Sunday, September 9, 2007

What makes the huts huts

This post, part of an essay for my class Landscape, Meaning, and Society, concludes my series about the huts for the summer. I could go on easily, but now that I'm living in Austin, I'd prefer to focus on local issues.

Culturally, the huts are fascinating places. Despite only working together for several months during the summer or fall, the hut croos, individually and collectively, form as cohesive a group as I have ever been a part of. In addition to the shared experience of running a hut, croo come from remarkably similar backgrounds, assisting them in achieving a sense of place and community.

Applicants to the huts are largely self-selecting. Most hut croo are from rural New England, though there is a sizable contingent, including myself, which hails from the Boston area. In fact, this summer I knew of only one girl, from Kansas, who came from outside the northeast. This is unusual for an environmental job with free room and board—I have worked at several since graduating college and find that they often attract a remarkably dispersed group of workers. Many hut croo become acquainted with the huts during family summer vacations—families provide the bulk of our clientele, so prior exposure seems to be an important inducement for application.

Hut croo this summer, of whom there were about 50, were entirely white, and they tended to come from upper-middle class backgrounds. Pay is minimum wage or slightly higher. Outdoor sports, especially in the northeast, tend to attract mostly affluent whites from cities or rural whites. I can count the number of black and Hispanic adults I saw hiking this summer on one hand (though plenty of non-white children do arrive as part of the AMC’s outreach programs). Northern New England is ethnically homogenous—black and Hispanic minorities from coastal cities seem to favor (or are restricted financially to) urban pastimes. The one ethnic community that does take to the mountains is Asian, which has at times been reflected in the composition of the hut croos.

In sum, hut croo are often ethnically and socio-economically homogenous. This summer, they were all between the ages of 18 and 25, due to the demanding nature of the work (eleven days on, three days off, with intense activity around breakfast and dinner time, as well as two packdays a week, which involves carrying up to 70 pounds of “freshies”—fresh vegetables and “ham bombs”—frozen meat—up the trail). Hut croo are all either college graduates or in the midst of their studies, with typical colleges being small New England liberal arts schools such as Bates or Middlebury.

A peculiar phenomenon in the huts regards the shift in gender dominance. Until the late 60s, hut croo were all male. Women, it was thought, could not handle the physical aspects of the work. WWII and its shortage of male labor proved such attitudes wrong, however, and once women began to enter the huts, they thrived, despite the prevailing machismo of the day. Presently, there are more women than men working in the huts. I suspect this has to do with low pay—women are more willing to put up with it, as long as the intangible benefits of working in the huts are considerable.

Hut croo also share a strong environmental ethic. Since pay is so low, enthusiasm for mountains and hiking and a desire for simplicity are the strongest motivators. “Leave no trace” ethics; pack-in, pack-out, and composting are the rule (otherwise hut croo would have to carry refuse down the mountain). Electricity comes mostly from renewable sources, and meals are communal. One side effect of the anti-consumptive attitude is the attempt by many to conceal their affluent background—the more patches on one’s Carharts (a fashionable and durable type of pants), the better. In practice, hut croo often act as guardians of the fragile ecosystems they inhabit, particularly among the huts situated in alpine tundra. As dramatic landscapes surround them, croo do not need to rely on representations, but fervent debate about which hut possesses the best sunset occurs, in addition to distress over visible land degradation.

Thus in addition to extremely tight living quarters and the intensely cooperative tasks of caring for 40 to 100 guests every night, communal identity comes easily because hut croo rarely need to adjust their cultural expectations of their peers when they arrive at the job in late May. Similar interests and experiences growing up make them compatible. They can immediately begin assimilating into the highly practical, proud hut system, which is consciously distinct from northeastern hiking culture in general.

The huts have a vocabulary all their own, which can only be learned orally from veteran croo. “Moo” is dried milk, the “poop” the attic, and the “valley” anywhere accessible by road and thus in the lowlands (each hut also has a “ridge,” the crest of a nearby mountain range). Each morning, huts communicate on the radio during “social call,” a ten-minute segment when hut croo can make plans to meet on a mountaintop or for lunch in town. Guests are fascinated with “raiding,” a nocturnal game which involves hiking to another hut, confiscating old roadsigns hung on their dining room walls, and bringing them back by breakfast time (another reason why hut croo tend to be so young!). A ritual coming-of-age test involves a hut traverse: an extremely lengthy hike from one end of the hut system to the other, which must be completed within 24 hours. And once a summer, the hut croos convene for Madfest, the social high point of the summer season.

Hut croo remain fiercely separate from guests and even thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail, of whom there are many. The term “goofer” is a pejorative they use to describe an ignorant or foolish guest, as in, “Some goofer left orange peels all over that rock.” It is often privately assumed that all hikers are goofers, thus allowing croo to maintain a distinct identity. Another tactic is to reserve certain prime sunset viewing areas for private croo use; these include the hut roof or “croo rocks”—a spot close to the hut but hidden from public view.

The huts became known for their service and spirit during the 20s, 30s, and 40s, when Joe Dodge was Huts Manager. A hard-driving, ebullient, and charismatic man who expanded the system from 4 to 7 huts, Dodge tolerated, even encouraged, pranks and jokes, but never at the expense of service. Hut croo, then as now, also tend to be first responders to accidents in the Whites, so a measure of sobriety is of the utmost importance. Dodge is known as “the father of the hut system,” and the gist of his personality and contributions is well-known to hut croo. Thus they possess a common history, supplemented by stories, real and embellished, which are passed orally and through croo logs, journals which never leave the hut.

While a small-scale example, hut croo demonstrate how a shared affinity for the landscape, ethnic and socio-economic homogeneity, communal living, and boundary maintenance allow the evolution of a distinct identity and sense of belonging.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Upset at Outside

Here’s a letter I got into the July issue of Outside Magazine:

“It’s deeply hypocritical to preach environmentalism in one breath and then, a few pages later in your Dream Jobs story, glorify a real estate developer like Rob DesLauriers, who is busily carving up a beautiful landscape.”

I got a little too self-righteous on this one. But Outside does tend toward soft environmentalism—suggesting easy solutions such as buying carbon credits or buying organic clothing—rather than promoting the hard, unpopular changes that are ultimately far more effective. It’s a lifestyle magazine with a wealthy, consumptive audience, and the bottom line is what counts. At least they're open to criticism.