailing vibe at the top of Equinox is of silence and solitude.

It makes sense, then, that in 2012 the Carthusians chose this spot for visitors to share in their mountain by building the St. Bruno Scenic Viewing Center.

The center, built on the site of the long defunct Skyline Inn, offers spectacular panoramas from its north and south decks. From there, viewers can see Vermont, New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and, on clear days, Montreal’s Mount Royal.

Inside, from interpretive exhibits and videos, there is more historic information about the Carthusian Order, the monks’ life at the Charterhouse of the Transfiguration, and about the history of Mount Equinox.

For those seeking more reflection, a meditation room is available for visitors to sit in silence, much as the brothers do at the monastery. There also are plenty of picnic tables on the greens around the viewing center.

Another point of interest is the upper end of the hiking trails to the Mount Equinox summit.
The trails, Williams explained, don’t belong to the foundation, and are maintained by the Equinox Foundation Trust, a separate, unrelated nonprofit organization. Williams said hikers gain access to the trails at two trailheads a bit north of the Toll House – near Equinox Pond and behind the Equinox Hotel in Manchester.

The views from the top of Mount Equinox are breathtaking, especially on clear days with low haze, but most visitors are drawn in by the contemplative ambience at the summit – a tone set by the devotion of the Carthusian monks, who are far more the stewards than the landlords or owners of these surroundings.

Lorenzo, in his e-mailed communication, noted that is was “providence that brought the Order of the Carthusians to Vermont, which was both rural and unspoiled.” And for nearly five decades, the monks have continued to make their home in the shadow of this mountain.

“Natural surroundings have a direct connection with the pursuit of our spirituality,” Lorenzo said. “Our monasteries were, from the beginning of our Order in 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,” he added. “Beauty elevates the soul to its Creator.”


Visit www.equinoxmountain.com for more information on driving to the top of Mount Equinox on Skyline Drive. Visit transfiguration.chartreux.org for more information on the Carthusian Order in Vermont.