By Sasha Wiseman '15
The first time I drove to the summit of Mt. Equinox the clouds were low and diaphanous. They slipped through the folds of the Taconic range without casting a shadow. I climbed the toll road in my Subaru Outback, maneuvering hairpin curves as the air thinned around me. Ghostly wisps of fog wrapped around my car, increasing in density until I realized that I was driving into the clouds themselves.
The second time I visited the mountain I parked my car at its base in the dirt lot outside of a Christian bookstore. I went inside and gave the woman working at the counter my debit card. She swiped it, and I exchanged my signed receipt for a gold token with NO CASH VALUE printed on one side. I put the coin into a small pocket of my bag, and then used it to operate the gate that barred the toll road to the top of Mt. Equinox.
I pulled onto a sandy shoulder as I approached the summit, and got out of my car to look at the sides of clouds. They were thick and voluminous cumulonimbi, opaque as scoops of vanilla ice cream. I was thinking of a quote from a short story that I had read the day before: “Renoir told Matisse he would pick flowers in the fields and arrange them in a vase, and then he would paint the side he had not arranged.” Those lacking in altitude don’t even know what they don’t know. Only minutes before I thought that I was seeing the clouds when I looked up, not realizing that I only saw the sole of the shoe. Those clouds were taller than they were wide; they towered miles high. The secret glory of their mass was like the side of the flowers that hadn’t been arranged.
There are men who live on the mountain who haven’t seen a woman in forty-three years, if you don’t count the Virgin Mary. The first and last open house for the monastery of Carthusian monks who maintain the toll road to the summit was in 1970, and ever since they have lived in silence and solitude in an abandoned ski lodge retrofitted with slabs of Vermont granite eighteen inches thick.
According to the doctrine of their order, a Carthusian charterhouse is ideally situated in “a mountain valley.” The Vermont monks had to chant their masses against the hum of passing traffic on a farm off of Route 100 in Whitingham for the whole decade of the 1950’s, before, In 1960, a childless Catholic couple bequeathed the monks seven thousand acres on Mt. Equinox. Their Charterhouse remains the only Carthusian monastery in the United States.
The monks spend twenty hours a day in their cells. They are delivered their meals through a box in the wall of their rooms, and only hear the human voice when it’s raised in chant or prayer. Each cell contains a basement workshop where the monks can practice a craft. In the bookshop at the base of Mt. Equinox I found rosary beads crafted from rose petals by the Carthusians in Spain, and dozens of Jesus Christs, twisted in identical agony and cast in iron, which the Vermont Carthusians had affixed to crosses made of “Mt. Equinox Cheery Wood.
If the Christian bookshop had a liquor license, it could have sold the one product for which the reclusive Carthusians are most widely known: Chartreuse. I remember a roommate that I had years ago once produced a bottle of Chartreuse that she kept hidden in her bedroom, and we sat on the floor of the hallway drinking veritable thimblefuls of this mysterious split-pea green liqueur that she described as “herbal.” Another time I was at a friend’s house and picked up a bottle-shaped wooden cask. It was sealed shut. The label was in French, with “Elixir Végétal de la Grande-Chartreuse” at the top in a simple and elegant typeface.
“I’d offer you some,” he said, “but I don’t know where my hacksaw is.”
In 1605, an alchemist gave the recipe for Chartreuse to an order of Carthusians established outside of Paris. It is rumored to contain over one hundred and thirty herbs, plants and flowers native to southern France, but very few men have ever known for sure. For hundreds of years, instructions for its production have been entrusted to only two monks at a time, and like a divine Coca-Cola, modern chemical analysis has never been able to produce an accurate reproduction of the elixir’s secret recipe.
I walked with my companion in a set of parallel tire tracks that cut through swaths of puffed-out dandelions. There hadn’t been a sign on the path we chose, and it was maybe more of an access road than a hiking trail. It seemed to be leading somewhere though, and we walked silently in our separate tracks as pairs of black butterflies chased each other into the bushes.
He stopped a stood for a moment, and I did the same. “I don’t hear any engines,” he said.
“Only the bugs’ engines,” I joked, poorly, as all manner of insect buzzed around our bodies. It was remarkably silent on the mountain, as if the airspace above had been vacated in deference to the monks’ hushed communion with God.
As we climbed higher the dandelions thinned out, and their place in the mountain’s palette was taken over by billowing white clouds. The trees were low, curving towards each other just above our heads.
We reached a little house in a clearing. Three cement slabs were arranged in a triangle outside of it, which I guessed to be the foundation of a vanished radio tower. The door was open, and he followed me inside. Tufts of pink fiberglass insulation hung in soft strips from the ceiling. Gray metal electrical boxes lined one wall of the house, with every switch labeled in faded script. There was still a key in the lock of one of the panels. Piles of animal scat were heaped in every corner. The industrious inhabitants had chewed the bottom two feet of the painted plywood walls away, creating an upside-down picture window. The house was noticeably free of the detritus one would usually find in an abandoned building, and I appreciated the wholesome lack of graffiti and used condoms. We eventually spotted an empty tallboy of Coors Light stashed high in the eaves, as if the drinker had been embarrassed of his transgression.
Not knowing exactly where the road would take us, we turned back towards the car. Clouds of tiny white butterflies hovered around us, brushing against my skin and catching in my hair. They looked like flurries of snow in the sunlight. As we approached the toll road, the clean line of its paved ascent to the summit made it seem unreal, like a mirage of human engineering in the beatific landscape of Mt. Equinox.
I had opted not to stop in the visitor’s center at the end of the toll road, wanting to preserve the serenity and sense of solitude that I had borrowed from the monks on the mountain. I was curious about the house we had found though, so when I got home, I looked up the Mt. Equinox Wikipedia page. I read that we had been inside of an “abandoned Cold War-era NORAD radar station.” In the same paragraph the author of the entry writes “An abandoned, now collapsed tunnel boring dating to the mid-1960s, would have provided access to a subterranean cryonics receptacle for humans placed in low-temperature suspension. The tunnel project site is located on the northwest slope of the peak near the 2,800 ft. level. A private Vermont-based firm, Renew, Inc., had planned to preserve the bodies of several prominent high-IQ individuals for future reawakening. The project was hastily abandoned due to fraud allegations.” That bombshell isn’t annotated with any external sources, and my research couldn’t turn up anything on the fantastically named Renew, Inc. It may only be Vermont legend, but I plan to make an investigative detour to the northwestern slope on my next trip to the summit of Mt. Equinox.