|Lakes of the Clouds Hut, looking west toward Ammonoosuc Ravine.|
I am no Jolly (ho, ho, ho) Green Giant, but I must say this is the best frozen niblets corn I've ever had. Just don't ask me what it tastes like. I'm using the two-pound bag as an emergency ice pack, proving once again that improv skills come in just as handy on vacation as they do any comedy club stage.
I brought my twisted right knee (recent softball injury) with me to New Hampshire's deceptively rugged White Mountains. After two days of hiking a landscape with enough boulders to keep a thousand chain gangs busy, I move like an old-nag horse. The much-needed first-aid corn comes courtesy of the Appalachian Mountain Club, which operates a network of eight European-style huts scattered throughout the 770,000-acre White Mountain National Forest. My friend Martha and I are staying tonight at Lakes of the Clouds Hut, a high-altitude oasis that can feed and sleep 90 people. There's no ice machine on site. But there is a generator that produces enough juice to run a refrigerator, which, thankfully, is well stocked with frozen veggies. Sometimes strained ligaments are the mother of invention.
God bless these low-slung, wood-and-stone shelters. What a joy at the end of a long, grimy day to rest your weary head under a roof, to be warm and dry and in the company of flush toilets, running water, and a kitchen staff that whips up splendid full-course meals.
The AMC's hut system is the only one of its kind in the United States, which is exactly why we came here. I don't want to tote a full pack on a gimpy leg. Furthermore, Martha is a backcountry neophyte who believes the Drug Enforcement Agency should declare dirt a controlled substance. I figured a three-day, hut-to-hut ramble would be a perfect way to introduce her to the simple pleasures of hiking.
I may have figured wrong.
Right about now Martha has a sneaky suspicion that I took out a million-dollar life insurance policy on her and, once she collapses in a dead-as-a-doornail hypothermic heap, I'll jet off to the Bahamas and open a funky beach bar called "The Sole Beneficiary." Today we spent ten hours on trail, scrambling up two 5,700-foot summits (Mount Adams and Mount Jefferson) and then pick our way through several hours of soupy fog before finally bumping into Lakes of the Clouds.
Yesterday we parked my car outside the town of Randolph and hiked in from the trailhead to our first overnight stop: Madison Springs Hut. Martha lagged a bit behind, dawdling over the babbling brook and wildflowers. At least that's what she said she was doing. Only later, after we had stowed our gear in the communal bunkroom, did she reveal she'd been pausing to quietly shed a few tears over the fine mess I've gotten her into: long uphill climbs and no escalators in sight, sore back, sweat-stained shirts. And then there's the dirt!
The Appalachian Trail winds through a stretch of the White Mountains as it meanders from Georgia to Maine. The route passes over some of the same ground we're covering. At dinner that first night one of our fellow hut guests asked Martha if she has aspirations of someday tackling the mother of all trails."Sure," she chirped, firing a wise-girl look my way, "if I ever get off this *@%$# mountain."
I plead guilty. I made the classic mistake of not checking the lay of the land beforehand. Years ago I backpacked a southern stretch of the White Mountains and remembered it as being quite hiker-friendly. It still is. But we're doing the northern end this trip; passing through the rough-and-tumble neighborhood of Mount Washington, highest point in all New England (at just a hair under 6,300 feet) and host to the most wicked weather this side of the Yukon territory.
To my surprise, and to Martha's dismay, the prevailing terrain turned out to be almost Mars-like. For hours on end we step, leap, and tippy-toe from jumbo rock to jumbo rock, rarely touching the ground. This kind of hiking taxes one's balance and concentration. Not exactly beginner's-level stuff. We move at a slow-poke pace, like soldiers crossing a very scenic minefield.
"Boy, this isn't what I expected at all," I keep repeating.
Martha's good-sport attitude eventually gets me off the hook. Once the initial shock wears off, she has little difficulty scrambling up steep rock face. Coming down is another matter. "I used to ask my mother if she dropped me on my head when I was a baby," Martha says at one point, noting that she wobbles like a tipsy New Year's Eve celebrant when navigating any surface more challenging than a city sidewalk. Hoping to avoid carrying her home, I quickly surrender my walking stick.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication