Another story from the archive; the mountains can be harsh.
If it’s your turn to cook, the day flies by, but there is little time to enjoy it. Sometimes, the weather is ideal, but you get lost in the mayhem of ten loaves of bread, eight lasagnas, and enough vegetable soup to feed one hundred hungry hikers. Sometimes, your only glimpse of the sun is through steamy kitchen windows. When that happens, all you can do is grit your teeth and think of the idyll just outside the door.
* * *
High in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, there are a series of eight huts, spaced evenly along the Appalachian Trail, that provide lodging and meals for overnight backpackers. Lakes of the Clouds, the flagship hut, is perched on the col between Mount Washington and Mount Monroe, in the heart of the Presidential Range. Washington, at 6,288 feet, once held the record for highest recorded wind-speed at 231 miles per hour and is known for savage weather and grueling hikes. Still, in the summer, the hut fills to capacity each night, and it is the hut crew’s duty to feed them and provide cordial guest service.
The meals are elaborate; the hikers crave carbs. Depending on the night: chicken with rice, stuffed shells, beef stew, pot pie, lasagna. Every main course is preceded by a soup and bread course, then salad. Then comes desert: fresh chocolate chip cookies, iced brownies, applesauce cake, pie, gingerbread. In the morning, on an alternating schedule, the crew offers oatmeal, then either pancakes and bacon or eggs and coffee cake.
If it’s not your turn to cook, you have the middle of the day off, between ten and five normally. Unless it’s Wednesday or Saturday, and your time is spent schlepping bulging bags of garbage a mile and a half uphill to the summit of Washington, where a car (driven up the auto-road) meets you and trades new supplies for garbage. Then it’s a mile and a half back to the hut, carrying ninety-plus pounds of lettuce, eggs, and other fresh necessities.
It’s hard work, catering to folks who leave suburban Massachusetts (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York…), craving adventure only to be waited on deep in the backcountry. By the third week of the summer season, late June, the guests and the meals start to blend together, and I tire of answering questions like “Where’s the bathroom?” while standing next to a “RESTROOM THIS WAY” sign. The hut crew, myself included, doesn’t work so far from civilization of our love for the people, we do it for the place.
* * *
Very few dinners, breakfasts, or cook-days stick out in my mind. The time off, the long hikes alone or with friends, are what remain with me. It’s been four years, but it seems like this afternoon that I walked barefoot to the top of Mt. Monroe, a quarter-mile away, with a book and a cool glass of beer. It was sunny; I read and napped for hours on the warm schist. Not a soul disturbed me, but just out earshot, I could see the hordes sitting on plastic benches in front of the hut, using the sun to dry their mud-encrusted socks.
Sensational hiking trails leave from the front door of Lakes—the AT crosses the front stoop. The trails fan out like the spokes of a wagon with the hut as hub—the Dry River Trail, the Crawford Path, the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail, others. I hiked them all, in the rain, in the wind, most often in the sun. If I went the right pace, on the right trail, on the right day, I could stay out of sight of other hikers and enjoy my solitude. At that altitude (5,050 feet), I was above treeline. Only alpine flora covered the landscape: sedges and lichen, wildflowers and krumholtz. On clear days, I could see miles in all directions. From the summit of Washington, on a perfect day, I could see the sun glint off the waters of the Atlantic, roughly one hundred miles away. The trails were my true home; I hated coming in at the end of the day and serving dinner to visitors. The hut, the job, kept me in, contained, but I wanted be out. Nothing bothered me out there. By late summer my legs were tan and toned, my feet sure and swift. I went ten miles, fifteen, more, just during my few hours off. I drank in the views and gobbled up the miles. I ran from the routine of the stifling hut and found solace in the rugged terrain just outside the door.