A hand laid stone staircase rises up in front of me, marking a steep incline in the trail ahead. Everyday during the spring, summer, and fall several teams of trail crew head out into the hills to reclaim the trails of the White Mountains from the affects of fallen trees, rockslides, and floods. Each day they haul a few dozen pounds of equipment and nourishment, rising thousands of feet and treading along miles of path, to their destination. Once there, they work as many hours as they can before turning back for the night. They will return the next day, perhaps every next day for a month, to get the job done. Some people think this work is crazy.
I, to some extent, understand what drives these the trail makers though. The allure of the mountain life is hard to grasp unless you have the opportunity to live it, but I will attempt to express its appeal. I must, I feel I owe it to those mountains for the life I lived among them for one summer. One summer, how futile it is to try and capture such a life in terms of time. In the mountains there is nothing but time, one can live what seems to be an entire life in the span of a few months. The experiences one has among the peaks, the rivers, the trees, and the animals are so rich that even a second holds import. It is a moment to observe, to feel, or to take part in the vast experience of nature.
Best to start at the beginning:
The sound of forks and knives clinking against breakfast plates mingles with the jumbled noise of excited conversation. I sip from my mug of coffee and take another bite of egg as I listen to my new boss talking about the plan for the next few days. I am sitting at the base of Mount Washington having a pre-hike breakfast buffet with my new boss and coworkers at the Pinkham Notch Visitors center. For the next four months I am to be a hut caretaker for the Appalachian Mountain Club. The AMC has a series of huts strung along the Appalachian Trail in the Whites, and for the record the AT was devised after most of the huts were built. A hut provides a hearty breakfast and well rounded dinner to famished hikers, as well as offering a place to sleep, warm beverages, impromptu performances of skits and music by the crews who run them and a unique escape from our crazy little American world.
My job is a little different. As a caretaker I will be working at two self-service huts, which the beds without most of the pampering. Guests are expected to bring along their own food and generally make themselves at home. It is my responsibility to, “Make sure the place doesn’t burn down,” in the words of the AMC’s huts manager. The huts are made mostly of stone. In addition I will do some daily chores to keep the huts sustainable technologies up and running. I will be monitoring the solar power system, managing the composting toilet (stirring crap), and checking to make sure the energy saving refrigerators are up and running. Other wise, besides greeting and offering trail advice and nature info to guests, I am free to do what I please. Never having been one to accomplish much under the direction of a paid supervisor, nor having much interests in propagating the status quo – which is to say greed and waste - of American society this idea appealed to me greatly and I accepted the position with my only second thoughts being ones of anticipation.
Today we will begin the process of opening the upper altitude huts for the spring, summer, and fall seasons. The AMC has year round huts in areas sheltered from the winter weather, but most of its huts close with the coming of winter for the sake of survival. A half dozen of us will be hiking in to the Mizpah Hut – in Hebrew, “The Watchtower” – to give it a good cleaning, inventory the rescue equipment, and unpack all of the necessary kitchenware. After a day or two, I will be left alone in winter like conditions at around three thousand feet, just a few miles from the top of Mount Washington, where the weather observatory recorded the world’s highest wind speeds. The rest of the crew will go on to the next hut and then the next, leaving a lone soul at each until the job is done and the spring season begins.
After a breakfast that strains my belly to the stretching point, we are ready to go. The six of us drive over to the base of the Crawford Path and begin filling our packs with foodstuff. I like the AMC way of life immediately. Rather than a bunch of granola, we have been provided with dozens of blocks of sharp cheddars, swiss, and other cheeses along with steak tips, fruits, vegetables, and boxes of brownie mix and hot cocoa. They even provide vegan alternatives. The food at hand is more than we will need for this particular journey, and I eye each item knowing that it may become my food for the next month. By the time we leave the storehouse my back seems to have become quite a burden, stuffed as it is with all the clothing and books I brought along and about 15 pounds of food.
After about a half hour of hiking I am beat. Prior to my arrival I had been doing a lot of bouldering and rock climbing, coupled with an unusually high number of visits from heavy drinking friends from out West typified by long nights at the bar smoking too many cigarettes and philosophizing about life. Not too in shape and laden with a grossly overweight pack I am sweating and my face is hued red as blood, half from the frigid mountain wind and half from my overexertion. The idea that I might not be fit for this job strikes me and I sit on a rock for a few minutes in depression. Do I turn back and return to my life, sitting around in dissatisfaction watching the world turn?
No. My suffering now is my own doing, but I can overcome it. Laziness kills the soul, robbing you of the vital experiences that make life worthwhile. I rise and within ten minutes have sweated out all of the leftover booze, cigarette tar, cynicism, and heartbreak. I feel great! My heart is pounding healthily instead of dying a slow death for the first time in months, and the darkness that winter had placed on my soul has lifted.
I arrive at the hut just a few minutes after the rest of the group and I joke that they could have brought some of my stuff up in their packs. We eat oven backed nachos casserole and stand around the gas oven to keep warm. The experienced AMC folk have retrieved “the Sammy” from the hut’s attic – a ten-gallon pot with a spout for pouring hot water – and we sip hot tea and chocolate as we begin the cleaning process, taking note of the full bottle of rum someone has left us.
It is then that I notice that there is no wood stove or any form other of heat, aside form the oven, which now has fresh bread baking in it. “It is going to be an interesting month,” I think as I note the temperature gauge falling to thirty as the sun sinks below a distant peak….
This story is the start of an ongoing work in progress, pieces of which will be posted relarly posted. I invite you to see more a my new gather group, Get Outdoors! (www.getoutdoors.gather.com). Feel free to post you own outdoors experiences. I am a freelance writer, if you are interested in pulishing my work or interested in offering me a colummn please drop me a message, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org