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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.

The next time I visit Galehead, in early July, Teschner is off-duty, at home in Haverhill, New Hampshire. Anderson is hanging out in the kitchen. I’m a little hesitant to go in there, though. The kitchen is the one refuge where the croo doesn’t have to be all cheery and customer servicey, and sometimes when a guest peeks his head in there (to ask for tea water, say), it’s as though he’s crossed an electrified line. Anderson has been working for more than a week straight. Still, I decide to venture into the kitchen, where he’s reading a book. "Yeah?" he asks. I begin awkwardly, asking if being up in the mountains is losing its luster now, midsummer.

"No," Anderson says. "I mean, has your life suddenly become less exciting for you because you were alive last year?"

I kind of move my jaw for a second, without speaking, and then I retreat to the dining room, intrigued. All along, I’ve been looking for little explosions–for telling failures in the Galehead machine. But I’ve seen very few, and minor ones at that. One morning, Sanford repeats the name of some woman and Anderson storms out of the room, irked. After another morning’s breakfast rush, Chelsea Alsofrom is supposed to tidy the bunk rooms. When she blows it off, the hutmaster, 22-year-old Katherine Siner, rolls her eyes and says, "Having this job is like being a mom. Someone has to be responsible."

But mostly the hut glows with authentic, transcendent joy. On Bastille Day, 11 older women–one-time Girl Scout leaders who call their group "Babes in the Woods"–rise from the table and sing "La Marseillaise" before packing up and leaving a generous tip. ("We’re mothers," explains the Babes’ leader, a lawyer. "We’re happy to know that there are young people up here, levitating over the trails.")

The croo never imposes themselves on anyone’s holiday, but they sprinkle the festivities with good cheer of their own. "Hi, I’m Luke," Teschner says one night during the staff’s standard after-dinner spiel, "and one interesting fact about me is that I’ve gone skiing in Africa. It’s a true story."

"Hi, I’m Nick," Anderson says, "and today, hiking, I stepped over a dead moose."

It’s their job, of course, to be cheery, and they pull it off 99 percent of the time. Indeed, one night when I sit down with Siner, the hutmaster, she speaks in relentlessly upbeat tones. "I’ve learned so much in this job," she says, "about responsibility, about working with other people, about guest services."

I never would have talked like that in college. I would have been skulking in my bunk, reading Nietzsche as I silently fumed over the Orwellian implications of the huts’ communal dining scheme. Or, more likely, my application would have been nixed. The AMC is careful and somewhat image-conscious in its management of the huts. The club’s publicist specifically routed both me and another reporter toward Siner. He enjoined me from going on a raid, and before my first hike into Galehead, he met me at the trailhead and gently pleaded for sympathy. "If they say anything crazy," he said of the staff, "remember: They’re young."

The publicist didn’t hike in with me, though, and the AMC never sent any busybody, iPhone-toting "hospitality specialist" up to Galehead to ride herd on the crew. The graying administrators seem to recognize that the huts’ magic lies in surrendering control to the kids. The whole show is like a mountain flower in springtime–you don’t want to mess with its loveliness.

One morning at 6:30, Siner and another hut worker, Elizabeth Waste, stand in the hall outside the bunk rooms, silhouetted in the soft gray light coming in the fogged-over window, and play a wake-up song, "Angel from Montgomery." The folk classic is a sad and plaintive tune, a story told in the voice of an old woman at the end of her life. "Just give me one thing that I can hold on to," it goes. "To believe in this living is just a hard way to go."

The two young women sing softly and with tentative care, Siner holding the lyrics out before them. And as the guests begin traipsing out of their bunks (silent, unshaven, stooped and pottering about, in old long johns speckled with odd scraps of bark), I am moved to reflect that people have been waking like this, to the sound of the human voice, in the AMC’s huts for more than 120 years. The whole virtuous endeavor of sallying forth into the fresh air of New England’s high mountain climes began back when men hiked in knickers and women in long woolen dresses, and it is still going on. Kids are still playing mandolin and singing up in the mountains with sweet and earnest intent–it’s one thing to hold on to.

"We’ll have breakfast for you at 7," Siner says, wrapping up. The salt smell of sizzling bacon wafts out of the kitchen, and the guests gather their toothbrushes and limp along toward the bathroom and its cold-water taps.

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