It had been more than six gruelling hours since we had parked our car by the side of the highway and started hiking, and we still hadn't reached the hut. Our water had run out at Hour 4 and for the next two hours the trail had only become steeper. Every 100 metres seemed to present us with another near-vertical pile of boulders that we had to clamber up hand over foot, one level of difficulty removed from the ropes and pitons crowd.
And then when the darkening forest trail finally opened up to reveal the A-framed cabin that would shelter us for the night -we were exhausted, sweat-drenched and minutes away from dehydration-induced hallucinations- what did we see? A couple of five-year-old boys frolicking outside the entrance, their smiling, reposeful father sitting nearby on a rock.
The hallucinations hadn't kicked in. In the White Mountains of New Hampshire, hard-core hikers and preschoolers share the same sleeping quarters, courtesy of the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC). They just get there via very different paths.
A Boston-based organization created in 1876, the AMC acts to preserve the White Mountains and make them accessible to hikers. The pinnacle of that mandate, literally, is the eight high-mountain hut system the AMC operates a day's hike apart along the portion of the 3,500-kilometre Appalachian Trail that cuts through the White Mountains. And that's where this story started: outside Mizpah Spring Hut, elev. 1,158 metres (3,800 feet).
Within minutes of arriving, my partner, Anna, and I had rehydrated our dazed selves, been assigned beds in a co-ed bunk room and freshened up as much as is possible at cold-water taps in showerless bathrooms that sported "no sponge baths" signs.
Thirty minutes later, we were seated in the dining hall at long tables with 50 of our fellow smelly hikers and gleefully sharing our mutual amazement at the scope of the supper menu: carrot-ginger soup, roast ham with a maple glaze, mashed potatoes, salad, freshly baked challah and brownies.
The next night at Lakes of the Clouds Hut - 1,539 metres (5,050 feet) up the side of Mount Washington - we had mushroom soup, sloppy joes on freshly baked buns, salad and chocolate-chip cookies. The sloppy joes were prepared from scratch by the hut chef, who had studied cuisine in France; they were more of a daube provençal, and they were delicious.
Such is life in the huts and on the many trails of the White Mountains. The surprising people you meet, both in the form of the hut crews and your fellow hikers, are 50 per cent of an experience that, in 40 years of doing it, has never been less than memorable every time.
The hut "croo," as they call themselves, are hardy, eco-conscious young men and women, mostly university-aged, who can lug a 100-pound pack up a mountain at a near run, cook and serve the contents, lead a class on high-altitude flora and fauna, take part in an after-dinner musical jam session and clean a chemical toilet all in the same day.
The hikers are just as colourful. We befriended a man from Quebec, who operated a sawmill, and his wife, who was in forestry management: "We're a forest-neutral couple," he joked. They were doing a six-day hike with their two slightly disgruntled teenaged children. And they weren't the only people with offspring in tow; there were children of all ages sprinkled throughout many of the hiking parties we saw.
We also met a Hispanic man who routinely wakes up at 2 a.m. in Brooklyn, N.Y., so he can arrive by car at the trailhead in time to make dinner at the huts; and a stick-thin "through hiker" who had covered 2,900 of the Appalachian Trail's 3,500 kilometres since early May and, when asked why he was doing it, said, "I still don't have a reason."
We shared a small bunk room that first night with six hikers, one of whom snored in a way that was so truly bizarre that it will be remembered by those who endured it, for the rest of their lives. The second night, we were in a room that bunked 15 people with varying capacities for quiet; that's one of the downsides to the huts, sleep-wise, but it's never a reason not to go.
That's because the rewards vastly outweigh the barking sleepers and tired feet. Above and beyond the people you encounter, the White Mountains are a repository of epic natural beauty that even famous poets have had a hard time translating into words. In fall, the colours could make a poet give up writing forever. And the array of trails and locations of the eight huts makes it possible for hikers of all ages (but with a basic level of fitness) to share in that beauty.
Anna and I hiked the Appalachian Trail the first two days. The 10.5-kilometre portion we covered on Day 1, which essentially scales a cliff, is one of the toughest. Most of the guests at Mizpah Springs Huts, the rugrats obviously included, had come up from the highway on a much easier, four-kilometre trail; others had arrived from the next hut over along one of the many paths that connect them all.
Our second day's hike, to Lakes of the Clouds, was almost too short at four hours and was much less of a vertical challenge. It mostly crossed rocky, scrub-upholstered ridges and high-altitude meadows where the trail was marked with a procession of cairns; a dense fog gave it the hushed feel of the Scottish Highlands.
The next morning, we made like mountain goats back down to the highway on a steep and difficult ravine trail - and then immediately headed to a luxury bed and breakfast for a little post-alpine self-indulgence.
Seven years ago, I hiked on different paths to different huts with my father and my son, who was 10 at the time and who loved it. Thirty years earlier, as a young boy, I had made the same treks with my parents over the course of several summers. And now I've blazed new paths with Anna, who'd go back this fall if we could fit it in. My son, too, wants a return engagement, as does my father.
That's the White Mountains and the AMC huts: Once you get them into your system, they're there for life.
The only way is by car. Head to either the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center on New Hampshire Route 16 or the Highland Center at Crawford Notch on Route 302. You can park your car at the visitor centres or along the highways at various trailhead lots, although a permit to do so is required in the U.S. National Park areas of the mountains. There's an Appalachian Mountain Club shuttle to transfer you between the centres and the various trailheads.
The huts The AMC calls them huts, but "lodge" would be a more accurate description. Each of the eight huts sleeps 36 to 90 people in co-ed bunkrooms, and the staff prepares a hearty, unlimited breakfast and dinner that is served in large dining rooms at shared tables. The washrooms, which aren't co-ed, have chemical toilets and cold-water taps. You can make reservations on the AMC website ( www.outdoors.org) or by calling (603) 466-2727.
What to bring Many of the trails are long, arduous, dangerous and isolated. Mount Washington has the most extreme weather in North America; we were hit by high winds and hail near its peak on July 31. Hikers should bring proper clothing and solid footwear, as well as full-body rainwear. Emergency gear such as a compass, first-aid kit and a whistle are also necessities. On the other hand, you don't need to pack a sleeping bag; the huts provide each sleeper with three blankets and a pillow.
What to eat For two- or three-day hikes, all you need is lots of water, which you can stock up on at the huts, and a supply of energy bars. The huts will sell you a bowl of hot soup midafternoon, as well as hot coffee, tea and treats.
For the kids A great hike to take kids on is the one that leads to Lonesome Lake Hut from the I-93 in Franconia Notch State Park. It's only about two hours on an easy trail, and once you're there you can go for a refreshing swim in Lonesome Lake.