“Since you all love dogs so much, I think you’d enjoy Dog Mountain. It’s a one-of-a-kind place,” the hiker told us as we lazed under the fire tower at Bald Mountain in Oquossoc, Maine, miles from the middle of nowhere.
At the summit, my son Zack had forgotten all about the fire tower he’d labored up the mountain to see, becoming far more interested in the friendly yellow lab he met underneath.
The nice couple that owned the dog, and who gave him the awesome hiking-dog name of Five-Miler (Fiver for short), smiled, ate granola bars, and kicked back as Zack and Fiver lavished each other with attention.
While everyone in our family loves dogs, Zack is particularly canine-obsessed. He goes to sleep each night looking at a “Dog Breeds of the World” poster, pondering which breed he’ll own when he grows up, and whether he should own twenty-five dogs, or just two.
“Probably somewhere in-between,” he says.
The longtime reader(s) of Hike the Hudson Valley may have become familiar with our family’s dog, Memphis, who was my faithful hiking companion for fourteen years.
Without Memphis’ enthusiasm for hiking, this site probably wouldn’t exist. She always gave me motivation to get out there. A true adventure dog.
For me and my wife, Kara, Memphis was also our practice baby — our attempt to gain confidence in our ability to keep something alive after some unfortunate experiences with bonsai trees. (Sorry, little ficuses! We really tried.)
We adopted Memphis in 2008 from an event North Shore Animal League ran one fateful Saturday at the Beardsley Zoo in CT. They had six puppies up for adoption that day, each in its own crate. When we walked by Memphis’ crate, she wagged her whole body so hard that the crate almost tipped over.
“That dog is kinda funny-lookin’, but man, it is enthusiastic,” we agreed.
Her loving personality and whole-body wags won us over from day one. The volunteer from North Shore pointed at the “T” on her tag and said, “She’s from Tennessee.” That’s all we ever knew about her past.
We decided right there to name her “Memphis,” since “Chattanooga” takes too long to yell at an animal who is peeing on your carpet. They’d be done by the time you got to the last syllable.
Bringing her home that day was one of the best decisions we ever made.
After demonstrating the ability to keep Memphis alive for a couple of years, we decided we were ready to have kids. Memphis found these new fellow pets quite interesting.
She bonded with each of them instantly. Until very recently, our kids have never known a time without Memphis by their sides.
She was the perfect family dog. The perfect trail dog. The perfect dog.
This spring, though, it became clear that Memphis didn’t have much time left. The concept of anticipatory grief succinctly describes our family’s feelings during this time. Then came the actual grief.
Recommendation I hope you won’t need: A friend who cared deeply for Memphis recommended in-home euthanasia from Viano Veterinary Services, based in Poughkeepsie. Dr. Viano was caring and compassionate to us and to Memphis, and she helped to give Memphis the most peaceful possible goodbye. Except for that visit (and her nice follow-up the next day), I do not know Dr. Viano, and gain nothing from this recommendation but the hope that someone reading this might find some comfort from it.
This is the backdrop upon which our family came to know about Dog Mountain, which is information that came to us at just the right time.
While on vacation this summer in Rangeley, Maine (the place we’ve been going every summer since I was seven years old), we discovered that the town was hosting the 4th Annual Great American Dog Parade on our first day there. This was clearly an event that we needed to attend.
While the parade only lasted about five (amazing!) minutes, the dogs stuck around afterward to receive adoration. Zack was happy to supply it. (He asked me to take pics of his favorite pooches there.)
Later in the vacation, he continued asking everyone if he could pet their dogs. Then we’d end up chatting with the owners. Zack was our little social ambassador.
So it came to be that we met Five-Miler and his family atop Bald Mountain, striking up conversation with Fiver’s human family members and telling them all of the history that I’ve just shared above.
“Are you familiar with St. Johnsbury, Vermont?” the man asked.
“We’ve driven through St. Johnsbury every summer since I was seven years old, on our way here,” I told him.
“That’s where we live. Do you know a country store called Pettyco Junction on the edge of town?” he asked.
“Yes indeed, we have stopped there several times,” I replied.
“Well, Dog Mountain is about a mile from there. It wouldn’t be out of your way at all to check it out. People from all over the world visit it. There’s a dog chapel where people can leave messages for their dogs that have passed on. And live music on Sunday afternoons in the summer. I think your family would really like it there,” he said.
We thanked the man for the information, then promised our boys we’d try to find Dog Mountain on our way home at the end of the week.
Turned out, the man’s directions were spot on, and we found Dog Mountain just about a mile from Pettyco Junction, nestled on a hill at the end of a gravel driveway in the hills of Vermont. (You can pop “Dog Mountain” into Google Maps and it’ll find it.)
I don’t know what we were expecting, exactly. But from the moment we got out of the car, we were glad we made the stop.
We could tell we were in the right place because there were little concrete busts of dogs right near the parking lot.
The art gallery had a dog weather vane on top.
I don’t know what you’d be expecting from a place called Dog Chapel, but I was expecting something on the order of a shed from Home Depot, decorated with some dog-themed fridge magnets.
But this was a legit chapel.
The sign out front:
NO DOGMAS ALLOWED
The front of the chapel had two human-sized doors, with a dog door in-between. Nice touch.
Inside, the pews were bookended by carved wooden dogs. Dog-themed stained-glass windows lined the walls.
For us, the walls themselves were the most beautiful part of the experience. They were plastered from floor to ceiling with photos and remembrances of beloved pets.
We didn’t go into the Dog Chapel expecting to get emotional. But my wife and I got teary, and the kids were somber as they read the messages and looked at the pictures.
Looking at those photos, reading the heartfelt words, we felt an instant – if kinship is too strong of a word, perhaps sense of community captures it – with everyone who took the time to post their thoughts and mementos here. It felt connective and comforting.
You know that feeling when you stumble into a day that you just know you’ll remember forever? I had that feeling here.
My sons are already asking to put Dog Mountain on the itinerary every time we go to (and from) Maine. It won’t be a hard sell to get us to come back.
Beyond the chapel, there are trails to explore, and a pond where many dogs bring their people to watch them swim.
We couldn’t visit on a Sunday, which is when they host concerts in the summertime, but this must be a lovely place to catch a show.
Dog Mountain is the creation of artist Stephen Huneck (1948 – 2010), who spent three years building the Dog Chapel, and whose whimsical and beautiful works are spread throughout the park. His story can be found on his Wikipedia page and on Dog Mountain’s About Stephen Huneck page. I hadn’t read his biography until just now, and man, it doesn’t end the way you’d want it to. I wish the source material for his bio (and his wife’s) could be edited to give a happy ending to people who have brought comfort, peace, and happiness to so many.
Dog Mountain is now operated by Friends of Dog Mountain, a non-profit whose mission “is to honor Stephen’s art and vision and to preserve his incredible contribution to American art for future generations to enjoy and appreciate.”
From what we could see during our visit, that mission is being accomplished every day.
Dog Mountain is free to visit, with collection buckets for encouraged donations. We happily stuffed bills into the buckets, then headed to art gallery & gift shop to see if we could find some opportunity to turn our enthusiasm for this place into commerce.
Turns out, we could.
But no, Zack, we’re not putting that doormat in front of the house. (It is funny, though.)
If you do come here, while you’re in the gift shop, be sure to check out the bathroom, even if you don’t have to go. Just peek in and wash your hands. If you’ve ever seen a faucet like this one, I’ll be impressed.
St. Johnsbury is a haul from the Hudson Valley – it’s a 4- or 5-hour drive, depending on where you’re coming from; whether you attempt to drive through Waterbury, CT at rush hour; and whether one of your kids glugged a Gatorade right before you left.
It’s an easy stop for us on the way to Rangeley (you should check out Rangeley, too – it’s great!), but I’m not sure it’s a destination on its own for a trip that long. If you’re ever in that area, though, it’s certainly worth your time to check it out.
And even if you don’t visit Dog Mountain, don’t you like just knowing that a place like this exists? I sure do.
For our family, our visit to Dog Mountain couldn’t have come at a better time. We’re still feeling like our house is too empty, and we still have Memphis-sized holes in our hearts, but we did find some measure of healing at Dog Mountain, and for that we are grateful.
If you’re a dog lover and find yourself near St. Johnsbury, Vermont, a trip to Dog Mountain might be just the thing you need, too.
(The very nice couple who recommended Dog Mountain had a last name of something like Korby, or Gorsby, or dang it, it took me too long to write this article and the name fell out of my head. He said they were the only people with that last name in St. Johnsbury. On the off chance you happen to know a super-cool couple in St. Johnsbury with a last name like Korby or Gorsby or Gorky, and who have an awesome dog named Five-Miler, please send them this link and tell them thank you for their time and kindness, and for the great recommendation!)