A ramshackle structure made of branches and tarps appeared trailside as we entered the White Mountain range. A gruff old man with long grey hair stuffed into a baseball cap stood inside with a dog named Liberty at his feet. He had set up a makeshift kitchen in the woods and had a cigar hanging from his mouth. The smell of the smoke always makes me think of my grandfather right away.
Meet the Omelet guy — a retired construction boss who now spends his summer days cooking eggs in the woods for hungry thru-hikers.
Omelet guy worked in Albany the same summer I was typing away in the windowless office of the Legislative Gazette.
A hiker named Illegal rolled in and sat down for a plate of eggs. The Omelet guy carved pieces of meat off a hunk of ham and dropped them into the frying pan.
One hiker downed 25 eggs that day.
Though Illegal is from Switzerland and in the states legally, he joked to tell the authorities he was headed southbound if anyone asked about him.
Under Omelet guy’s tarp we heard complaints of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s huts from southbound hikers. The huts are glorified bunkhouses for day hikers willing to spend around $145 a night for a bunk and group meals. Since weather in the Whites can change dramatically and it's dangerous to camp above treeline, the huts offer work-for-stay to thru-hikers. In exchange for washing dishes, stripping beds or sweeping floors, a handful of thru-hikers can claim a spot on the dining area floor once the paying customers head to their bunks. Many hikers are turned away. The hut closest to Mount Washington, however, is often considered a safe bet since the weather is especially dangerous for camping so high above the treeline where weather can change dramatically in an instant.
The huts are staffed with college students, many from Ivy League universities, who exhibit a love of singing and skipping around the kitchen while preparing the day’s meals.
From Mount Lincoln on to Mount Lafayette, hikers walk one of the first long exposed sections of the trail in some time along Franconia Ridge. The last time I walked that ridge in 2015, I was sure it was one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen. That sentiment was solidified this time around.
When the hut just before Mount Washington appeared, a wave of relief came over me. Shelter. My right hip had been rubbed raw from the friction between the top of my shorts and my hip belt, leaving a pink patch of exposed flesh about the size of a book page. I had been walking with my hip belt unhooked for the last couple of miles that day for a little relief. After a beautiful and windy day of hiking ridge lines in the sun, I was eager to take my pack off and get settled in. Mount Washington awaited in the morning.
Walking into the hut, the look on fellow hikers’ faces told me my night wouldn't be going as I had hoped. The hut had taken in its maximum number of thru-hikers. One of the hut crew suggested hiking half a mile down a steep hill to find a stealth site. Other hikers had paid $10 for a wooden bunk in the hut’s “dungeon.” The dungeon was exactly what you'd expect it to be. All the bunks were apparently full so it wasn't even offered as an option by the time I rolled in with Switchback.
We hung around with friends who made the hut’s cut and cooked our dinners. We were told to cook outside out of sight of those who had paid to stay there. Huddled with other hikers against the harsh winds with all our cold weather clothes layered on, we cooked Ramen and Pasta Sides next to the building.
Two of the hut workers came out a side door and without much thought I waved and shouted “Hello, how are you doing?” When they responded by looking right through me and continuing on their way, I couldn't help bursting out in laughter. Nowhere on the trail has nation’s wealth gap been made more apparent than in the Whites.
Don't get me wrong. Anyone who is able to take five to six months off of work to go hike from Georgia to Maine is privileged. Not a day goes by without me thinking how lucky I am to be in the position to take on a challenge of this magnitude. If it weren't for the help and support of my family and the sacrifices made by my parents and grandparents, I wouldn't be able to lead the life I’m living — a life i’m able to mold to fit my dreams and ambitions no matter how wild.
The trail draws all kinds — road crew workers, professors, physical therapists, convicts, recent college grads, retirees, professional musicians and everything in between. The borders between our lifestyles fade over the miles — borders which may have been difficult to see over anywhere besides the trail.
With no space for hikers left in the ridiculously spacious hut, we wandered to the back of the building to see just how crowded the dungeon actually was. The dungeon was a dank and dark space roughly the size of a prison cell. The bunks were made of wood and had no mattresses. One was covered in a layer of cardboard for a little extra cushioning. All the bunks had been claimed (two grown men were squeezing into a one man bunk) and a dog lay in a corner. Backpacks and cement bricks covered what space would have been open for floor room. Still, the other hikers wouldn't turn us away. Each time the metal door creaked open or slammed shut, a gust of wind blew into the small dark space. Switchback and I stealthed in the dungeon and I slept like a baby.
The White Mountains of New Hampshire are home to some of the region’s most jaw dropping views and some of the country’s most volatile weather. This is particularly true of Mount Washington which stands 6,288 feet tall and is famously shrouded by a thick fog about 300 days of the year.
Somehow, the clouds burned off and blue skies broke through the day I summited.
Train cars packed with tourists chug up the mountain on tracks which cross perpendicular to the trail. Those inside point and wave at the hikers as the train rolls slowly upwards.
The combination of potentially dangerous conditions and views that attract folks from around the world make the Whites a strange place. It's some of the more extreme hiking on the entire Appalachian Trail yet it's teeming with tourists who drove the paved road up Mount Washington to join the long line of folks waiting to take a summit photo.
At least one woman asked me if I wasn't too cold on top of the mountain. She was bundled up in her winter gear and I was still in the shorts and tank top I wore while sweating up the mountain. Couples stood for photo shoots on top of the mountain. An older woman struck poses I can only describe as something you might see in “Singing in the rain.” Another woman tried to make her husband take off the socks on his feet to give to Switchback, who was already wearing socks.
Every day in the White Mountains felt like a gift. Cheesy as it may sound, I can't imagine a better way of phrasing it. With the weather on our side, the exposed ridgeline offered views like nowhere else on the trail. I couldn't wipe the smile off my face even when stumbling over rocks or climbing through bouts of rain. All things considered ( concerned tourists, Ivy leaguers who won't look me in the eye, drifters, and old men who build forts in the woods to make omelets for strangers) there's no place I'd rather be.