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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.

It’s not easy getting a job on croo. This year, more than 130 people applied for 20 open positions. And the appeal of the work is not immediately obvious. There you are, up in the mountains, cut off from all frontcountry pleasures–Facebook, school buds, beach parties, whatever–and obliged (at least at Galehead) to live for 10 weeks in a cramped 10-foot-by-10-foot bunk room with four other staff, each of whom often goes more than a week without bathing. (Croo members work 11 days on, three days off.) The social scene can get confining and testy.

Still, life is delightfully slow-paced. Workers help out with breakfast and dinner, and typically have afternoons off. In their free time, they’ll spend hours handwriting letters to friends, or updating journals, or enjoying picnics on mountaintops. They hike almost daily, and on my first stay at Galehead, Nick Anderson decides to bust out and climb a trail that scales 1,100 feet–ascending South Twin Mountain in less than a mile.

Anderson, 21, is Galehead’s assistant hutmaster, and a rather serious youth who often wears a pin-striped, blue-and-white oxford shirt while interacting with guests. ("You look fantastic," Sanford tells him, "straight out of the summer Polo catalog.") Short and sturdy, with curly black hair and a frequent black stubble on his chin, he does look quite dashing. He’s a fast hiker, too. Once, he made it to Greenleaf Hut–7.7 miles away, and over two mountains and through a trickling, sole-soaking cascade–in a blazing two hours and 45 minutes. Still, I invite myself along on his afternoon jaunt.

"OK," says Anderson.

I follow. He lollygags for the first 50 feet or so and then, with no preamble, he turns his stride into a leap and begins hurling himself up the mountain, knee to chest, knee to chest. I’m in decent shape; I keep up. But I move with a desperate and gasping intent, gritting my teeth against twinges of pain in my knees, and Anderson just flows up the hill, chitchatting, oblivious to how lucky he is to possess fresh, unblemished cartilage.

Anderson is light on his feet, at all times. One night, when 10 little girls come to the hut with their parents, he summons them all to a table after dinner, leans toward them, and, in hushed, spooky tones, tells them ghost stories. The girls all giggle and squeal–and then, afterward, they linger about him, burbling, as though he is the drummer for the Jonas Brothers.

Working in the huts, it strikes me, is kind of like being in Neverland: You can stay on only as long as you remain young, unburdened by the worry and self-consciousness that crust on over time. And as with any fairy-tale landscape, arcane mores apply. Every summer, for instance, hut workers seek to distinguish themselves by "packing a century"–that is, by lugging a full 100 pounds into a hut, usually with a plain wooden packboard. But the most critical ritual is the raid. Half seriously, half in jest, the croo of one hut will invade another hut, sometimes "stealth raiding" at night and sometimes executing daytime "power raids" replete with all the sinewy horseplay of professional wrestling: chokeholds, half-nelsons, full-body pins. The object, always, is to steal previously heisted detritus attached to the walls of the invaded dining room: old road signs, for instance, and antique skis.

The practice of raiding began soon after the first AMC hut opened in 1888. In the 1940s and ’50s, the prize booty was a human skull, "Daid Haid," lifted from an abandoned logging camp. Later, in more politic times, an airplane propeller, recovered from a high-mountain crash, was coveted above all else. Today, the grail is a long wooden rowing oar that was used, allegedly, in the 1972 Olympic Games. As the summer begins, the oar is at Zealand Falls Hut. The croo at every other hut wants it. "Once you have the oar," Galehead staffer Chelsea Alsofrom, 22, tells me, "you don’t really need anything else." Raid strategies and other clandestine plans are often hatched in the privacy of the kitchen, away from the guests. There, after dinner one night, Sanford unveils a plastic liter jug of Canadian Hunter whisky, along with a T-shirt that features his name (Gates "Rolling Thunder" Sanford) and the slogan "Get Hunted." In Sanford’s day, Canadian Hunter was so celebrated among croos that one hut worker, a burly, mustachioed youth, was known simply as "The Canadian Hunter."

"This stuff is vile, by the way," Sanford says. "We did a taste test between it and Old Crow, and Old Crow won."

It’s quite possible that Sanford could afford a tonier brand. He prepped at Milton Academy, and his grandmother owns a house in the Hamptons. Which shouldn’t be surprising. The huts have always attracted well-to-do Easterners. The first staffs were heavily represented by Dartmouth and Harvard, and today the huts still offer up-and-comers a chance to fly free of expectations–to get muddy and loopy up in the mountains.

The bottle goes round. No one gets anywhere near wasted. But toward the end of the night, Teschner wears a warm grin. "I’m feeling," he says, "a little Canadian poached."

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