In the heart of Vermont, dogs are welcome to explore the green, lush land of Dog Mountain and its accompanying attractions that are Dog Chapel and the Stephen Huneck Art Gallery. There are miracles on this property: I recently witnessed not one, not two, but three miracles on Dog Mountain.
If you are a dog lover, add this destination to your must visit bucket list for both you AND your dog(s). For those unfamiliar with this unique destination, world renowned artist and author, Stephen Huneck, created Dog Mountain so that people could experience his artwork and share his passion for nature. He built Dog Chapel by hand so that folks could celebrate the spiritual bond they have with their dogs. He called it “the largest artwork of my life and the most personal.”
I interviewed Gwen Huneck, the widow of Stephen Huneck, not long after his tragic passing. “People come to Dog Chapel from all over. They leave remembrances of dogs loved and lost in the chapel or simply come to sit in peace,” she reflected. “For many, there is no sense of closure when a dog suddenly dies. Coming to the chapel gives them peace. They can come and enjoy nature and find serenity here.”
“Stephen believed in love and that’s what dogs are all about,”she said. The chapel and Dog Mountain are very life affirming. Because the property is open 7 days a week with hiking and swimming in surrounding ponds and a Dog Fest every October, folks are welcome to bring their dogs to enjoy the experience.
Most touching, she told me, “Stephen was a very funny, playful and vibrant person. He loved nature and loved dogs. Both components are here.”
Stephen , however, is no longer here. Sadly, in 2010, at the age of 61 and struggling with depression, Huneck took his own life not far from the retreat he shared with his wife. Reports surfaced that he became despondent after being forced to lay off employees of his studio and the famed Dog Chapel.
In the spring of 2013, Gwen Huneck died after an apparent successful suicide. She was 61. My heart is broken for the Hunecks, for their loved ones and community, for the tears and emptiness they felt, and that it came to this. I cannot pretend to imagine what they felt, but I feel anger, sadness, sorrow, and ultimately emptiness for this tragedy.
I spoke for a half hour to Gwen when interviewing her years ago for a dog magazine. I felt like “they got it,” the “it” being the sense of loving dogs so very much that you vacation with them, make them a part of your family, open your hearts to them, and maintain a mountain in their honor.
Why I Visited Dog Mountain and Dog Chapel
The walls of Dog Chapel are lined with images, remembrances, and notes to beloved pets who are no longer with us. What began as Remembrance Wall evolved into an outpouring of love and celebration covering every inch of the walls inside the chapel.
My broken heart prevented me from visiting Dog Mountain and Dog Chapel until recently. I so very much wanted to post an image and note to our Brandy Noel, the Cocker Spaniel who claimed my heart and then took it to heaven with her in tiny fragmented pieces. Visiting Dog Chapel meant she was really gone, and even though she died in 2008, this felt more than final for me.
My wife stood on a step stool and gently placed our little girl’s image onto the wall along with the thousands and thousands of others who had crossed over. We found a small area of the arch between the front and back of the chapel to place her image. Of course, this was more for us, those left behind, but it gave us a sense of having her with us once more. Grief has taught me that hell exists on earth, for I went through it, but it also taught me that love never ends. Our Brandy has communicated with us on more than one occasion, “postcards from the bridge,” as my friend Jean so eloquently says.
Postcard from the Rainbow Bridge
In 2008, on the day our Brandy Noel was taken away from her illness-laden body and crossed to the Rainbow Bridge, I sat waiting with her in the backyard for what I knew in my heart would be her last moments in the grass, sun shining down on this precious dog. Our then vet was about a two-hour ride from our home, so knowing the road ahead and what lay at its end caused me understandable apprehension and grief.
Suddenly, a small white butterfly flew across us and back across again. I knew it was God was calling her home. I knew the road ahead meant I’d come home without her in my arms. Well, to this day, almost seven years later, a white butterfly frequently makes its presence known to me – it will cross my path when I least expect it – and often times right in the spot where one flew over us on that last day of her life. I get chills every time. Just one white butterfly.
My wife and I thought perhaps Brandy would give us a sign at Dog Mountain, but we received no physical manifestation, no rain from the skies, no sudden sounds or instances…
Until that moment.
After spending time, money and tears in both the gallery and chapel, in the third hour of our visit, it was decided it was time to leave. In all honesty, I could live there with my family. A sense of calling, peace, and beauty at this land and its meaning breathed itself into me. As we left the gallery, new portrait in tow, we decided to make one last visit to the chapel.
Prior to entering, I was fiddling with my purse and putting some things away when something flew in front of my face. I “shooed” it away, thinking it was a bee. “Why are you in my face” I exclaimed and did that back hand thing we all do when an insect gets in our line of vision.
Except it was not an insect at all.
It was a butterfly.
One single, solitary, white butterfly fluttering itself in my face and circling my head for a good 10 seconds.
The tears flow now as they streamed then.
“She always comes to you, Carol,” my wife said.
Darlene stood staring at me, tears welling up in her eyes at the beauty of what just happened, and our dog, Dexter, sat by my side.
Darlene no sooner got those words out when circling back from the side of Dog Chapel came the majestic white butterfly, fluttering around Darlene’s head once, and it went towards Dog Mountain, where she sauntered along.
We were both crying: Joy and sadness, grief and gratitude.
I bent forward, hands to my stomach, feeling as if I had just expelled all the air in my body. I didn’t feel sick, I felt alive and dazed all in one.
With our mouths agape, our dog by our side, both of us said aloud, “Brandy” and smiled.
She would never let us leave without making her presence known.
But Wait, There’s More
Breathless and in disbelief, we walked back to the chapel and I grasped the Labrador Retriever handle to open the hand carved door.
Walking into the chapel, one first sees a small area and then crosses past an arch, where our Brandy Noel’s photo was placed.
What happened next frankly stunned us both.
Sitting beneath her photo, right on the floor of the arch, was a pink and black squeaky ball. Here is what is completely odd about finding that ball in that position in that moment:
- The ball was in the “mommy bag:” the name of the bag we carry with all of our dog’s things in it.
- That bag was zipped up with no one seeing a ball fall out of it.
- Many dogs had entered and exited and chapel in the hours since we were there, yet NONE of them took that ball?
- The ball’s exact position in the chapel is well, without explanation. But there it was.
As I reached down into my purse and fumbled for my cell phone camera, my dog, Dexter, picked the ball up and walked away.
“Here Dex, catch,” Brandy seemed to have summoned from the bridge.
That’s our girl: We always told her to find Mommies and know that she is never alone. Apparently, she’s still a great listener: She found us and we aren’t alone either.
Darlene, Dexter, and I sat down into one of the remaining hand-carved pews. Silence was on tap then, and as I recall the happenings of the day, goosebumps fill my arms. I still cannot believe it.
I want to believe that this is a strong coincidence, but my heart tells my otherwise.
I want to believe that at that exact moment, standing in a spot we so much avoided for so long, that the one white butterfly happened to flutter itself into my face, around my head, and nearly replicate the same behavior to my spouse….but my heart knows otherwise.
I want to believe that somehow that squeaky ball made its way out of a zipped bag, onto a chapel floor, ignored by one dog after another, and with exacting placement, found its way beneath our Brandy Noel’s image…. But my heart beats dog. And for those of you that say, “my heart beats cat,” then you can understand, as well. Animals in general find a way into our hearts.
I know better. I believe. I have dreams without limits, as Stephen Huneck wrote, and those dreams manifest as beliefs. The beliefs in my heart are limitless.
They Come in Threes
It is said that things tend to happen in threes: And so it goes. Maybe it’s the Trinity? Maybe it’s just a coincidence. Maybe it’s those limitless dreams coming to me in a 1-2-3 count.
Tourists and visitors filed into the chapel in our final moments, and one lady in particular came over to talk. She admired our dog, Dexter, and proceeded to tell us about her dogs and why she was there.
As I exchanged our experience on the mountain and in the chapel, she muttered, “These things don’t happen by chance. Think of everything your dog had to do to make that moment happen. Her love for you is that great.”
And the tears streamed again. She hugged us, I gave her my business card, and I felt like I had just been visited by an angel on earth, a messenger of sorts.
Sitting next to my family in that moment, I shared with Darlene that what just happened reminded me of that scene in the movie, “Ghost,” where Patrick Swayze learns to focus all his energies from “the other side” to move a penny to his grieving girlfriend (Demi Moore) he left behind.
Our penny is a butterfly.
The greatest miracles in life often come in a form, shape, and a time we least expect them. For those of you who have loved and lost a beloved pet, a furry family member, I have been there, done that, and can empathize and sympathize with your array of emotions and intense grief. It is so wrong that dogs cannot live as long as we do, or at least longer than the short life span they are granted.
It’s a dog’s only downside. The joys of sharing life with a dog, for me, far outweigh the grief that comes with losing them.
My heart beats dog, it also breaks dog, and I left little pieces of it within a small chapel on a mountain in Vermont.
I asked what will become of the property now that its founders are gone. There were some rumors about the land being sold off, another person tells me Gwen’s brother was involved for a time, and while we were on site, the two Huneck homes were up for auction. If you plan a visit, I’d make it sooner than later.
Believe what you want and call them coincidences: To each their own. For me, I received far more than I could ever have imagined visiting Dog Chapel. And isn’t that selflessness what dogs are all about? Stephen and Gwen, thank you: You are missed, you have affected many lives, and you will not be forgotten.
Until we meet at the bridge……
Here is a video compilation of Dog Mountain and Dog Chapel for your viewing pleasure:
Have you ever had an “experience” with a dog or pet who has passed over?