Three years ago, when my friend Barbara and I visited Dog Mountain, where pet artist Stephen Huneck and his wife, Gwen, pay loving artistic tribute to pets, we expected to see a lot of dogs frolicking and happily making fools of themselves on the lush hills of Vermont. We also hoped we’d see a confused cat or two with a ferret thrown in for diversity.
The main draw of Dog Mountain for us was the Dog Chapel, a quaint New England church whose motto is “All creeds, all breeds welcome. No dogmas allowed.” I brought pictures of my pets who had passed on to add to people’s memorials of their furry loved ones on the chapel’s Remembrance Wall. There was also the draw of seeing so much of Stephen Huneck’s art in one place, his whimsical prints and woodcuts and furniture and rugs and sculptures of winged dogs and haloed cats.
Sadly, the impetus of the trip had been Stephen’s suicide a few months before on Jan. 8, 2010. That got us out of “we should go someday” to “we must go and say goodbye to Stephen.” I’m sure many of his patrons and fans felt that way, though most of us had not known him personally. The extremely close bond that was created between Stephen’s loving and spiritual art and the pet lovers who enjoyed it was (and is) very strong.
As we drove into the grounds of Dog Mountain, Barbara stopped the car and we took in the beauty and tranquillity of the place. It seemed impossible that such tragedy had struck the creator of this pet haven. But complete sorrow was impossible as we drove on watching dogs running through the vibrantly green grass, their owners strolling casually and peacefully near them. There was even a cat on a leash.
I met Gwen Huneck as we stepped into the Dog Mountain store. I was struck by her calm and sweet demeanor and her ability to carry on. She told us about the Dog Chapel, which Stephen had built and had described as his favorite piece of work. The atmosphere was subdued but welcoming, and we made our trek to the chapel. We left hours later, happy and filled with a sense of serenity, certain that Stephen was at peace with his pets who had also passed over.
But Dog Mountain wasn’t to really know peace. On June 2, Gwen Huneck also took her own life. I had to confirm this again and again because I could not reconcile the image I had of her with this tragic act. Had she died of a broken heart, I wondered, no longer able to go on without her partner? Why now? Why at all?
If Stephen was the soul of Dog Mountain, Gwen was the heart. She put herself completely into the organizing of the spiritually and communally oriented activities that the Hunecks were known for, flying prayer flags and holding picnics for pet lovers and their pets. I experienced Gwen’s kindness and openness firsthand.
There is no way to know why the Hunecks both committed suicide. While there was no indication that I could find that Gwen suffered from mental illness, Stephen openly struggled with depression and killed himself in his psychiatrist’s parking lot. Being manic depressive myself, I could understand Stephen’s actions, though understanding Gwen’s was tougher.
Dog Mountain lives on. I imagine there are few business owners who had the amount of love and devotion of their workers that the Hunecks did. Stephen’s artwork is still available, and there are still events for pet lovers and their pets on the mountain.
Stephen and Gwen left a legacy that will be appreciated for a long, long time, but they also left family, friends, and employees without answers. For me, the tragedies of Dog Mountain act as a reminder that we all must be on guard not to let sadness become overwhelming.
I find it best to remember that moment when I sat in Barbara’s car and was filled with the beauty and serenity of Dog Mountain, a place for living freely and remembering our loved ones who have gone on to the Elysian Fields.
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