Written for the Boston Phoenix and published in 2012.
Recently, I did something that most career advisors — no, most people — would consider fundamentally insane. I quit my editorial staff job at one of Boston’s hottest lifestyle magazines, swapped my hi-tops for trekking poles, and moved into a hut in the middle of the New Hampshire woods.
My new home, a solar-powered, yurt-shaped structure called Lonesome Lake Hut, is one of eight such huts owned and operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club — the granddaddy of outdoor nonprofits across New England, and my summer employer throughout college. With 48 bunk beds for hikers, the hut is perched above a disc of cold water, miles from any road. In the summer, hikers from New England and beyond make overnight reservations at Lonesome, and a co-ed crew of six sling out hot meals and entertainment for them. But once the first frost glazes the trees, the hut reverts to self-service, meaning guests must strap on micro-spikes to combat the snowy trail and bring their own food and bedding. As the lone caretaker, my job description is simple: welcome hikers with a pearly grin, show them to their bunk beds, and help them cook spaghetti on the stove without burning down the building. The rest of the time, I will often be left alone in the frozen forest, for up to a week. I am then allowed a week off in the valley (to catch up on music, news, and collect my sanity), while my fellow rotating caretaker, Beth, hikes up and takes the helm.
Before breaking the news to my friends and family, I spent weeks preparing a list of rationalizations on why this would be a good idea. For one, I had spent much of my childhood romping around outdoors, in the very mountains I was about to inhabit again. After a solid year without leaving the city for more than 48 hours, I was long overdue for a holiday of pine needles, loon cries, and other bucolic things not found near Central Square. Unsurprisingly, office life had taken a punishing toll on my body. Even an hour of grunting at the gym each day wasn’t enough to offset the chronic aches of sitting for hours and staring at an LCD screen. Life as a hut caretaker offered an endless menu of physical necessities, from snowshoeing down mountain slopes to chopping log rounds with an axe (I was very excited for this). By New Year’s Day, I’d be built like a brick shithouse.
But what drove me to the hut with greater urgency was a desire to temporarily escape the superficialities of city life and do something real, dammit. As a magazine writer, I was uniquely subject to the constant symphony of pop hype and fury that defines the metropolis these days. Each week seemed wrapped around yet another new club opening near the Financial District, or the arrival of some hotshot chef with a freezer full of duck fat or kangaroo bacon. Everything that was once intoxicating to me had outworn its welcome. It was all beginning to feel like the waning hour of any house party, when sipping one of those IPAs that once tasted so crisp and hoppy is about as pleasurable as inhaling cough syrup. I needed a cold shower, like Martin Sheen in the opening frames of Apocalypse Now. I wanted to get dirt under my nails, rip holes in my pants. Most of all, on the busier weekend nights, I wanted to greet hikers with a crackling fire, start conversations that didn’t involve couture houses or hashtags, and serve as a steward of the forest.
I left Boston with a sedan full of clothes and cumbersome books like Jude the Obscure and Atlas Shrugged (for comic relief, you understand). The drive up Route 93 was one for the ages, with a lifting breeze and a magic hour that seemed to last the entire evening. As the autumnal mounds of suburban New Hampshire gave way to greasy food joints and creaky general stores, I began to feel like I had entered another country. And to a degree, I had. For better or worse, the New England countryside has a way of preserving old-time comforts and customs that most cities have largely shoved aside to make room for more contemporary diversions. It felt deeply refreshing to be surrounded by unpretentious establishments with names like “Hank’s Chops” or “D.W. Beezley Supply and Feed.”
The first hike up almost killed me. Day one is invariably the worst. Of course, it doesn’t help that most trails in the White Mountains were designed by alpine athletes seeking revenge on regular humans. There’s no other explanation for the lack of switchbacks, the prominence of rock staircases, and the evident principle that a trail should reach its destination as fast as possible: even if that means shooting up three vertical miles of granite and roots. For 1.6 miles (a modest distance in these mountains, believe me) every muscle in my legs and lower back quaked and quivered, guaranteeing physical therapy sessions in seniority. But I trudged on, climbing out of Franconia Notch, onto the plateau beneath Cannon Mountain, where Lonesome Lake Hut awaited.
I kicked open the front door, red-faced and gasping like a beached whale, trying to remind my lungs of their normal function. The hut was empty: the kitchen sinks dry, floors swept, mysterious bags of garbage festooned throughout the place. The first thing I noticed was just how loud my labored wheezing sounded, with no ambient noise to make it less conspicuous. This was it: my new habitat. There wasn’t a soul to break the silence or offer a glance of acknowledgment. For the first time since my departure from Boston — from the office, the gala parties, the company of roommates, the availability of beer — I began to wonder if I had made a mistake.
I tried to distract myself by cooking a big, fatty dinner: ground beef sizzled with smoked paprika, spaghetti, and sautéed peppers. I took my plate, which was really more like a trashcan lid, and sat in the empty dining room, under the glow of bare bulbs. Through every bite I kept shifting my glance towards the door, expecting some weary traveler to stomp in. This was similar to moments I would often have back in Cambridge, when I’d walk home from work in the evening and find that I had the apartment to myself for a few precious minutes. I could take my shirt off, put on Guns N’ Roses, and rest my feet on the kitchen table, or invite a girlfriend over for some sensual boinking that wouldn't be punctuated by repeated whispers of "Shh!" from the other side of the wall. I savored those interludes of privacy, but at the same time, I counted the minutes until my friends would arrive home.
No one walked through the hut door for the rest of dinner, nor while I washed my dishes and spread out my sleeping bag in the caretaker quarters. In theory, anyone could crack open the door any time, even as I slept (a reality I tried not to dwell upon too much).If they were modestly experienced hikers, I’d likely find them eating their own cold porridge in the dining room the next morning. But if this was their first time in the woods, or worse, if they had gotten themselves wet and been out in the cold long enough to develop hypothermia, I could be up well beyond 2 am wrapping them with emergency blankets and spoon-feeding them instant chicken soup to replenish their body temperature and sodium levels. It was an entirely imaginable, if daunting prospect.
The crew room was arrestingly cozy with six bunks, a desk stacked with journals, and a dusty two-way radio, through which I would receive and transmit weather reports each morning. I chose an upper-level bed by the window — I figured this would allow me the best vantage point in the event of a nighttime visit by genetic mutants with names like Virgil and Purvis. Stripped down to my briefs, I encased myself in the bag and hit the lights. But before allowing myself to drift off, I uttered a brief, quiet “Hello?” into the dark. I’m not quite sure why I did it, but it was the first time I had spoken since arriving at the hut that afternoon.
It was Monday night, and I was officially off the grid.
I awoke the next morning with a head full of phlegm and a heart full of purpose. I couldn’t remember feeling so juiced up for the day during my entire tenure in Boston. I threw on jeans and flannel, brewed a pot of coffee, shoveled some oatmeal down my gullet, and went to town on my morning chores. First I spritzed the composting toilets with bacteria-killing spray. Then I checked the gauges on the hut’s propane tanks and made sure that none of the hoses had developed a leak that could incinerate the entire area if some poor sucker lit a match nearby. Finally, I slipped into steel-toed boots and began splitting firewood with a weighted axe called a maul. I’d been pumping iron on a regular basis for the last few years, but this was a workout I could actually enjoy, probably because it would guarantee a toasty fire by the end of the day. I swung and swung until I thought my arms would fall from their sockets, relieved that I had not given myself a lobster foot with the chopping blade.
The crazy thing to consider is that not too long ago, this morning ritual was of vital importance for the survival of millions of American men and women. To endure a winter in the countryside, hematoma-inducing amounts of firewood were needed to keep the house warm. If livestock were part of the equation, endless bales of hay and grain, reaped from the fields out back, were also necessary. Toweling off from my first bout of log splitting, I thought about fitness beauties and bodybuilders packed into gyms, wringing what gallows pleasure they could from lifting metal plates under fluorescent lights, with LMFAO pumping from the stereo. Laura Ingalls Wilder would have wept.
I fell into a routine by my own design. Once chores were complete, I’d take my notepad or laptop down to the dock near the lake and put my English degree to a more literal use, finally full of energy to tap out every half-baked script and short story idea that had come to me during a sales meeting or a Green Line delay between Arlington and Copley. Being autumn, there were hardly any birds left in the area, which imbued the lake with serene echoes of rippling water. Thursday afternoon, I thought to myself, “This is healthy.”
Just imagine if American employers spent less time quantifying work hours and allowed employees more space to breathe and gather ourselves. I’m not only suggesting more paid vacation time, but an enforced requirement to actually take that vacation and recuperate. Back in 2009, then-congressman Alan Grayson proposed a bill that would require businesses with over 100 employees to provide at least one week of paid holiday for each worker. The bill was shot down by a bipartisan majority with such vehemence that you’d think Grayson had suggested infecting the nation with syphilis. Plenty of us still cling to that old “work hard and never look up” mentality, but a look at today’s economy suggests that ethos has not exactly aged well. Maybe it was never supposed to.
I was just beginning to feel at home, when suddenly, on Friday, a worrying thing happened. I woke up rattled and alert. My dreams from the night before had been disturbing: gunfire, gore, and a sand-swept locale in ruins. The other day, I had read a New Yorker article on the devastation in Syria, afflicted by Assad’s army. I was no stranger to violent news, and in the valley, it rarely affected my sleep. But this morning, a sticky, unseasonably warm day of fog, I was so shaken that I was reluctant to close my eyes, for fear of falling backward into that imagined hell.
As I scrambled some eggs on the stove, later that morning, I wondered why I had internalized the war zone reports so completely as to envision them in my sleep. It was an affliction disturbingly similar to Jack Torrance’s in The Shining: a writer-cum-caretaker besot by night terrors. The allegory was so apt that it would be laughable in retrospect — only, I was beginning to wonder whether I’d maintain my sanity long enough to experience that retrospect. In one night, my caretaking experience had gone from blissful to haunting, and I couldn’t figure out what had snapped.
I spent a deeply unnerving morning moving wood inside, cleaning out my freezer — a coffin-sized container in the perpetually dripping hut basement — and doing lunges on the trail around the lake. I’d constantly catch myself looking over my shoulder, triggered by something as slight as a rustle of leaves or the moving of water. During lunch, down on the dock, I spotted a man on the other side of the lake, moving between pockets of trees. He had a bright red jacket on, which gave away his presence from afar. Yet the man never made it to my side of the lake. I kept waiting for him to pop around a boulder or tree trunk, but he never did.
It hit me like a bucket of ice water: I was already starting to miss people. Dearly. After four days on my own, I craved that familiar comfort of banter, shared laughter. No wonder I’d dreamt of Syria: there was nothing and nobody up here to take my mind off whatever media I had digested each day. That classically American idea of retreating to a log cabin with baked beans, a machine gun, and several gold bricks — “every man for himself,” if you will — never seems to take into account the implications of being completely alone with one’s thoughts. The reality of fantasy was grimmer than many of us would imagine.
Even in the woods, community remains important. Because at one point or another, Mother Nature will kick the living piss out of you. Nothing ruins an outing like a freak blizzard or twisted ankle on slippery rocks. In those desperate moments — your once-insulating, cutting-edge wind jacket sodden, your knees lacerated like a roast ham — it helps to have others nearby, ready and willing to offer you a hand. And that is the absolutely salient point here: everyone needs a hand sometimes, whether they’ll admit it or not.
Ultimately, the function of Lonesome Lake Hut — a warm sanctuary for outdoor visitors to take shelter and at times, help each other —swooped in and saved my mind. The weekend had just begun, and my reservations sheet indicated that I had a group of 48 travelers en route for the evening. Jumping from zero to 48 living companions is dramatic in any event. But what really caught my eye about this particular group was the subheading: “MIT GRAD STUDENT RETREAT — CAMP SLOAN.”
Giddy, I swept the hut floors vigorously, hid everything breakable, and made sure that all of the fire extinguishers had inspection tags. I had lived right next to MIT for a year and knew what those students could get up to, in and out of the classroom. They had rented out the entire hut, a new (and cheap) option for 2012 guests. I was anxious, but really, beyond what havoc the group might have been planning to wreak, I was looking forward to seeing and engaging them.
They arrived sodden and shivery at 6 pm, with frozen hamburgers, cases of beer, and what looked like several tubes of industrial sized fireworks. Before they finished frying up the patties, the group had erected battery powered speakers, thrown on “Gangnam Style,” and formed a breakdance circle in the dining room. It would be a tiring night — enough to make four more days of solitude seem heavenly. But it moved me to witness others enjoy their time in such an extreme, removed place, where life is boiled down to its most lasting essentials. I was grateful to be trusted with the responsibility of preserving a place unstuck from time. And I realized: this was what I had left Boston for.
“I hope we’re not making life tough for you up here,” Danielle, their leader, said to me at one point as she sloshed water around a tray of beef fat.
“Not at all,” I replied, handing her the dish soap. “Actually, you’re making it interesting.”