A young man was draped, heroically, across the Valley Way trailhead. "How far ya going?" he said as I approached with trekking poles, a light pack and a goofy sun hat suggesting that I'd never drunk my own urine to survive, much less seen a star-choked sky.
"Just up to Madison today," I told him.
"Oh," he said, casually. "I just finished a solo Presi traverse." This was shorthand for a trip across New Hampshire's fantastical and foreboding Presidential Range, which involves climbing roughly 10,000 feet over 24 miles of rocky terrain, most of it vulnerable to some of the world's worst weather. He'd done it all the previous night, he said.
I smiled at him. "I did that once. Well, twice." I wasn't kidding.
A walk through the mountains is a walk through the past: always geologic, occasionally personal. The last time I'd hiked the 3.8 miles and 3,550 feet up to Madison Spring Hut, a cedar fortress tucked between peaks named after dead presidents, in the White Mountains, I had an 88-pound pony keg of beer strapped to my back. I was a 23-year-old member of a hut crew -- a group of college-age kids who tend these mountain shelters each summer and fall -- and heading to what was surely the highest keg party in the Eastern United States. On that July evening in 2005, we drank and dreamed within reach of the stars.
The next day, the 50 of us had returned to the hard, satisfying work of running the oldest high-mountain hut system in the United States. The huts, owned and maintained by the nonprofit Appalachian Mountain Club, are based on the European model -- most famously, the Swiss Alpine Club. That club operates 152 huts with 9,200 beds in the Alps: there you can stumble out of a snowstorm into a warm, pie-scented stone refuge, while hiking the "Haute Route" from Mont Blanc to the Matterhorn. In the Eastern United States, the equivalent trek is the Presidential Traverse: a jaunt over at least seven peaks (Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Washington, Monroe, Eisenhower and Pierce) topping out at 6,288 feet, with bunks and food available at huts along the way.
Unless you live out West -- and, even then, I'll argue -- the sweeping views of the 800,000-acre White Mountain National Forest here are America's finest. For most, the huts make seeing them possible.
The A.M.C.'s eight huts in the Whites are spaced along 56 miles of the Appalachian Trail, a few hours by foot from the nearest road. The oldest, Madison Spring, opened 125 years ago. My plan was to retrace the steps I'd taken during two of the best summers of my life: in 2003, I walked across the Presidentials during a four-and-a-half-month "thru-hike" of the Appalachians from Georgia to Maine, and then I did it again, two years later, when I joined a hut crew at Lonesome Lake. This time, I was giving myself three days to enjoy the 24 miles the kid at the trailhead had done in one night; I had nothing to prove anymore.
I soon discovered that Madison remains fairly difficult to reach. But it's still a highly effective time machine.
Gathered at M.I.T. in 1876, 34 men -- including a physics professor and New Hampshire's state geologist -- founded "a vigorous, full-blooded, ardent club" devoted to exploration of the region's peaks. Among their projects was the first mountain hut in America: Madison Spring, which was built in 1888 for $701.65. Behind two-foot-thick stone walls, it offered "pine bough bedding, a few utensils and a sturdy woodstove," according to the guide Passport to A.M.C.'s High Huts in the White Mountains. Madison sheltered up to 12 trampers -- who, in the fashion of the day, wore hoop skirts and wool suits -- in rooms divided by gender. Crews of young cooks and porters joined the ranks in the first part of the 20th century.
"In the early days," said Chris Thayer, a veteran huts man who is now the club's director of North Country programming, "all crews did was sling a one-pot meal and make sure everyone was fed and happy." Nowadays dinners are five courses, made from ingredients packed in on the backs (up to a hundred pounds at a time) of the ruddy-faced young men and women who are most often midway through their liberal arts degrees at Middlebury or the University of Vermont. Their job necessitates being, among much else, a porter, baker, thespian, nurse, therapist, naturalist, musician, masseuse and backcountry plumber. It's dirty, poorly paid work, but great fun.
As I made my way up the Valley Way trail in July, beside a brook that coursed through beeches, birches and balsam firs, a bearded foursome approached wearing the ancient wood-and-canvas packboards I'd used to haul up that pony keg eight years before. These were members of the Madison Spring Hut crew -- "croo," in hut-speak. They were taking out the trash, a nearly four-mile walk one way. I nodded, figuring I'd see them later at the hut.
Hunkered between Mount Madison and Mount Adams, Madison Spring Hut is considered the most challenging hut to reach. It took me nearly three hours and two T-shirts, but I arrived midafternoon. Visitors trickled in from the trail gushing about the views of the valley below. In the airy kitchen, I met Matt Madeira, who explained that he and the others were fill-ins for the crew I'd seen hiking down, who were taking a few days off. Mr. Madeira stirred a caldron of vegetable soup; behind him, Led Zeppelin's "Over the Hills and Far Away" played quietly from a small stereo.
Madison, which was renovated recently and sleeps 52 in two bunk rooms, uses just four kilowatts of electricity per day in midsummer -- compared with the 28 consumed by the average American family -- thanks to wind power, solar panels, waterless toilets, food composting and compact fluorescent lighting. At one of a half-dozen long wooden tables, a couple from Quebec sang along to the Zeppelin song with French accents ("Ey lady ..."), and I joined in. It felt as if I'd never left.
A 58-year-old financial adviser from Portsmouth, N.H., Mr. Madeira discovered the huts 20 years ago, while working on an A.M.C. advisory board. His son, Jason, 14, and daughter, Addy, 25, were helping out, too; they'd been coming here with their father since they were tiny. Now, in the open kitchen, they prepped dinner together. It was, Jason said, "much funner than making dinner at home."
I tossed my pack on a bunk and headed up Mount Madison, an exposed, half-mile rock-hop that brought me to a jutting summit where I found a man reading his wife a poem he'd written for her 30 years ago. Far off, I could see the green-gray slope of Mount Washington, where I'd walk the next day: the road, which ferries nonhikers to the top, glinted in the cloudless sky.
That night, after a turkey dinner, mint-chocolate brownies and a tour of alpine flora, I joined a poker game with a group of young flask-toting fathers as the melting sun turned the sky from orange to mauve. Scotch took the edge off the evening chill and my losses.
The next morning, the sun was rising in ocher tones as I stumbled outside to take in dawn's silence. After coffee, pancakes and bacon, a member of the crew read the weather report radioed down from the Mount Washington Observatory: clouds would arrive midday, then worse. I packed and headed out for Mount Adams and its sub-peaks named for Sam Adams, John Quincy Adams and -- thanks to a 2010 petition by a hut crew alumna named Bethany Taylor -- Abigail Adams, the only lady in the range. Mount Adams is the second-highest peak in New England, after Mount Washington. It took me 45 minutes to reach the top of an unrelenting rock-pile trail. Soon a young "thru-hiker" trudging from Georgia to Maine appeared between the fractured mica schist and gnarled gneiss of Jefferson and Clay peaks. And soon he was gone from sight, plodding north. In a month's time, he'd be done, beard shaved, trying his best to fit back into society.
Less than a mile from 6,288-foot Mount Washington, I sat down, beat, and ate some pepperoni I'd brought along. Two spry older women approached through the gathering mist. One asked if I was a thru-hiker. "A long time ago," I said. She turned to the other: "I told you they come back to do it slow."
Before long I was at the cloudy top, which until 2010 claimed the highest wind speed ever recorded on land: 231 miles per hour. It was gusting at only 30, so I queued up behind a guy who'd taken the Mount Washington Cog Railway up for the obligatory summit shot. Then I headed to the incongruous snack bar for a hot dog and a sit next to a thru-hiker using an iPad.
At Lakes of the Clouds hut that night, after the seven-and-a-half-mile hike from Madison, I met still more thru-hikers. Two, whose "trail names" were Knight Rider (he sounded like the talking car from the '80s TV show) and Prometheus (she was good at building fires), gave a talk to 40 guests; in exchange they would sleep free on the hut's warm, dry floor. The take-away from their long walk so far: people are more generous than you expect. One hiker said that a man had picked him up at a roadside in Virginia, and provided meals, movies and a hotel room. I remembered coaxing fried chicken from more than one church picnic I had passed.
A 23-year-old named Jeff Pedersen looked on as his crew did dishes; he was the "hut master." At 5,012 feet, Lakes is the highest and biggest hut -- it can shelter up to 110 per night and requires a crew of 10 -- and a hive of activity. An hour ago, the crew had erupted in a clanging kitchen jam, using pots and pans to announce dinner. As the rain started to fall, and the temperature dipped into the 40s outside, Lakes was what all the huts are at their core: an alpine refuge full of contented strangers.
Exhausted by my trek along the craggy Gulfside Trail that day, I lay down before lights out at 9:30 p.m. Drifting off with a copy of "The Terminator Four," from the hut's library, I could hear the crew discussing a possible nocturnal raid -- another hut tradition -- of a neighboring hut's prized signage. I nodded off remembering my own: swiping a cast-iron anchor and dragging it off under the moon.
Mizpah Spring Hut sits just below the exposed ridge, and I arrived there, for my final night, after two hours of viewless, soaked slogging through the horizontal, frigid rain the Whites are known for.
There I found another fill-in crew: David Burnham was a 50-year-old photographer from Rochester. He was assisted by his buddy Jack Olmstead, recently retired from police work in Plymouth, N.H. They'd manned the huts together in the mid-'80s. Now, before dinner, they donned costumes -- a Viking helmet and Darth Vader mask -- as their children, there to see what all those endless hut stories were about, looked on. They performed a goofy skit, washed the dishes, then sat in the kitchen drinking Bud Light, talking about the old days.
"We used to carry heavy loads up here," Mr. Burnham said.
"Yeah," said Mr. Olmstead. "These kids have it easy."
Rankings are from 1 (not at all) to 4 (very)
Only two hours from the airport in Manchester, N.H., and minutes from the popular ski town North Conway, the White Mountains aren't tough to reach. Cellphone reception is spotty up high, however. Stay on the trails and carry a map, but know that search-and-rescue teams are nearby, if necessary.
Creature Discomforts 2
The huts are rustic -- wooden bunks and backless wooden benches for sitting. But you're not camping. And the highest elevation you'll reach (the 6,288-foot summit of Mount Washington) probably won't give you an altitude-induced headache. Plus, it's nice and warm inside the huts, where good, hearty food is served by smiling young men and women. (B.Y.O.B.)
Physical Difficulty 3
If you're in pretty good shape, the more-than-2,000-foot climbs won't kill you. But be warned: they are steep, rocky and exposed to potentially terrible weather. So don't attempt more than a few miles in a day if you aren't well outfitted with good boots, rain gear, trekking poles, water, snacks and a headlamp, for starters.
IF YOU GO
Five of the A.M.C.'s eight mountain huts in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, including Mizpah, are full-service (meaning meals are provided, along with naturalist programs and low-tech entertainment) until Oct. 19. Three are self-service from then until May 2, when three more open for self-service. All eight open again with full crews on June 4. Information (603) 466-2727, outdoors.org; full-service hut rates, $94 to $141.
Correction: September 27, 2013, Friday
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the seasons of the Appalachian Mountain Club's eight mountain huts in the White Mountains. Three are self-service from Oct. 19 until May 2, when three more open for self-service; all eight open again with full crews on June 4. It is not the case that all are self-service from Oct. 19 to June 1.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.