Discovering the Commons of the White Mountains

Last week I woke up in a room with twenty other people sleeping in bunk beds stacked four high. It was part of my induction into one of the great social commons in New England, the community of hikers who love the White Mountains of New Hampshire. With three friends, my wife and I hiked the Presidential Range and stayed in two of the fabled “huts” that give hikers spartan overnight accommodations, hearty food and the camaraderie of other hikers.

Our hikes were fairly strenuous. We went from an elevation of 1,500 feet in Randolph, New Hampshire, to Mount Madison, at 4,800 feet, over the course of five miles. Then after climbing peaks named after Presidents (John) Adams and Jefferson, we tackled Mount Washington at 6,400 feet, before continuing on to Mount Eisenhower (huh?) and Mount Franklin (double huh?). We encountered dozens of people as we trekked about 20 miles, most of it above the tree line, before capping off our hike with a dip in a swimming hole beneath a waterfall.

What was notable about my hiking vacation was my encounter with a rich, intergenerational commons of people dedicated to these beautiful trails and mountains. There was virtually no litter on the trails. People readily shared food and hiking advice with each other. In the huts, which are filled with hikers who haven’t showered in days and which offer few amenities in rather cramped quarters, strangers took care not be intrusive or annoying. In fact, people were remarkably convivial.

I liked how the trails were filled with so many different types of people: gray-haried couples in their seventies; a group of a dozen middle-aged women, each wearing Mardi Gras beads; young couples getting away from the city; parents with kids under ten; and hardy “through hikers” who had started walking the Appalachian Trail in Georgia four months ago, on their way to Maine.

The scene above the timber-line got me to thinking how White Mountain hiking culture would be quite different were it managed as a commercial concession. It would have an entirely different feel — like a ski resort, perhaps. The rates for staying at the huts would surely be much higher. More importantly, selling and marketing would come to the forefront. Hikers would be sold “an experience,” and aggressively plied with all sorts of products, souvenirs and upscale amenities.

Fortunately, the White Mountains National Forest is managed by the U.S. Forest Service, and the huts are operated through a special permit held by the Appalachian Mountain Club. This arrangement has been in force for decades, which helps explain people’s fierce love of the Whites and their fond memories of the hut tradition. In a very real sense, the hiking experience is managed as a commons. As a result, a very different sent of relationships — social, political, intergenerational — have evolved. Hikers are not “consumers,” but commoners who enjoy certain benefits connected with responsibilities.

Everyone is expected to be a steward of the land and the hiking experience. People are invited to join the Appalachian Mountain Club’s “action network” to help protect the ecosystem. They are invited to learn more about plants and flowers in the alpine zone, the geology of the mountains, and the weather. Kids are invited to take hour-long courses to become “junior naturalists.”

This is how lovely traditions are preserved. People are given the opportunity to take care of things they love. They are given a structure with which to work as equals and as enthusiasts with each other, and to pass along their work to the next generation. Special public tributes are made to those who have given the most of themselves.

One of the huts, Lakes of the Clouds, has a plaque in the dining room honoring a William Eddy Fuller, III, now deceased for some years, who apparently played a significant role in trail maintenance and supporting the huts. The plaque notes Fuller’s pride that five of his sons once served as “hutmen” — the cooks, cleaners and managers of the simple, clean cabins. Among the college students who run the huts every summer, many come back year after year — and then introduce their own children, years later, into the hiking community and its ethics.

It was refreshing to think that no one would dare sell the naming rights to a trail or a hut to North Face or Patagonia or Gatorade. (Alas, the AMC lodge in Crawford Notch has named its equipment room after L.L. Bean, in return for free loans of packs, rain jackets and other equipment to hikers). Just as nature inspires a kind of awe for its size, power and timelessness, so the hiking trails — with their artfully made “staircases” of stones and frequent cairns marking the path — bring to mind the anonymous armies of hikers of decades past who toiled to make the trails easier to walk on and less prone to erosion. In such a milieu, everything seems too majestic to be claimed by any corporation for mere marketing purposes.

And this is why the White Mountains (and I imagine, most other monuments of nature) in truth belong to our ancestors who tended them; to those of us who enjoy them now; and to our children and their children. It’s funny how people’s commitment and love get etched into a place, making it richer and inspiring gratitude. It reminds me of the ancient proverb, “We have all drunk from wells we did not dig and warmed ourselves at fires we did not build.” It is satisfying to become acquainted, however fleetingly, with people from earlier generations who loved the same things we do.