There are two ways to get to the top of Mount Equinox in Manchester Vermont. You can pay your money to take the Skyline drive to the summit, or you can find your way to the no-traffic light town of Sandgate and go up the back.
You can’t drive the whole way (Sandgate’s dirt road eventually turns into a wide leaf-covered path). Once on foot, you’ll eventually get to the gate of a monastery run by the Carthusian monks (who also, incidentally, govern access to the skyline Drive). There’s a sign warning away trespassers, so we’ve never actually made it to the top of the Equinox without paying our money down, but along with that once-beaten path on the backside of the mountain, we’ve discovered something equally interesting.
When we first hiked that road, we wondered about its origins. There were easier ways to get to the monks and the top of the Equinox, but it was clear the road had once been in use frequently enough to leave its mark on the mountain. Shortly after the ‘real’ dirt road ended, we found our answer.
Thing1 was our distractor-in-chief at the time, occasionally luring us away from the path, and about a mile and a half past the end of the town road, he discovered an abandoned barn we HAD to see.
The barn roof was disintegrating, and we saw no other evidence (save for a few headstones that we almost tripped over) that a farm or homestead had ever existed. The carving on the headstones was so worn down we couldn’t read the names on them. As I was wondering what catastrophe that had driven surviving family members away from the farm, I realized this almost abandoned road had been made by and for hooves and feet, not rubber and steel.
At first I had thought these languishing headstones in this isolated part of the mountain were a sad statement about precarious nature of rural life (then and now). However, as we walked to and from the monastery gate with its no trespassing sign, passing the old homestead again, the late afternoon sun dipped low enough to bathe the woods in gold. I remember the branches were naked on that hike, but the forest, guarding its little cemetery, was warm and absolutely peaceful in the sun.
Modern rural life can be very hard, and I don’t cling to any romantic notions that life on the back of a mountain in Vermont was any easier a 100 years ago, but this quiet resting place was a testament to more than just hardship. It reminded me that people still come to these hard-to-live-in places because a life away from the madding crowd brings with it freedom and (in spite of the long winters and minimal economic opportunities) peace.