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August 2010

The Trail to Neverland: Hut Keepers of the White Mountains

No one stays young forever, of course. Just don't tell the hut keepers in New Hampshire's White Mountains.

There’s something hallowed-looking about the faces of people the moment they step through the door of Galehead Hut, 3,800 feet up in the White Mountains of northern New Hampshire. They’ve arrived there, invariably, on foot, over steep, rock-rubbly trails dotted with lichen-specked cairns and roots and stubby, wind-stunted evergreens. And they’ve traveled, often, up through cold mountain air and wisps of fog and lashing outbursts of rain.

By the time they reach Galehead–a rustic hikers’ bunkhouse and mess hall 4.6 miles from the nearest road–they are weary. But they’re also sort of floating, for they have wriggled free of the niggling abstractions of everyday life and accomplished something solid. They’ve traveled here on their feet. Their boots are dirty and their faces glisten with sweat, and they’re somehow alight with such pure happiness that, watching, you think, "That person is good."

Whenever someone stumbles through Galehead’s front door at dinnertime, two dozen or so people at the long dining tables cheer–the applause is instinctive. Indeed, sometimes when you are merely waiting for someone to show up at Galehead, a certain aura of celebrity builds up around him, particularly if the new arrival has ever served on the hospitality staff–or the "croo"–in any of the eight shelters of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s White Mountains hut system, which was established in 1888.

Croo workers are almost invariably college students or recent grads, and by some measures they’re simply $7.25-an-hour wage slaves in a backwater of the tourism industry. The 49 caretakers who labor in the Whites’ huts every summer are tasked with cooking guests’ meals, selling them souvenir water bottles, and, every few days, wielding a stick, so as to stir the huts’ composting toilets. But their real mission is spiritual. It’s their charge to keep alive the delight that imbues each hut arrival, even after the dining hall starts festering with the fetid scent of wet, blister-bloody wool socks.

Hut workers sing and play guitar. They perform skits. And carrying 50-pound loads of food for the guests, they bound up mountain paths with lightning grace. Often, they become legends within the tight croo community–and on a chill, gray afternoon at Galehead last June, the hut’s five resident caretakers gather in the large, airy kitchen and await the arrival of two such legends: Gates Sanford and Alex May. Both are hut alumni, and collectively they’ve served seven seasons in the White Mountains.

"Alex May is coming?" one staffer says. "No way."

"Yes, Alex May," says his colleague, with a hushed reverence. "Alex May. And Gates too."

I’m familiar with this sort of reverence, for 30-odd years ago, when I was a scrawny grade-schooler hiking hut-to-hut through the White Mountains with my mother and sister, I regarded the hut workers as looming gods–as lords over a surreal alpine kingdom where you could actually have snowball fights in July. More recently, as I’ve aged, I’ve wondered how a bunch of college students (children, essentially, from my antique perspective) could possibly run the nation’s oldest network of mountain shelters. The responsibilities are ominous. Hut staffers double as search-and-rescue crews, and they function as lifeguards to the myriad unprepared hikers who shamble up some of the nation’s most punishing trails. The White Mountains are steep, and devoid of switchbacks. There are frequent summer hailstorms and the wind can gust to more than 200 miles per hour. Since 1849, more than 130 people have died on the slopes of the Whites’ highest peak, Mt. Washington.

The threats are real, to be sure. But for the most part these young adults spend their transformative years working like glorified counselors in an extended version of summer camp. Does that mean they’re growing up fast, or not at all?

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