Over the River and Through the Woods

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— Joshua Paul
On the summit of 5,260-foot Mount Lafayette

On the Appalachian Mountain Club's trails in New Hampshire, hiking is only part of the thrill. Along the way, you can stay in huts straight out of summer camp, complete with picnic-table dinners, silly skits, and plenty of trail tales. Lights-out at 9:30!

As unexpected luxuries go, there's a lot to be said for the notion that you can climb for six hours into the roadless New Hampshire wilderness, unshoulder your backpack, and find yourself, at 4,200 feet, face-to-face with a freshly carved turkey dinner.

For more than a century, the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), a Northeast conservation group, has maintained a string of eight huts in the White Mountains, each a day's hike away from its nearest neighbors, that shelter and feed thousands of hikers every summer. I've known about these cabins since I moved to Boston 15 years ago and, strange as it may sound, have diligently avoided them. I was an avid camper and backpacker in my early 20s, and these huts always struck me as a form of cheating: The outdoors is supposed to be a theater of self-sufficiency; it felt wrong to march into the open only to spend the night at a hotel. But now that I'm 38, I'm willing to change my mind. I haven't camped for more than a decade; these days, having someone cook for me after a hike is the only way I'm getting back to nature.

That's what brings me 2,000 feet above the trailhead off Interstate 93, the straps of a new backpack cutting into my shoulders. It's the middle of June, and I've decided to try a four-day trek, bunking down in a different AMC hut each night. For company, I've enlisted my friend Sam, an architect and fellow lapsed hiker. We've spent two weeks buying gear, marking our route on a waterproof map, and wondering whether we're crazy to think that, after years of tackling nothing harder than the hills around Boston, we can walk into some of New England's most forbidding terrain and emerge unscathed more than 25 miles later. Also along with us are a photographer, Josh, and his brother Jason. Their backpacks, I note, look suspiciously new, too.

We're bypassing the short route to our first hut in favor of a more picturesque—but also more challenging—climb over Franconia Ridge, which rises like a wall along

I-93 through the middle of northern New Hampshire. It's a clear, sunny Saturday morning, and we set off in T-shirts and shorts, hopping roots and brooks, with the cheerful wooden signposts of the White Mountain National Forest marking every junction. Soon, though, the trail takes a sharp turn for the vertical, and we find ourselves scrambling upward on our hands and feet, grabbing on to trees for balance, and double-checking the map to make sure we're going the right way. We're rapidly draining our water bottles, and conversation eventually dwindles into labored breaths. Am I wrong, or is my hiking party starting to look at me darkly?

At least the setting is magnificent. At one point, we hear a low rush of tumbling water and then come upon a 60-foot cascade deep in the forest. Sam poses before it with his hiking stick, grinning: If nothing else, we've made it this far! As our elevation ticks higher, the dwarfish windswept spruces and firs give way to an open gravel path lined with delicate little alpine plants. We press up the last few hundred feet to the ridgeline, and we're rewarded with a spectacular panorama of velvety green hills interrupted only by the brown stripes of landslides. Far below, the highway twists like a double strand of ribbon.

We hike along the crest for an hour, the view dramatically rearranging itself as we trace folds in the mountains. Then, after we summit the 5,260-foot Mount Lafayette, our highest peak of the day, we finally spot it: the roof of the Greenleaf Hut, about 1,000 feet below. Our moods brighten instantly—we can almost smell dinner—and we scramble down the trail. If this were a true luxury camping experience, Sam says, they'd have installed a zip line.

A two-story shingled house with green-trimmed windows and a porch, Greenleaf would be unremarkable anyplace else. But here, it is a small wonder, built nearly 80 years ago with lumber hauled up by burros. Inside, it looks like a charming ski lodge, with knotty-pine walls, a cathedral ceiling, and long wooden picnic tables scattered with backpacks. Bootless hikers lounge in sandals and fleece.

A man with a white walrus moustache checks us in by ticking our names off a handwritten list and then points us toward the bunks. The hut can accommodate 48 people, but the rooms are tight—most have two sets of beds stacked three high. In my room, the lower berths have already been claimed by a family of four playing cards. I try to change discreetly, hanging my sweaty clothes on wooden pegs and hoping that they'll keep their eyes on their crazy eights.

Before I left Boston, friends had offered some hints about hut life. "I hear it's quite a scene up there," one told me. There was a mention of guitars and of people drinking wine they'd packed in. I was slightly worried that we'd signed on for a happy hour in the woods. But in the main room, we meet Mike, a Boston money manager who hikes the mountains twice a month and knows the ground with a geologist's expertise. Then, Josh, who has just returned from Easter Island, starts swapping travel stories with Eric, a medical resident who backpacked across Central America. It's more like an adventure camp for grown-ups.

Suddenly, from the kitchen comes the clamor of spoons banging on pots, and the staff calls out in unison: "DIN-ner!" The three dozen guests quickly sort themselves among the picnic tables, and the mostly college-age workers begin trooping out with a feast: thick slices of roasted turkey, homemade whipped potatoes, a pitcher of gravy, a huge pot of minestrone, and turban-size loaves of warm challah bread. We pass plates up and down the benches like an impromptu family and help ourselves to generous portions. It's a bit weird having a Thanksgiving dinner in June, but it's also the first Thanksgiving dinner I've ever felt I needed.

While we eat, our hosts line up to introduce themselves and recite the hut rules. One of them sings the alphabet backward; another tells us about his college thesis on pirates. Two words pop into my head: Mouseketeers and granola. Happy hour never occurs, although I notice that a couple at the end of the table has quietly opened a box of wine.

As it turns out, we eat a lot better than we sleep. All four of us end up on top bunks, listening restlessly as a fellow camper's snores echo throughout the building. Sam whispers that he'd have been happier in a tent. I'm not sure if Josh and Jason sleep at all. At 6:30 a.m., when the hut staff sounds reveille by marching past the bunk rooms singing a proudly tuneless rendition of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," it's hard to imagine there's anyone not already wide awake.

The sun has given way to spitting rain. Back on the trail, we plant our feet carefully, trying to find traction on loose rocks as we crest Mount Lafayette again. At the top, we're enshrouded in mist and can barely see the stone pyramids that mark the way. For all we know, they could be leading us over a cliff.

As we hike deeper into the backcountry, the footing gets worse. At times we're sliding down sheets of slick granite; at others, we're clomping through mud beneath dripping trees. Sam leads the way, his red rain pants flashing like a weather beacon. At one point, we all debate whether a jumble of rocks is part of the trail or a waterfall. It's both, and we can only laugh as we carefully clamber down it. Two hours pass before we see another person. Around noon, we crouch under a rock and carve hunks of salami for lunch.

The climb becomes a little easier in the afternoon, and just after we reach the turnoff to our next hut, a small miracle occurs: The sun comes out. Galehead Hut is the most remote in the chain, cupped in a green cleft between two peaks, five miles uphill from the nearest road. It's a perfect little lodge, with rough logs supporting the porch roof and tall windows surveying the valley like eyes. We're checked in by Caroline, a cheerful Colby College student with a bandanna on her head. Like the rest of the crew, she won a lottery to land her job, which requires living in the woods all summer, cooking for 30 strangers most nights, and hiking the trash out and the food in twice a week.

It's cozier here, and because this is a Sunday, there are few guests. After a dinner of pasta shells in a marinara sauce and turkey chowder, we settle down for a talk by a staffer on why the climate here is so extreme. (Who knew that the White Mountains are in the path of nearly every major weather system on the East Coast?) This time when the lights go out, there's nothing but silence. In the morning, we're awakened by an acoustic guitar and three staffers singing tune­fully about the open road. It's kind of magical.

We've started to realize that these cabins form a vine of sorts, one that goes dormant every winter and reawakens in June. Photos on the walls show hut crews stretching back for decades, year after year of doughty "hutmen" and, since the 1970s, women. Caroline says that everything gets passed down from one summer to the next: the ancient wooden pack frames used to carry supplies, the breakfast and dinner skits, the ghost stories. Hokey, yes, but also undeniably seductive. After three days of camping in a tent, I'm usually aching for a beer and a shower. On this trip, I'm starting to wonder how I can enlist.

Josh and Jason are heading home today, so Sam and I say our good-byes as we set out over South Twin Mountain. By now, my calves feel like guitar strings. Fortunately, today's route is less tricky: a few steep, rocky climbs, but mostly bouncing descents. And the weather is clear again. At one point, we sit for 15 minutes at the edge of a cliff, awed by the sweep of Zealand Notch beneath us.

We spend our last night at the Zealand Falls Hut, eating chicken fricassee in a dining room with bound nature journals slouching on the shelves and Austrian hiking signs on the walls. There are even fewer guests here, and we've crossed paths with several of them before: Shawna and Amber, friends who are on their annual trip to the mountains, and Keith and Roger, brothers from England who haven't hiked together in 55 years. Everyone is friendly but not too much so—the one thing we have in common is that we've traipsed for days to get away from civilization.

Before we leave in the morning, I chat with Ben and Lindsay, students who've worked in the huts for a few summers each. Some visitors are wowed by the setup, they say, amazed to see a full dinner materialize in the backcountry. Others blanch when they discover that the bathrooms have sinks but no showers. Lindsay, who made perfect scones and oatmeal for breakfast, tells me her worst guest was a man who stormed into the kitchen, irrational and swearing, frightening her until she realized he was hypothermic from two days in the rain. She got him out of his wet clothes and wrapped him in blankets. "In the morning, he gave a speech about how I saved his life with a hot orange liquid," she says. "It was Tang."

Sam and I bid adieu to our last hut and walk down the stairs and into the sun-dappled birch forest for the last couple of miles of our trek. After four days in the mountains, we're not only intact, we feel revitalized. And when we reach my car and I turn the key in the ignition, I'm pleased to notice that the engine sounds just the tiniest bit strange.

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