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Friday, October 25, 2013

Appalachian Mountain Club Huts Turn 125

A New England institution is turning another page in its mission to serve hikers of New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

For 125 years, the huts maintained by the Appalachian Mountain Club have offered food, shelter, advice and a bit of entertainment to weary travelers of the presidential range.

Chris Ballman, Here & Now’s managing editor, visited one of the huts recently and brought back this story.

Reporter

  • Chris Ballman, Here & Now managing editor.

Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

A New England institution is turning another page in its mission to serve hikers in New Hampshire's White Mountains. For 125 years, the huts maintained by the Appalachian Mountain Club have offered food, shelter, advice and some fun to weary travelers on the Presidential Range. HERE AND NOW'S Chris Ballman visited one of the huts and has our story.

(SOUNDBITE OF GONG, CHEERS)

CHRIS BALLMAN, BYLINE: The gong means it's time to eat at Mizpah Spring; and 60 hungry people, who have been hiking all day, are anxious to hear what's for dinner.

HEREN RUSSELL: The main entree tonight is a full turkey dinner with all the fixins: mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce...

(CHEERS, APPLAUSE)

BALLMAN: Mizpah Spring is one of eight AMC huts that dot a 56-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire's White Mountains. And since 1888, they've been an oasis for hikers like 71-year-old Joe Alpert of Manchester, Conn.

JOE ALPERT: I come up once a year with friends. If I have new people with me, we'll go to the top of Mount Washington. If I don't have new people, we'll do other huts. But as you're older, these huts are just unbeliev - this is the, I would say, the Marriott of the huts.

ERIC GOTTHOLD: The word Mizpah has Hebrew origins. It means pillar in the wilderness, or watchtower.

BALLMAN: That's Eric Gotthold. He's the hut master here. And he supervises a crew of five 20-somethings who maintain this off-the-grid, high-elevation haven.

GOTTHOLD: So we're tucked in, right in the boreal forest, at 3,800 feet. The structure is very large, designed to withstand winds of 200 miles per hour and snow drifts of 20 feet.

BALLMAN: Under its slanted, metal roof, Mizpah Spring holds 60 bunks. There's no vacancies tonight. And feeding the guests fresh food isn't easy. The crew has to carry 60 pounds of provisions two and a half miles up a mountain, in a device crew member Kelly Dennen calls a packboard.

KELLY DENNEN: Some people think it looks a little bit like a torture device. (Laughter) Or a - I think it looks a little bit like a ladder with a corset wrapped around it.

BALLMAN: Twice a week, they make the trip. Over the course of a season, crews from the eight huts will haul three tons of supplies to meet the needs of 40,000 hikers. David Tarr(sp) of Dunstable, Mass., is one of them. He's been using the hut system for 20 years, and he always brings a bunch of friends.

DAVID TARR: This is the only place in the country where they have a hut system that you can carry a light backpack, come up here, stay overnight - enjoy a mattress, a pillow, some blankets - have a hearty dinner, have a wonderful breakfast, enjoy the joys of being at the top of a mountain. Doesn't get much more natural than this; doesn't get much more beautiful than this. We're really blessed to have this, up here in New Hampshire.

BALLMAN: Along with catering to weekenders, the huts are also respite for thru-hikers. Those are the people who walk the entire 2,181 miles of the Appalachian Trail - from Georgia to Maine. And they're a unique breed.

WILSON: You'll find most people out here are fresh out of high school, fresh out of college, fresh out of a marriage, fresh out of a job.

BALLMAN: That's Wilson. It's what he calls himself on the trail. All of the thru-hikers take a trail name. And he stopped off at Mizpah with some traveling companions. They came for a cup of coffee and all the free snacks they can find, but they won't stay long.

WILSON: Well, long enough to eat about another half a pound of food and then...

(LAUGHTER)

WILSON: It's all about calories out here.

BALLMAN: Wilson says the AMC's huts are an oasis, but he has a complaint.

WILSON: It's turned into a commercialized-type thing. It seems like it's more of a business venture now than what it was set up years ago. I can come up here with my boy and spend 20 bucks, make a donation to get a place to stay. Now, I've been an AMC member for 15 years and even a member pays $110 just to come up here and enjoy this facility.

KAREN WHEELER: Yeah. I had this discussion with a lot of the thru-hikers that I was with two years ago.

BALLMAN: Karen Wheeler from Jamaica Plain, Mass., overheard Wilson's complaint, and later came up to me to say that she's been both at thru-hiker and a weekend user. She says she understands why thru-hikers have gripes about the hut system - too restrictive, too expensive. But she also says it offers them a deal: a couple of hours of work for all the food they can eat and a place to sleep on the dining room floor. And it's not a soft bunk, but she says thru-hikers need to keep the big picture in mind.

WHEELER: My partner and I - who hiked through here - we did a lot of talking to the other thru-hikers about how fragile the White Mountains are; and how if the huts weren't here, that all these people would be camping in whatever site they found. And it would do a lot of damage to the mountains and that by having huts, it concentrates our usage in one area and minimizes our, you know, damage to the thing that we love, you know?

BALLMAN: Weekenders and thru-hikers - two different cultures, one thing in common: They love to talk about where they've been, where they're going, and what happened along the way.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well, you get a cool view. I like this - sections the most. You get a better - you're right on the edge of...

BALLMAN: Remember that hiker we met earlier, David Tarr, the guy who's been coming to the huts for 20 years? He happens to be an EMT and a podiatrist, a lucky coincidence for one of his friends, who twisted an ankle on the trail.

TARR: We got a bag of frozen peas, put it on her ankle. We've got an ankle brace on her right now. We'll wrap her up with a - ACE bandage in the morning. We'll give her some poles to use for crutches. And we'll just take a slow way lollygagging down to the bottom of the mountain. But she'll get there, and she'll be OK.

BALLMAN: As the crew cleans up after dinner, hikers boast about the peaks they hope to conquer when the sun rises. Others play cards to pass the time.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Fifteen, 20, 25, 30, 35, 45, 50. Hayden(sp), we score, we win, we cruise, we...

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We win. We take the cake.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

BALLMAN: As lights-out approaches, there's a scramble for the bunks. There were eight people in my co-ed room. And you might get a good night's sleep if your neighbor doesn't snore. Fat chance.

(SOUNDBITE OF SNORING)

(SOUNDBITE OF KITCHEN PREP WORK)

BALLMAN: It's a little past 5 in the morning, and crewmember Heren Russell is preparing the hut's signature breakfast dish: frittata.

RUSSELL: In the last two seasons, I've probably made it 25 or 30 times.

BALLMAN: As she scrambles eggs, Heren recalls a time years ago when her parents brought her to one of the huts.

RUSSELL: And I remember being that little kid and sitting out in the dining room. And as the crew were introducing myself - themselves, having them - my parents elbow me and say, that could be you one day. And I sort of thought it was ridiculous. And then one summer I was like, I have time, and I want nothing more to be out - than to be out in the mountains. And so I applied and got really, really lucky, I think.

BALLMAN: Just before 6, Haren signals her fellow crewmembers that breakfast is ready. And with guitars in hand, her partners head into the bunk area to stir hikers from their sleep.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

RUSSELL: Good morning, everybody. It's 6:30 a.m. It's a beautiful morning, and breakfast is in half an hour.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Rise and shine!

BALLMAN: Over breakfast, hikers wish each other well. Some are headed down the mountain and back to the city; others up over the Presidential Range to the next hut; and some across Maine's 100-mile wilderness to Mount Katahdin, the northern end of the Appalachian Trail.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

BALLMAN: It's also the end for this crew. It's their next-to-last day at Mizpah Spring. A new crew is on its way up the mountain to replace them. Heren Russell says the moment is bittersweet.

RUSSELL: You realize that after all this time, and all the work we've put in, and all the little challenges and hiccups, we six people will never be in this place together again - or in any place like this, probably, together again. We've become a little family and then all of a sudden, we just all leave. I think we're all tired. I'm exhausted; it's time for me to go home. But it's hard to leave.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

BALLMAN: For HERE AND NOW, I'm Chris Ballman in Mizpah Spring, the White Mountains, N.H.

YOUNG: Best part, Jeremy - putting on your headlamp at night to read. It's cool. To see pictures of Mizpah Spring and learn more about the Appalachian Mountain Club's hut system, go to hereandnow.org.

From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Elizabeth Hembree

    Chris Ballman reports the Appalachian Trail begins at Stone Mountain, Georgia. The trail, in fact, begins at Springer Mountain, Georgia in the Chatahoochee National Forest nearly 100 miles from Stone Mountain, Stone Mountain, rather than a mountain, is a quartz monzonite dome, and has no connection with the Appalachian Trail.

    • Chris Ballman

      Thanks, Elizabeth. My bad. I made a fix to the audio that will go up on our website to correct the mistake. Appreciate the heads up. Have a good weekend.
      Chris Ballman

  • Miles Howard

    As a former hut croo and hutmaster, it’s pretty awesome to see NPR visiting the huts; as they’ve done several times in the past few years. But I’d *really* love to see someone like Robin Young delve into the irreverent behind-the-scenes workplace culture that exists up there. It’s truly another kind of reality. (I could tell stories that would make Animal House look tame.) More importantly, the croo antics illustrate the benefits of a workplace that allows the workers room to breathe and enjoy themselves while being entrusted with major tasks like cooking dinners for 90+ people, or conducting search and rescue missions during harsh weather. This is something that the majority of American employers have failed to grasp.

    • RD

      Or do we want them to see that world?

      • Miles Howard

        Maybe not *all* of it, but I do think there’s an interesting story about the “alternative workplace” to be culled here.

  • Ed

    A great follow up would be to spend a night in one of the huts off season. Just one care taker and you have to cook your own food – they let you use the kitchen. It is very different sitting in a hut at night with just a handful of people.

  • Jeremy Scroggins “Timber”

    Cool to see a picture of our hiking crew! I was wondering what that interview in the corner was about.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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