Caretaking: The First Chapter

It’s a Friday morning, and while the rest of the world is rearing up to end their weeks and slide into their weekend-skins, I’m in Monday-morning mode – up-and-at-it, shaking off the liberty of an open schedule devoid of tasks and responsibilities, necessarily encouraged by coffee, eggs, and a decent weather forecast. The typical Monday dread of the commonplace job is mostly absent. In its place is general contentedness and excited anticipation for my upcoming work week. My morning commute is an 8 mile journey up and over two 4,000ft mountains in northern New Hampshire. Mode of transportation: My own two feet, clad in cushy yet hefty Asolo hiking boots, which, over the course of just over a month, have already lost their sleek, just-out-of-the-box appearance. My destination: Guyot Campsite (pronounced Gee-oh), a backcountry tent site and shelter directly adjacent to the Pemigewasset wilderness, nestled in between multiple mountain peaks. Caretaker

My home for the summer
My home for the summer

I’m a Backcountry Campsite Caretaker for the Appalachian Mountain Club, and I’m headed out for my third stint of the season. It’s my first “real” stint – meaning, I’ll be out there for 11 nights. My previous stint was only 8, and the one before that was 3. The others had just been warm ups, I felt, and I hoped that within the next couple of weeks, I’d come to feel as though I were a real Caretaker. Caretakers work alone in the backcountry, maintaining and managing tent sites and shelters. With Guyot being the busiest shelter site in the White Mountains, my tasks greatly consist of site management and glamorous composting of human sewage. Other tasks consist of revegetation projects, site maintenance, educating hikers about the area and Leave No Trace practices, financial transactions with visitor registration/light paperwork, and trail work/maintenance in the surrounding area.

Sunset from West Bond
Sunset from West Bond

A quiet apprehension grips me this morning; my 70 liter, weathered green Osprey backpack lays tightly plump at my feet with the general appearance of a water balloon on the verge of exploding. It’s way too full, and it’s way too heavy. I can barely lift the thing high enough to don it, and I realize I may have been too optimistic about its capacity: one of the front zippers has split. I’ve been using the pack for 10 years now, and I wonder, vaguely, if perhaps I’m beginning to push it toward its demise. Feet As I put my hands on my hips, hopelessly looking at the fat piece of luggage that is supposedly expecting to ride up the mountain on my back, I consider what items I could possibly leave behind. I can’t think of anything I want to do without, and the weight, I know, is a result of my own stubbornness to bring with me the things that I want. During my time alone on the mountain, I plan to eat superbly, read well and often, and work on woodworking crafts – none of which contributes to packing a light pack.

Inside my tent
Inside my tent

zucchinis, M&Ms, peanuts, apples, avocados, peanut butter, jelly, two loaves of bread, hot sauce, tomato paste, lentils, chili powder, crackers, cheese, Snickers bars, Sour Skittles and even a dozen eggs, among other things. I needed my sleeping bag. I wanted my camera, my journal, my writing utensils, my woodworking supplies (rasp, sandpaper, waterproof glue, burlap tape and even a 6ft 3X1 pine board.) I planned to continue reading the brick-sized Game of Thrones novel, I wanted my yoga mat, needed my clothing and extra shoes. So, finally, I decide that I’m taking it all – a foolish risk and total overestimation of the weight that my scrawny, 5 foot 4 frame is capable of withstanding through vastly-uphill, rocky terrain.

The Guyot shelter. There are two levels inside, where hikers simply throw down their sleeping pads/sleeping bags to slumber.
The Guyot shelter. Inside, hikers simply throw down their sleeping pads/sleeping bags to slumber.

The pain of the hike ends up justifying my pre-trip anxiety; about halfway to Guyot, it dawns on me that maybe hiking is a terrible choice for a hobby. The pack digs into my lower back, and I’m convinced I’m getting a pressure ulcer. Every time the pack moves half an inch, I wince and shudder in pain, completely lacking confidence in my ability to even make it to the campsite this time around. Before coming to the AMC, I worked as an EMT. I used to hate it when my elderly patients, due to excruciating pain of bed sores, wailed in suffering while being moved from their beds to my stretcher. Suddenly I didn’t feel so exasperated with them after all. At one point, I stop dead in my tracks, on the verge of tears, but I was too tired for waterworks. I remember a hike in the White Mountains many years ago as a very young girl, when I similarly could not go on any further, submitting to exhaustion tearfully on the side of the trail while my father and brother summited without me. Subsequently I am brought to fits of laugher at the thought: today, a grown woman, in the same exact position. Sluggishly, like a limping, wounded warrior, I stumble my way forward, upward, onward.

Yoga on a tent platform
Yoga on a tent platform overlooking the shelter.
Hot chocolate on a dreary day
Hot chocolate on a dreary day

When I finally, miserably, arrive to my summer home and place of work that evening, people have already begun to set up camp in my absence. Only a couple stints in, and I’m already anal about how and where I want tents set up on my platforms. Luckily, women have bad memories for pain, or so they say; My utter misery is quickly replaced with simple bliss and relief to be back out in the woods once more (a Snickers bar to the face is almost always a reliable revival of my spirits) and soon, I’m flying up and down the steep, sprawling trails of camp, assigning visitors to their tent sites before they can tarnish my organizational system. Without the weight of the pack, I’m all but hovering off the ground, a mere feather whispering on the breeze, conveniently omitting from my mind the fact that I’d been a little, crying girl on the side of a trail not two hours prior. The music of gentle, trickling water from the Guyot spring welcomes me home, and I can hardly believe that I have the privilege of residing here for the next few months, engaging in both environmental and personal stewardship, sharing and protecting things that I love. Plus, I think, maybe hiking still has potential. As I fall asleep that night, I vow never again to pack a dozen eggs into the wilderness.


6 thoughts on “Caretaking: The First Chapter

  1. So great to see these photos. I was fall caretaker at Guyot in 1988, never humped a camera up. Will save your journal – thanks! Best spot in the Whites!

  2. Hey nice job !! I was a caretaker there back in Summer ’87… I kept journals of my experiences… The Internet wasn’t even invented yet then ! haha Enjoy 🙂


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