|Dining room at Lakes of the Clouds Hut|
Silhouetted against the sky, the lumpy peaks of the White Mountains resemble a pack of contented hounds curled up before a fire. The vistas lack the soaring, saw-tooth splendor of Colorado or Utah, but they are spectacular in their own right, their spartan beauty enhanced by the fact that the sprawling megalopolises of the eastern seaboard lurk just over the horizon. According to one 19th-century guidebook, the White Mountains were named from afar by sailors plying the Atlantic Ocean, "to whom they were a landmark and a mystery lifting their crowns of brilliant snow against the blue sky from October until June."
Camping is permitted in designated areas of the forest, but the huts offer three distinct advantages. First and foremost, is the delicious freedom of travelling light. No need to bring that bulky sleeping bag or clunky camp stove, not to mention those packages of glutinous freeze-dried casseroles that not only stick to your ribs but, in a pinch, could be used to patch holes in a leaky basement. Secondly, the college-age hut crews rustle up darn good grub. Hikers will occasionally spot one of them lugging supplies in from the nearest trailhead; produce boxes lashed high on a wood-frame carrier strapped to an arched back. One of our typical dinners featured fresh-baked challah bread, fresh tossed salad, fresh green beans, tomato-rice soup, pasta, and homemade "strawberry-in-the-middle" butter cookies.
Bye, bye baked beans. Hello second helpings.
The huts also function as the corner taverns of the high country. Each has a large dining area with long picnic-type tables and benches. After dinner the backgammon boards, trail maps, and wrinkled paperbacks come out. Coffee and tea flows. Tongues begin to wag. We literally crossed paths with George and Diane Pomeroy, husband-and-wife ministers from a nearby village, on top of Mount Adams. We exchanged hellos, but it wasn't till we met again at Lakes of the Clouds that we had a chance to talk at length. We gassed on about everything from Martha's job with the U.N. team that had monitored Cambodia's first-ever elections to George's quest to join the "Four-Thousand-Footer Club", which is open to anyone who climbs all 48 of New Hampshire's mountains that stand 4,000 feet or higher.
The most colorful characters tend to be the Appalachian Trail pilgrims. They stop in at the huts to repair equipment or do a few chores in exchange for a hot meal. I found a familiar name scrawled in the trail register at Madison Springs Hut: Warren Doyle, arguably king of the AT's marathoners. He had passed through two weeks earlier, well on his way to completing a tenth Georgia-to-Maine excursion. Doyle is living proof that clothes don't make the outdoors man. He often hikes in second-hand sneakers, carries a dime-store sleeping bag, and once walked the entire 2,158 miles on one pair of socks."Another fine day to flow over and around and through and up and down these granite expanses, caressed by gentle, cool mists", Warren wrote.
Nothing fazes Doyle. His body is trail-tempered from years of slogging through sun, sleet, and lighting storms. Part-time hikers aren't so impervious to discomfort. I wake up shortly after sunrise at Lakes of the Clouds and the first sound I hear is a woman in a nearby bunk telling her friend, "If they had a massage therapist at this place, they'd make a fortune."
Alas, there's not even a Vibra-Fingers machine. All we have to help get us going is the staff's inspirational reveille music: John Denver crooning "Rocky Mountain High". Unfortunately, the weather outside isn't particularly intoxicating. A melancholy curtain of Scottish Highlands rain-fog still hangs in the air. The weather forecast, something of an oxymoron in these parts, calls for high winds and more rain. Not the news one wants to hear when you're in the shadow of Mount Washington, which deserves all the respect normally accorded a Great White shark. Every year the mountain claims the lives of a handful of hikers who get trapped in sudden killer storms. In 1934 a world-record wind of 231 mph was recorded on the summit; 49 inches of snow once fell in a single day.
Martha and I bundle up like Arctic explorers and set out to conquer Crawford Path. One good thing about fickle weather patterns is that sometimes they blow in your favor. We spend about an hour walking through stunning surroundings that we know are there but can't see, obediently following cairns the way Hansel and Gretel did their breadcrumbs. Suddenly, magically, the clouds lift. Presto! Like raising the shade on a window. The trail along the ridgeline flattens out. The obstacle-course rocks disappear. It's clear sailing ahead.
"This is like a hiking highway," I crow.
We cruise on, occasionally encountering a hiker or two moving in the opposite direction. It is amazing what a little sun and high visibility can do. Everybody seems to be smiling, even the ground squirrels. Looking back at a roller-coaster ribbon of trail, I spot a familiar red splotch: George Pomeroy's parka. We wait for him and Diane to catch up. They had gotten up early this morning to knock off Mount Monroe, putting George one step closer to gaining admittance to that Four-Thousand-Footer Club.
Together we march in a southwesterly direction, scurrying up Mount Eisenhower when we happen upon it. Cakewalk. The wide switchback trail leads to an anvil-flat summit that provides a 360-degree view of the rumpled valleys, as well as the steam-powered funicular that lazybone tourists take to the top of Mount Washington. We pause for a granola-bar lunch, admiring four hawks who glide overhead with paper-plane ease, feathered surfers riding the waves of invisible thermals.
As the sun fades we bid the Pomeroys farewell. They're outward bound via a separate trail. Martha and I continue on to Mizpah Spring Hut. We drop below treeline and gradually reenter the world of poison ivy and overhanging trees. My companion is in high spirits. After we change clothes and wash up, she actually buys a souvenir AMC t-shirt at the hut counter. We share a beef stew dinner with a bearded AT through-hiker known as "Mike the Engineer". Through-hikers are proud drop-outs from civilization who symbolically shed their everyday name along with their suit jackets and skirts.
Mike the Engineer splurged and did something Warren Doyle would consider high treason: He paid to stay at a hut. He tells us his five-month journey is the gift he gave himself upon retiring from the military. "This was my transition to civilian life," Mike says, chuckling. "I didn't want to look for a job. I thought I might find one."
Martha and I have real names and real jobs. Consequently, we are on trail early the next morning. It is a made-to-order New England day. Crisp and sunny. Five hours of downhill hiking and ridge running brings us to a trailhead, where we rendezvous with the AMC shuttle bus that takes us to my car. Jammed under the windshield wiper is a note from the Pomeroys. "Congratulations!" it says. "You made it."
Yes, we did. And I made a convert, too. Two months later I get a letter in the mail from globe-hopping Martha, who is off in England earning a graduate degree. "I've decided to do the coast-to-coast walk when I hand in my dissertation," she writes. Martha, the woman who regards sweat as see-through blood? Tromping across Great Britain?
In another letter she raises the bar higher. "I was %$#@ terrified," she says, not-so-fondly recalling her first impression of the White Mountains. "But I did get a bit hooked on hiking and, gulp, I do want to do Kilimanjaro."
She means Mount Kilimanjaro. All 19,340 feet of it. Bully for Martha. I trekked up there a few years ago, but I am not making such lofty hiking plans these days. I'm busy recuperating from another softball injury. This time a ruptured achilles tendon.
My cast is off and I'm walking again. Slowly. Like an old-nag horse. Today I called the Appalachian Mountain Club. Just out of curiosity. I was told there are bunk vacancies at several huts. And plenty of frozen corn.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication