Oct 20, 2011

Postlude-By Miles Howard

I didn’t always know how to cook pancakes. I reflected upon this recently at 5:30 AM, half-asleep before a griddle of sizzling butter and batter islands. It was still pitch black outside and in some recess of my skull, a tiny version of “MacArthur Park” was playing. The cakers were bubbling to life, firm around the edges and begging to be flipped. As I turned the spatula with careful sleight-of-hand, revealing an amber underbelly on each flapjack, a murmur of terror ran through me, as if saying, “Please Miles, don’t screw these up. Please. I’ll buy you a new pair of hi-tops, I’ll clean your future apartment. Why, I’ll even erect a synagogue in your name. Just. Don’t. Mess. Up.”

Most souls who find their way to seasonal employment in the huts come with experience in cookery, education and/or hospitality. Fresh out of high school in 2007, I moved into Lakes of the Clouds Hut with no expertise in any of those fields, unless you call washing dishes and eating cold mashed potatoes from the walk-in at a fraying hamlet called The Granite Café a job. What I did have was a pair of hiking boots, a bag of Halloween costumes and the stubborn hope that I would be hired for my love of the White Mountains and taste for theatrics, having enjoyed many a BFD (the breakfast skits) during previous hut visits.

Either my “Aw, Shucks” candor was more affecting than I realized or the applicant before me had come into the AMC’s Joy Street office with human flesh on their chin. I got the job. Before I knew it, I was skipping my prom to go toss sacks of flour into a rat-proof closet and learn the art of “proofing” yeast, 5050 feet above sea level, rime ice still frosting the boulders.

There were hiccups. My first attempt at cooking a breakfast for 93 people was a near disaster. Having never used a griddle before, I attempted to cook a batch of pancakes on the griddle cover, with the burners on high heat. Had a fellow croo member not noticed the smell of burning wood, recovering from the experience might have required psychotherapy. Another evening, I announced to a full dining room of guests that I would be serving a traditional British pudding dessert called “Spotted Dick”. The announcement was received with stunned faces and muffled laughter from a table of large French Canadian men. Clearly, I had not taken into account that some of our horrified patrons had not ventured outside the United States, let alone New England. I stayed in the kitchen for the rest of the evening, brewing coffee and avoiding eye contact with the crowd.

But things got better. Despite never quite mastering traditional yeast breads, I taught myself how to bake Irish Soda Bread for the ages, stuffing the beast with almonds, walnuts, whole-wheat flour and other ingredients not normally employed during the Michael Collins years. I developed a passion for soup cooking, turning out endless concoctions of savory meet stewed in wine for hours with stocks, vegetables and enough spices to make a Spaniard swoon. Eventually, I grew to view “cook days” not as challenges on par with a military patrol but an opportunity to slay my audience not with undercooked chicken (which, thank god, never happened) but elation: of how French onion soup, steaming lasagna rustico, and deathly sweet peanut butter squares could taste so good, let alone exist in this blessed patch of wilderness.

I have thought of this endlessly throughout the past weeks. As the leaves brown and winter’s breath creeps into the long, dark nights, I am preparing for a departure from the huts. Not just a seasonal one, a final exit as well. The last five summers – and this current fall – have been kinder to me than I thought possible for people my age, in our troubled economy. But with a college degree under my belt and a burgeoning interest in editorial media, urban dwellings and a Danish electronica artist named Trentemøller, I know I have reached the end of my lease in this indescribable place.

The temptation to prolong my stay is strong, as there is much that I will miss: the bristling anticipation of a hungry dinner crowd. The warmth of a bunk after a long day of work. An endless supply of Goldfish. That first cup of coffee in the small hours, when the birds have just stirred to life outside. But more than anything, I will always cherish the huts’ enduring backbone of good labor and good humor at all times. Where cooking, cleaning and assisting others is not outsourced but embraced with unabashed pride. Where one will not only learn from a mistake, but can learn to laugh about it as well.

The spirit of the huts is something I do not expect to encounter again, wherever my work and travels take me. Hopefully, I’m wrong, for in this age, that spirit and its tenants seem more important than ever. When the present is at conflict with the future, a home-cooked meal and a friendly face leap beyond their origins, into the realm of idols, where a whisper of assurance can still be found. Often, a pot of chicken is just that: a pot of chicken. But sometimes, it’s all we have left.

With love and gratitude,

Miles Howard


Lakes 2007

Lonesome 2008

Zealand 2009

Carter Hutmaster 2010

Madison Colonel 2011

Zealand Hutmaster Fall 2011

12 comments:

Marc R Leonard said...

That was beautiful Miles. It truly brought a tear to my eye because I know my huts lease has not expired in yet the Whites. I hope to be back, sadly enough I may not have your company. Thanks for the memories!

Heather Day said...

Awww, a sentiment shared by many, many past hutkids across the country. Though my body now resides in Montana, a big piece of my heart will always live in the huts, and many of my closest friends are still those with whom I shared pack days and Madfests. Well written, Miles.

Drew Hill said...

Miles, you have no idea how soothing it is to read this post. I've spent the last year and a half in a stuffy library, reading until my eyes hurt. In fact, I'm sitting there now... in a suit and tie, no less (is there anything less becoming?). You nailed the sentiment that's been growing in me since I left the AMC: hutwork is tough, but its the most satisfying work I've ever done.

Your post reminds me how the hut system lends itself to inquisitive folk, with passion for life, environment, and tradition. I miss that, and I miss you buddy.

Marc, I'll see you there.

Joel said...

Miles, your writing is as fantastic as your outlook on life. Thank you for both.

Kim The JP said...

excellent job Miles. Thank you for that trip down memory lane

Unknown said...

Thank you for painting such a perfect portrait of the spirit of the huts.

Stroker said...

Awesome writing Miles. Anyone who's worked more than a day in a hut will feel the tug of your words. As for taking that spirit forward, never say "never." The bust-ass, can-do attitude you brought to your hut work can happen anywhere, any time. Just remember the smell of spruce needles and burning griddle covers and you're there. Good luck with your next adventure, and please consider joining us for the OH Fall reunion, this Nov. 12, at the Highland Center.

RD said...

Perfect. Cheers to you, Miles, and all you other hut kids far and wide.

Meredith said...

You are wonderful, Miles. I am so thankful to have worked with you that summer at Lakes. Thanks for sharing your experiences so eloquently and honestly.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post; you're a terrific writer. I hope your professional career is as satisfying as your time at the huts.

Ann C.

Bruce Laroche said...

Awesome writing giving a feel for the Hut experience. I'm sorry I didn't know about working there when growing up but I have had the privilege to Volunteer at some along the way, especially working with you and the great group you had on opening weekend this past June.
Miles good luck in your future (have fun)and I hope to run into you somewhere!!!

Bruce Laroche

Unknown said...

Thanks for the great post Miles! I can't wait for the next post. With summer just around the corner, there must be a lot going on in preparation for the season!

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