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Backpacker Magazine – 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: By Bill Donahue Photography by Anne Skidmore

AMC hut caretakers (from left) Elizabeth Waste, david kaplan, Chelsea Alsofrom, and Luke Teschner.
AMC hut caretakers (from left) Elizabeth Waste, david kaplan, Chelsea Alsofrom, and Luke Teschner.
hut staffers often serve dinner to more than 30 hikers a night.
hut staffers often serve dinner to more than 30 hikers a night.
Galehead hut was rebuilt in 2000.
Galehead hut was rebuilt in 2000.
Cooking duty rotates between hut workers.
Cooking duty rotates between hut workers.
The kitchen crew bakes fresh bread daily, from scratch
The kitchen crew bakes fresh bread daily, from scratch
Boots dry outside the hut.
Boots dry outside the hut.
taffers Alsofrom, Siner, teschner, and waste sing a dixie chicks tune to let guests know it’s time for the communal meal.
taffers Alsofrom, Siner, teschner, and waste sing a dixie chicks tune to let guests know it’s time for the communal meal.

photo icon  PHOTO GALLERY: White Mountains Hut Keepers
 Head to the White Mountains and meet the hut keepers in this photo gallery
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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Reader Rating: Star Star Star Star Star

READERS COMMENTS

Star Star
tim
Mar 01, 2014

i was sooooo disappointed when i found out the price to stay at these huts. this one in the pic looks alot like the one i was at. dormitory style bunkbeds for over $100. i lost some respect for the trail association after that. this is more of a hostel and should be charging those kind of prices. $20-25 at most.

Star Star Star Star Star
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current croo
Oct 30, 2012

Thank you, Mike. Steve, as a current croo member, we do our best to personally interact with as many guests as possible not only because we enjoy it, but also because we want our guests to have the best possible experience. We love where we work, and want to share this passion with as many people as possible. You can imagine, though, that preparing meals, conducting search and rescues, packing food, and generally being "on duty" from 6 in the morning until 9:30 at night are collectively challenging for a croo of 4-5 college age students to perfectly execute. As hard as we do try to do the best job possible, and as much as we love doing so, we rely on the feedback of the guests to improve the hut experience. So, if you have feedback on the guest service, please please please leave comment cards or get in touch with the huts supervisor/manager! Many thanks to all who continue to support the mission of the AMC and huts.

Rika
Jan 06, 2011

I worked at the Joe Dodge Lodge, at the base of Mt. Washington a few years ago when I was 20, brings back some of the best memories! The hut folks are amazing...I wish I would have been chosen to be one of them!

Bill B.
Sep 14, 2010

I worked in the hut system in the 70's (Lakes of the Clouds, Greenleaf and Mizpah) and this article by Bill Donahue perfectly captures the feeling we had then. Great thoughtful piece of writing, especially the Peter Pan aspect which is exactly what it feels like.

Mike
Aug 22, 2010

Amazing place, amazing people. All croo members will risk their lives for you if you get in trouble. And what's wrong with tips. These kids work their butts off and basically make nothing...just see what happens if you don't tip your waiter or cab driver!

rcl
Aug 17, 2010

mek: go to www.outdoors.org
it's best to apply soon after nov. 1 because spots fill up quickly

Greg
Aug 05, 2010

It's a great system! I wish I'd have done something like this in my 20's

MEK
Aug 05, 2010

How would I go about applying for a job with these people? Any other jobs like this that anyone knows about? I am a 20 year old college kid and this sounds like heaven!

Steve
Aug 05, 2010

Some "croo" are good people.

Others just want you to make up your bunk, sweep out the place, and leave quickly -- after they've begged for a tip.

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