Dog heaven in Vermont


The pond at Dog Mountain in St. Johnsbury, Vt. (Joe Yonan/The Washington Post)
August 10, 2012

It seems strange to go to a 150-acre dog lover’s attraction without a dog. Even stranger, I think as I stroll around Dog Mountain in St. Johnsbury, Vt., is the fact that there’s not a living soul in sight. Granted, it’s a weekday in March — not exactly high tourist season in this part of the country — but I thought that I’d at least be greeted by a tongue-wagging Lab or a sniffing terrier or two.

Instead, the place is stone silent. Just like the life-size man in a business suit standing in front of the quaint New England-style white chapel, surrounded by dogs big and small — a yellow Lab (no tongue wagging), a Scottie, a black Doberman, a huge Great Dane and, for good measure, a kitty. They’re wooden sculptures, carved by the late Vermont artist Stephen Huneck, who, after a near-fatal illness in the late 1990s, decided to build this place for two reasons: to provide solace to owners who’ve lost their dogs, and to provide grounds where dogs and their owners can play, play, play.

I’m in the former group. I’d meant to visit Dog Mountain back when I lived in Boston with my pooch Gromit, but I never managed. Now, several years after he died and a mere season after my Doberman, Red, did, too, I’ve decided to finally make the pilgrimage to St. Johnsbury.

Once you’re in town, it’s an easy place to find. The road is marked by a sign and the sculpture of a woman walking with two dogs. It curves up onto this bucolic spot, with its wide-open views of the mountains. The sculptures are everywhere: dog busts on fence posts, another pooch figure standing sentry at an overlook, another few next to the big pond, and . . . well, at a certain point you stop looking for them, knowing that you’ll encounter them from time to time as you walk about.

Before heading into the Dog Chapel, which Huneck built himself, I decide to poke into the airy, light-filled gallery building next door. Inside, yet more sculptures of dogs large and small, plus prints, T-shirts, ornaments, children’s books (including the bestseller “Sally Goes to the Beach”) and more declare Huneck’s undying love for his favorite subject.

I amble around, chuckling at some of Huneck’s wittiest works, such as the classic “My Dog’s Brain,” a diagram showing nodules inside a canine head labeled “Socks,” “Bones,” “Food,” Ball,” “Selective Hearing,” “Sniffing Dog Butts,” “Getting Petted,” “Barking for No Reason,” “Jumping on Visitors,” “Food” again, “Treats” and more. But it’s all a little bittersweet, not only because I’m still feeling my own loss, but also because I know that as jovial as he seemed in his quirky artwork, Huneck suffered from depression and committed suicide in 2010.

After a while I head back to the chapel, which Huneck built in the style of an 1820s Vermont village church. The sign out front reads, “Welcome All Creeds. All Breeds. No Dogmas Allowed.” There’s a ladder blocking the entrance, but I move it aside and open the door. Inside the foyer, a larger version of the dog angel cupola (or maybe it just seems larger) greets visitors, but the most striking things are the countless multicolored squares and photos papering the walls.

“Old Dear Pepper, no more falling down the stairs for you.”

“My beautiful angel, I’m sorry I didn’t get to say goodbye.”

“Vince, the love of my life, I will always miss you.”

“Coco Was Here.”

The faces of dogs (and some cats) smile out from the wall: The grins are big. The animals are chewing on bones, lying on rugs, running in fields, jumping on couches, with and without their owners, who are grinning, too.

I could spend all day just reading these moving testimonials, which remind me, again, how universal the experience of loving — and, unfortunately, losing — an animal is. But the glow from the chapel’s sanctuary draws me farther in, and when I step inside, I gasp. What I thought was patchwork wallpaper covering every inch of space is instead tens of thousands more notes from bereaved pet owners. It feels, suddenly, as if this is where every animal owner in the world has come to grieve.

Blessedly, Huneck leavened the experience with more wit. Into the stained-glass windows lining the small sanctuary — bought from a man who’d torn down an old church in upstate New York — he inserted unique images, each with a one-word description. Thus, “Play” is a dog swimming after a ball; “Friend” is a dog licking an ice cream held out by a generous hand; “Joy” is a classic tongue-wagging pooch; and so on. The effect is to render the canine experience as nothing short of, well, sacred. The outside legs on the pews are carved dog statues, more of which stand at the front, beneath the main stained-glass window (whose image is of a winged dog angel), right on . . . a mat. Perfect for those real dogs to rest on while their owners sit and contemplate. On the floor beside the pews rest a half-dozen tissue boxes, for those whose contemplation draws tears.

I’m one of them. But Huneck insisted that Dog Mountain not be a purely sad experience. “Grieving for a lost dog is one aspect of the Dog Chapel,” he wrote in “Even Bad Dogs Go to Heaven,” published after his death. “But equally important is celebrating the joy of living and the bond between dogs and their owners.” So he also made sure that Dog Mountain has hiking trails, ponds and an agility course.

After I compose my own memorial notes to Red and Gromit and pin them up on a wall already several notes deep, I head back to the gallery, intent on buying a book or two about the place. I’m greeted by employee Amanda McDermott, who answers my questions and then asks whether I’ve ever been to one of the big parties Dog Mountain throws twice a year. I haven’t, I confess, but now . . . I stop. She has heard this hesitation before, and she doesn’t miss a beat: “I’m so sorry for your loss,” she says.

Then she describes the fetes: hundreds of people and their dogs swimming, hiking, eating, swarming all over the property. The dogs aren’t merely allowed to run off leash; leashes aren’t allowed.

I’m not very religious, but even I know what that sounds like, especially from a dog’s perspective.

I vow that the next time I adopt, I won’t make the same mistake. The pooch and I will make an annual pilgrimage to Dog Mountain, and it will be about joy, not grief.

Yonan is on book leave in Maine. He can be reached through his Web site, www.joeyonan.com.

Joe Yonan is the Food and Travel editor of The Washington Post and the author of "Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook." He writes the Food section's Weeknight Vegetarian column.
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