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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.

By my reckoning, Galehead is toast: It’s only a matter of time, it seems, before invaders will come along to deliver the Galeheaders a large serving of humble pie. Indeed, one day over lunch, Johannes Griesshammer, aka Jack Black, pronounces ominously that he will blitz for the oar "in the very near future."

I wait. But as August wears on, the thrill of raiding–and being up in the magical huts–finally wears thin. "It takes a lot of social energy being here," Alsofrom says. "It can only last so many weeks and then you want summer to end."

On August 20, with the oar still up on the wall at Galehead, the summer croos come down out of the mountains. Life as the rest of us know it resumes. Autumn arrives, eventually, and myself, I keep thinking about the sublime, long-ago joy of being up in the Whites amid blinding patches of snow as the summer sun baked down upon my bony little kid back. I begin hatching this theory that the most important part of the whole hut experience involves remembering the place and wanting to go back. And that’s when I think of Emily Taylor, the hut veteran who visited Galehead on my first night there.

Taylor is 24, and a small wire of a person, black-haired, tiny, and tautly muscular, with this intense, bouncy ebullience about her. She came to Galehead straight from her job at an organic farm in Portland, Maine, driving three hours right after work and then beginning her hike in at 7:30 p.m., bearing a six-pack of beer.

"I’m so happy to be here," Taylor said, arriving, "so happy." But she told a wistful story about her previous summer, her sixth and last season in the huts. It came right after her graduation from college. She was the hutmaster at Carter Notch, and Chelsea Alsofrom was on her crew. "I have so many great memories," she said. "When it rained, I’d sit on the kitchen floor on a blanket with Chelsea and listen to James Taylor on an iPod. But I was stressed out, running a hut, not knowing what I was going to do in the fall."

"You saved your senior spring college freak-out for the hut," Alsofrom said. "It felt like you were having an existential crisis."

"I was just feeling," Taylor said, "like I couldn’t do another summer. A goal of my life had been completed, and I felt like I was being torn out by the roots.

"I wish I still had the energy for this job," Taylor continued. "I wish that I was still OK with sharing my home space and that I could set out silverware again, without feeling like I was going to scream. I wish I could go back to being 19. I loved the huts; I’ve felt so at home here. But it’s time to move on."

Luke Teschner was lingering by the stove as Taylor reckoned with the hard reality of growing a little older, of no longer belonging where once she was so comfortable. Does the sting of her story register on him?

He doesn’t remember, he says when I call him this spring. But he is looking forward to going back to the huts in June. He’ll be at Madison this time. "I’m pretty excited," he says. "Madison is the oldest hut in the system. It’s above treeline. It’s notoriously the hardest hut to get to. The hike in is steep, so you tend to get more hardcores there: people who really know what they’re doing. It’ll be good. It’s gonna be a good summer."

Bill Donahue lives in Portland, Oregon. He wrote about that city’s Forest Park for the October 2009 issue.

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