13 January 2014

Equinox Mountain - 29 Aug 2013

(The TARDIS takes us back to August of 2013 now, and there's singing in the distance... not quite elvish, not quite dwarvish...)
Yet my eyes are drawn toward
The mountain in the east
Fascinates and captivates
Gives my heart no peace
The mountain holds the sunrise
In the prison of the night
Till bursting forth from rocky chains
The valley floods with light

I do not know of dust to dust
I live from breath to breath
I live to climb that mountain to
The Fountain of Lamneth

- Neil Peart, RUSH, The Fountain of Lamneth
I grew up in between the Adirondack and Catskill mountains, and visited both frequently, with my family and with the Boy Scouts.  From our house, and from the surrounding land, however, neither region was particularly visible.  Despite this lack of visibility, there was a mountain that I saw on a regular basis, off to the east.  The vision of it was so ingrained in my head that when I saw it again, a few years ago, I stopped in my tracks and stared at it in wonder.  “Which peak is that?”  I asked myself that question over and over again, stopping whenever I visited my old hometown and attempting to take seat-of-the-pants measurements.  There’s no good place, really, to stop and take a bearing, since all of the good vantage points are along a busy road.  Nevertheless, after months of obsessing I was fairly certain that I was looking at Equinox Mountain, which belongs neither to the Adirondacks nor the Catskills, but to the Taconics, the stubby remnants of ancient giants that run through four states.  I drove over to take a look at it a few times, though never when I was able to get out and actually walk up it.  From up close Equinox looks even more impressive.  I don’t know how the Taconic peaks do it, but they all look much larger and much more difficult than they generally are.

The View

Finally, one clear winter’s day, I was driving along Northline Road in the Ballston area when I came across a view that made me pull over and gawk.  Instead of seeing a single peak or a double peak, I saw peaks.  Plural.  Several of them.  I snapped a few pictures for later analysis and moved on.  When I posted the pictures to Flickr, a kindly gentleman named Kevin was kind enough to show me Peakfinder, which is an excellent utility that takes a location and a compass bearing and displays an approximate view of the mountains in the distance, complete with labels.  Once I had that I was able to confirm that, yes, I was seeing Equinox, and Little Equinox, and their neighbors, including a smaller mountain over in Greenwich called Willard.  To the south of Equinox I saw Grass Mountain and its neighbor Spruce Peak.  (I had mistaken Spruce Peak for Stratton Mountain, which sits across the valley and is a Green Mountain, not a Taconic.)

Just confirming the names of the mountains that I had been fascinated with was enough for the time being, and I was a bit put off by the topo for the Equinox summit trail.  It looks treacherous.  I decided to put it off until the snows had gone.  Come August, I found myself with a spare day, somewhat unexpectedly, and I decided to go climb Equinox.  I drove over to Manchester, VT, found the correct back road(s) and parked at the Equinox Preserve and Trust parking lot.

The lot was nearly full, which was a bit surprising for the middle of the week, but it seemed like most of my fellow hikers were just enjoying the trail network down below.  There are miles of trails at the foot of the mountain; from what I could see they were almost entirely old woods roads, wide and a bit eroded.  It reminded me a lot of the Gunks, with their quaint old roads leading through beautiful woods.

I made my way up the red trail and then the Blue Summit Trail, past a heavily graffitied water tower, a small information booth, and numerous junctions.  At the final junction in the lower section, with the Maidenhair trail, there was a sign attached to a post, warning hikers that a trip to the summit was a strenuous hike.  Well, they were right, though it was nowhere near as steep as it looks on the map.  The trail climbs steadily for about 2600’ over about 2.85 miles, which is on par with an Adirondack High Peaks hike.  The key difference between climbing Equinox and climbing a High Peak is that there isn’t a 2-4 mile walk-in to start climbing, which is often the case for the High Peaks.  The other differences were that the majority of the Equinox trail is wide and gently rising, and the only exposure I got was in a section even more eroded than the rest.

Around 12:30, an hour after setting off, I came to a bench by the side of the trail, and a junction.  The left side of the junction led to a spring in 250’, and the right continued the hike.  I chose to skip the spring for the time being and just focus on summitting, so I headed right.  The trail immediately narrowed and steepened.  At once I felt like I was transported to the Adirondacks or Catskills - the mud was much darker now, and the roots of nearby trees were visible and ready to catch a toe or two.

The trail continued up, occasionally clinging to the edge of the mountain, but generally proceeding up on a reasonable slope.  Eventually I came to an especially damp and dark section, which wouldn’t have looked out of place along the Porter ridgeline.  The woods were gorgeous, and they marked the point where the trail really started to level out.  A few minutes later I was in the summit woods, surrounded by stunted trees and on a different trail network.  Ahead of me, the summit trail continued on, and to my right a path led over to Lookout Rock.  Another trail led off to the left, unmarked.

I continued toward the summit, and in a very short time I came to a bizarre metal building with a chain-link fence attached to it.  The trail continued around it, as did I, and I immediately came to another junction.  Though I didn’t know it at the time, I had come upon what appeared to be the remains of an old road, one that used to climb over the summit and continue on down to Beartown Gap and Dorset.  This wasn’t obvious at all from where I stood, but as I headed left toward the summit, I passed an old road sign on rocks that looked far too narrow to support motor traffic.  Later, when I hiked over to Lookout Rock, I found another pair of road signs, along the same track, as well as a wide corridor through the trees that looked a lot like an old road.  I suppose it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise: there are roads all over this mountain, and there were roads all over the other Taconic peaks I’ve visited to date.  The trail to Mt. Berlin is entirely on an old woods road, with roads coming in from all different directions at regular intervals.  When I mentioned that I had hiked to the summit of Mt. Berlin, a buddy of mine told me that he had wheeled up it years ago.  The Greylock massif is covered in paved roads that provide motoring tourists with summit access, as on Equinox.  People really like driving over the Taconics.

The Summit of Equinox

I found the summit not long after heading left at the junction.  The summit of Equinox is viewless, or at least it was that day, due to some low clouds.  Just off of the summit is a massive aerial - well over 100’ tall.  What really caught my eye, though, was the visitor’s center.  I had read about it, briefly, but when I first saw it, it looked more like a shrine to a Christian saint than an actual visitor’s center.  There was a massive, larger than life painting, presumably of St. Bruno, facing the summit.  It was illuminated in the gloaming, presumably as a call to the faithful.  I hope he wasn’t too disappointed.

I circled around the mist enshrouded building, self-described as the “Saint Bruno Scenic Viewing Center”, and found that there were several people on the other side: a summit steward of sorts and 4 or 5 motoring tourists.  The steward was explaining to the motorists that people also hike up to the summit from Manchester, using me as an example.  I smiled at the motorists, said “Yep!” and kept moving.  I don’t particularly like being made into a spectacle.  As I was wandering around the outside of the building, the steward stopped me for a few minutes to discuss my choice of footwear; she was astonished that I had hiked up in my FiveFingers.  I stopped myself short of saying “well, I almost hiked up barefoot, but the gravel near the base would have slowed me down way too much” and instead just explained that I had been getting nasty blisters from my boots, and the FiveFingers worked much better for me.  We chatted a bit more, and I took my leave.

I headed back the way I had come, and then headed along the old road towards Lookout Rock.  I passed by a few pet burial sites, and arrived at Lookout Rock a short while later.  At least I assume it was Lookout Rock, since there are a few vantage points along the way and none actually bear a label.  The view was nice, and the clouds had parted slightly, but it wasn’t anything spectacular.  I could see the Green Mountains, and Manchester in the valley below.  The view is probably better without clouds obscuring it, and I have to assume that the view from the summit viewing center is much better, since it sits at a better vantage point, and is, after all, a “viewing center”.

I would have liked to explore the old road some more, and head down towards Beartown Gap a bit, but I needed to get home, so I left it for another day.  I was thrilled to at least have seen those signs at this point along the mountain, since I had seen the old road on the USGS topos, but couldn’t find anything about it online.

Trail Junction
In case there's any doubt, THAT is the Yellow Trail.

I took the yellow trail from Lookout Rock back to the first summit trail junction I had come to, which was a much prettier route than the old road, and then started my descent back down the Blue Summit Trail.  I stopped to check out the spring, which, to my surprise, was running through a gigantic white pipe thrust into the hillside.  The rocks below the pipe descended in a cascade of brilliant green moss.  I didn’t dare walk over to sample it.
Now, at last I fall before
The Fountain of Lamneth
I thought I would be singing
But I'm tired... out of breath
Many journeys end here
But, the secret's told the same
Life is just a candle
And a dream must give it flame

The key, the end, the answer
Stripped of their disguise
Still it's all confusion
And tears spring to my eyes
Though I've reached a signpost
It's really not the end
Like Old Sol behind the mountain
I'll be coming up again...

- Neil Peart, RUSH, The Fountain of Lamneth
(The TARDIS is only taking us back a week or so for our next stop, to another Appalachian feature.)

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