No Ordinary Croo: Diary of a Hut Caretaker During COVID-19
The New Normal
Pre-departure: June 1, 2020
Are the AMC huts distant? The first thing that comes to mind is their location. Situated miles into the wilderness of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, the huts are cut off from the outside world with the exception of a radio and, if the clouds clear, occasional glimmers of cell service. Over my past three summers working as hut Croo for AMC, there have been times I’ve gone more than a week without seeing a road or hearing an engine. This summer, I’m unexpectedly taking that distant feeling up a notch as I work alone as a caretaker at AMC’s Carter Notch Hut at Wildcat Mountain. The huts are officially closed to overnighters, but a skeleton crew—two to four caretakers per hut, alternating weeks on and off—will live at the hut, giving trail advice, selling gear and snacks, and sanitizing the facility according to state and CDC guidelines, among other things.
It’s certainly clear why AMC decided to close down the hut system for overnight guests for the first time in 132 years. The COVID-19 pandemic has riddled the world and the huts are not immune. The remoteness proves the huts to be tangibly distant. But socially? As a guest and an employee of an AMC hut, physical distance is far from an option. Bunk beds stacked three high, elbow-to-elbow family style dining, and nostalgic camp games like cards and Bananagrams; the physical seclusion of the huts promotes a thriving social atmosphere that you can feel, particularly on a Saturday night.
Working on hut Croo, coworkers easily become friends, and, on occasion for some, even lifelong companions. We eat leftovers together, keep our toothbrushes in one jar, do laundry out of same bucket, and all equally fear the question, “How often are the blankets washed?” The huts provide a sense of closeness that, in our hyper-connected modern world, is not easy to come by.
I’ve worked three summers on AMC’s hut Croo—at Greenleaf, Galehead, and last summer at Madison Spring Hut. On Friday, June 12, I hiked in to Carter Notch Hut for my fourth and possibly final season. With the normal hut duties gone, I expect everything to slow down, just as it has in so many sectors of life. However, with this change of pace, new opportunities, experiences, and memories will surely arise. The following is my biweekly caretaking journal, where I log observations, stories, and if nothing else, an update from out there across the distance. For those of you who will miss stays at the huts this summer, I assure you, we will miss you too.
Me, myself, and I
Week 1: June 12 to 18
As many of you know, early summer in the White Mountains often still looks and feels like late winter. During my first “pack-in,” a weekly ritual where I lug supplies on a pack board from the Nineteen Mile Brook trailhead up to Carter Notch Hut, I was greeted by decreasing temperatures and the melting mixture of muddy snow and pine needles. At the trailhead it was summer, but up here, at 3,288 feet, the climate felt like an offbeat middle ground between winter and spring.
In a typical season we would have just finished up our first week of playing host to guests and full-service dining, which, for me, represent the beginning of summer. This year, everything was stagnant, and I was surrounded by the quintessential sounds of silence, punctuated only by chirping birds, a creaky hut, and wind passing through trees. Woodchips remained scattered across the property, signifying the hard work of caretakers before me who split wood to stay warm. Inside, the running water had yet to be turned on and the woodstove—typically removed at this point to make space for the dining room tables—remained nestled in the corner of the hut. After more than a hundred years of seasonal repetition and use, the hut itself appeared confused as to where exactly everyone was.
As the days went by and the loneliness crept in, I began to think of myself in almost a state of withdrawal. That is, in cold-turkey fashion, I entered into sudden isolation from people and the constant stimulation of everyday life. My desire for company, conversation, and entertainment came in unpredictable waves of instability, and I began to recognize parts of my life I had taken for granted. During one particularly rough stretch, when the weather turned, I went about 48 hours without seeing another person.
On June 16, the weather cleared, and the helicopter drop came to carry out weeks’ worth of waste from the composting toilets and deliver non-perishable supplies for the season, including canned beans, a large stash of rice, and hiker snacks like Clif Bars. To me, particularly after the prior days of seclusion, I felt as if I was dead center in an action movie, despite my only role being to hold the ladder as the helicopter crew climbed down from the roof of the bunkhouse where it landed. In the span of 10 or 15 minutes, the crew climbed back up the ladder and flew off, a microburst of interest and activity in my otherwise slow pace and relatively expectable days.
This made me think about how bizarre my job this summer is: one minute I feel so inaccessible from everything, looking after a backcountry hut, and the next I’m helping coordinate a helicopter supply drop in truly epic style. I feel lucky.
Week 2: June 25 to July 2
“Do you get creeped out up there alone?” This is a question I receive frequently from friends, family, and hikers passing by. The short answer is sometimes. The more time I spend alone caretaking, the more comfortable I become. However, I’m not the fearless outdoorsman that some might expect to work in an AMC hut. If I hear a creek at night or a shuffle outside, I’ll occasionally open my eyes and maybe peek through the window to see if Red, the fabled ghost of Carter Notch Hut, is waiting for me. I’m not the best at controlling my anxieties, and sometimes they get the best of me, but one instance I had this week I think illuminates the general answer to this question.
I was lying in bed reading just before dusk, and I kept hearing this odd, incessant buzz. Expecting it to be the wind turbine on the roof above or an excited horsefly, I looked out my window and, to my surprise, spotted a drone with a camera hovering outside. If you’ve seen any episodes of the Netflix series “Black Mirror,” you can probably relate—I immediately thought I was being spied on and that the government, maybe even the U.S. Forest Service, was potentially plotting against me. Okay, I didn’t really think this, but I was alone in the woods, and the presence of a drone with a camera outside my window was unsettling.
I walked outside and could immediately hear voices from up the trail. A bit nervous, I hiked up and found two guys flying their drone off the roof of the bunkhouse. When they saw me, I could tell they immediately knew they were busted, and they climbed down and apologized.
Most people, especially in the backcountry, have good intentions, and when the mind, or my mind, is left alone, it often wanders to unreasonable conclusions—and then fear sets in. Of course, part of this mindset can be attributed to my positionality; I’m white, I’m a man, and I generally feel comfortable in a backcountry setting. My identity affords me a certain degree of comfort. Nonetheless, I can only speak for myself, and although I still occasionally find being alone frightening, this instance pushed me to see things with a little less apprehension. Let your mind wander—just not too far.
Week 3: July 9 to 16
Toward the end of last week, the huts opened for limited food service. The menu consists of many traditional hut provisions, such as coffee, hot chocolate, tea, baked goods, candy, and granola bars—all hearty fuel for weary hikers. This year, however, an additional hot food selection has also been added to the menu, consisting of burritos—both meat-filled and vegetarian—as well as cheese quesadillas and packaged, dehydrated meals. Free potable water access can be found from a newly installed spigot on the outside of the hut, and an assortment of gear—such as maps, compasses, patches, and pins—are also available for sale.
Hikers are allowed to enter the other huts for snacks or to use the restroom, but not at Carter: I make all the transactions through a window, and no one enters the hut itself. I’ve set up a table to the right of the window with a map, logbook, and hiker information binder, and sell anything from coffee and tea to candy and granola bars. My typical day, which is punctuated by solitude and socializing with hikers, looks something like this:
6:45 a.m.: Wake up.
7 a.m.: The Mount Washington Observatory radios in the weather forecast for the day, which I transcribe and post on a window for hikers passing through.
7:15 a.m.: Make breakfast and drink some coffee.
7:30 a.m.: Complete morning chores of cleaning and sanitizing the bathrooms and public areas. Complete the daily systems report: check battery voltage, stir compost, check propane, et cetera.
8 a.m.: Huts morning radio call. “This is unit 8 Carter. I have no new messages, and I hear you loud and clear. Have a great day, and if you have nothing for me this is 8. Clear.”
8:15 to 11 a.m.: Off hours, technically. I usually drink a little more coffee, go find cell service, read part of a book, and prepare burritos for opening.
11 a.m. to 4 p.m.: Open the window and put out the menu, hiker logbook, and maps. Answer trail questions and sell food, drinks, and gear. Traffic has been slow—typical of Carter—with the exception of Saturday and an occasional rush of hungry thru-hikers. Often, when I greet people first arriving at the hut, I get a response of surprise that we are even open.
4 p.m.: Close up shop for the day. I’m free of official caretaking duties, so I typically go on a hike or fly fish at the ponds.
7 p.m.: Make dinner. I like to mix it up, but I love Annie’s boxed mac and cheese—specifically the white cheddar variety.
8 p.m.: Settle in for the night, close up the hut, and read for a bit before bed.
This week I finished Michael Pollan’s new book, How to Change Your Mind. Pollan writes that many of us are “trapped in a story that sees ourselves as independent, isolated agents acting in the world” but nevertheless insists “we’re social creatures through and through, unable to survive alone.” I’m still surviving, but I have to say that I agree.
Week 4: July 23 to 30
Leaving and returning on such scheduled intervals gives me a unique look at the natural world that surrounds Carter Notch Hut. I should really be taking more pictures of this, but I have been able to steadily observe the growth of both the animals and vegetation around the hut. Maybe I’ve just had more time on my hands this season, but the ecosystem at Carter Notch Hut, from my perspective, seems distinct from that of most the other huts.
By now, the surface of Upper Carter Lake is largely covered in flowering, yellow lily pads. As I returned to the hut each week after being gone for six days, there has been an observable jump in the size of these lily pads: My first week at the hut there was no sign of them; by my second week I noticed the vines starting to pop up from the floor of the murky pond; on my third week the green coasters had surfaced; and by my fourth week—flowers. Yet during my stints, the actual time I spent at the hut and in the Notch, I noticed little transformation. When you see something every day, it’s harder to notice the changes that are happening.
The same is true for the brook trout, rabbits, chipmunks, and snakes that inhabit the area. The snakes grew quickly, treasuring the sunny days when they could bask on boulders outside the hut. They left traces of themselves in the form of old skins and were disinterested in my company.
The brook trout also grew, but fly fishing became much harder with the vines and lily pads as obstacles. As I fished, the smaller ones would bite the surface and cause a small ripple on top of the pond, and less frequently, I would see a larger trout rocket completely out of the water.
I first saw a chipmunk inside the hut on a cold, drizzly day during my second stint. I was reading in bed, under the covers, when I looked to my right and saw a chippy just a few feet away. We made brief eye contact before it scurried away into the dining room. My first thought was that they had entered the hut for shelter and warmth from the cold rain. I devised a non-lethal trap, positioning a large bowl with a small bit of peanut butter underneath, propped up by a stick with rope tied to it. The idea was that when the chipmunk goes for the peanut butter, I would pull the string, the stick would fall, and the chipmunk would be safely trapped under the bowl. It worked, first try! I then slid a piece of cardboard underneath the bowl and carried him outside, releasing about a quarter-mile from the hut.
Unfortunately, that was far from the end of the escapade. About half an hour later, the chipmunk was back in the hut. At first this had been a fun game of catch-and-release on a boring, rainy day, but my relationship with the chipmunks soon evolved into a continuous, month-long, physical and intellectual turf war. One chipmunk turned to three, and this week I spent an hour or so one day walking around the hut, plugging every possible entrance, only to find another chipmunk staring at me from inside the hut 10 minutes later. They’ve figured out my trap and rarely go for the peanut butter when I set it up, so needless to say, the chipmunks are winning.
Week 5: August 6 to 13
A question that COVID-19 brought to the surface is this: What is essential work? Globally, hundreds of millions of people have lost their jobs, and nationally, about tens of millions are unemployed. In the huts, less than half of planned summer Croo were offered positions. I am among just a few asked to serve as hut caretakers, roles AMC has deemed “essential.” Throughout this summer, but particularly during my final stint at Carter Notch Hut, I thought a lot about where exactly the huts fit into the equation of essential work.
On hut Croo, the mountains are our playground. During a typical season, when we carry in supplies on our packboards, we commonly receive looks of amazement from hikers passing by. After a long cook day in the hut, the chef is ritually introduced by the rest of the Croo, in front of a crowd of well-fed guests before being showered in applause and compliments. Don’t get me wrong, it is exhaustingly hard work at times, but life in the huts can be stunningly idealistic. It is flashy, fast, and the job can stroke the ego—kind of like a sports car. But also, like a sports car, the huts frequently break down.
Although the hut Croo can appear independent, there is an entire network of AMC employees supporting the operation. If something in the hut breaks, we radio construction crew, or “CC.” If we realize some product is out of stock, we radio storehouse, or “StoHo.” If someone crawls through the door with a broken leg, we radio the search and rescue on call, or “SAR on Call.” If there is a mix up with a guest’s booking, we radio reservations, or “Resis.” On top of all this, there is an entire crew dedicated to maintaining the trails, or “TFC.” All of these people are necessary to making sure the huts and Appalachian Mountain Club run smoothly, and many of them go unseen—even as the hut Croo is widely visible. Although the hut Croo is for many the smiling face of AMC, I personally see many of these under-noticed roles as the essential workforce of the Appalachian Mountain Club.
COVID-19 has exacerbated stress and risk in all of life—including at AMC. In a way, I wanted to use this last journal entry to say thank you and to all those people working hard behind the scenes to keep the huts and AMC afloat.
On Thursday I hiked down the Nineteen Mile Brook trail, finishing up my final stint and possibly final year working in the huts. My pack was heavy, and the descent was underwhelming, but it felt good to wrap up the summer. I used the time to reflect on the previous two month’s work. Many a writer has romanticized being alone in the woods, and I’d entered this experience expecting the solitude to teach me a profound personal lesson. It did, and here it is: the real charm of AMC’s huts is the people who pass through, who spend the night, who share a meal or two, who leave an item for a thru-hiker behind them. You, AMC adventurers, are what make the huts special. We may have seen fewer of you this season, but take heart: there’s always next year.