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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.

When I go back to the Whites, it’s a bright, warm day in early August, and I meet Teschner at the Gale River trailhead. He’s on a mission. He’s hiking up Galehead Mountain to retrieve the hidden oar. "I just ate a whole pint of Ben & Jerry’s," he says, walking toward me. "Let’s see how that goes."

We start walking. Teschner’s hair is a little longer now, less bristly, and he has patches of duct tape stuck on his shoulders, covering an oozing yellow melange of friction sores. Two days earlier, he had packed his first century, laboring up the Gale River Trail bearing 110 pounds. "When I first came here," he says, "I thought carrying 50 pounds up the trail time after time was going to crush me. I didn’t see how I could do it. But I broke the trail down mentally, into sections–this river crossing, that rocky pitch. During the last quarter-mile, I felt like I was going to collapse. I could hardly put one foot in front of the other, I was so tired. But I never questioned that I was going to make it. I’ve gained confidence this summer."

I ask what he means. "Well," he says, "I’ve definitely become a better cook. I’ve made peanut butter bars and apple spice cake; the other night, I cooked pasta primavera. I’m thinking about opening my own restaurant some day." The scheme is vague. He says something about a "tiki bar in the U.S. Virgin Islands" and then adds, "I still think the cookbook is awesome."

"Oh," I say. I guess I’d hoped for deep insights–for dispatches from a mind finding its way toward cool adult poise. But the process of growing up is subtle and incremental, and Teschner is still ensconced in the woods of it. He cannot offer up any sweeping perspectives.

We cut across the river. Teschner stoops low to a cold pool of water and says, "Usually when I get here, I dunk my head in. It’s refreshing. The way you do it is you put your hands on these two rocks here, like you’re doing a push-up, and then you kind of lower…" He goes underwater and then he pulls his head out and shakes it, so the water flies off the tips of his hair. Then he waits as I dunk my head into the icy river.

When we get up on Galehead Mountain, the sun shines brightly and the oar is fairly visible in a thicket of trees. The wood on it is a little chewed up, and its metal paddles are bent, but the grail is now solely in Luke Teschner’s care. He isn’t giddy about it, but he does seem quite pleased. "Here we are in the middle of the woods," he says, "and there’s stealth treasure lying around." He shoulders the oar, which is surprisingly light, and starts down the tree-lined trail, carefully. The oar has a wide turning radius.

When Teschner reaches the hut, he fetches a long ladder and leans it against the dining-room wall. He climbs it and then pounds in some nails up near the ceiling, for the oar to sit on. Anderson stands at the base, holding the ladder and giving instructions: "Yeah, another nail there. Good, good." Teschner bends the nails tight around the oar handle. He balances a cache of butter knives on a thin ledge above, so that a cascade of cutlery will rain down on any would-be marauders. And then he sets a large sign–"Dog Walk," it reads–dangling below so it will fall like a guillotine if the oar ever is touched. "Ah yes," Anderson says, peering up. "This is evil!"

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