Stay Classy, but Not Too Classy, AMC
I have some notes and concerns about the AMC huts.
The “huts” in the White Mountains are operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) in place of regular shelters. During the summer season the huts are fully staffed with the students and recent graduates of liberal arts colleges. Running Galehead were two recent Middlebury grads and three or four others from Yale, Colby, etc. One of the Midd students had been part of the college radio station at the same time as I, though we’d only met in passing.
Wealthier travelers/tourists/hikers pay upwards of $120 a night to stay in these huts, essentially laid out like bunk-room hostels with a dining service. The price tag means the guests are generally well-to-do New Englanders or foreign tourists (an Argentinian mathematician, a retired anesthesiologist, etc.).
A long time ago the huts were noncommercial. In a place known for volatile and deadly weather conditions they served as havens for hikers and adventurers. At some point, as the Whites became a world destination, the huts expanded into the mountaintop fundraisers they are today. Thankfully they honor their original purpose by offering “work-for-stay” to a few thru-hikers every night. I did this twice. As a hiker you show up and do some odd jobs for an hour or two (I cleaned an ice chest, washed dishes, cleaned a stove) and they let you sleep on the floor of the dining room and provide leftovers (plentiful and good) from the guests’ dinner.
This situation can get a bit weird though. My first work-for-stay I had a good time, I was socially welcomed by the staff and felt appreciated. But at my second work-for-stay the staff didn’t so much as thank me; they set me to cleaning a stove and doing a mass of dishes entirely by myself. This was uncomfortable even for me, someone of the same age and background as the hut staffers. How much more uncomfortable could this be for someone very different from the staffers? I talked with several thru-hikers who felt used and unappreciated by the huts and their guests. Think of it this way: there are middle-aged adults, accomplished and proud at this hike they’re doing, showing up at a hut in the mountains to be asked by a bunch of rich kids to do their chores in return for scraps.
(The staffers being all white I would say there’s a potential race issue as well, however nearly all of the hikers also being white makes the race issue a matter of an entirely different scope.)
This is certainly not always the case, and most of the huts’ staff and guests are wonderful people. Most hikers love the opportunity to work for a good meal in the mountains. But after being in the great equalizer of nature for so many months I was unsettled by these social dynamics.
As a part of the Appalachian Trail there’s a responsibility to upholding the community spirit, the spirit of camaraderie, charity, and trust. I would hope that the AMC, being one of the primary caretakers of the trail, understood the importance of preserving the trail’s spirit, and that they would educate their hut staff as to where these thru-hikers stumbling into the huts are really coming from. Work-for-stay hikers will always want more food, but they don’t need more food; they’ve come this far and know how to ration. Many hikers want to work-for-stay to experience more of this wonderful community, whether at AMC huts or some other hostel. I think everyone has something to gain from AMC huts recognizing the potential discomfort caused by class differentiation and unappreciative staffers. Respected thru-hikers will be happy to work and will work well. The huts’ guests will appreciate the good vibes and inspiration. The staffers, encouraged to reach out to the community, will become a rewarded part of it.
Every year some forty-year-old gator wrestler with the scars and drawl to prove it will step into a hut of liberal arts grads, and everyone will be better for it; all it takes is some respect for this journey we share.
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