Burning Down the Huts

Fall 2015, Isaac Kirk-Davidoff

By: Isaac Kirk-Davidoff, JE ’18, for the Fall 2015 Issue (PDF version)

Burning Down the Huts

Four years ago, I went on a week-long trail crew in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. We were clearing a path through a beech stand when someone mentioned the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Huts, a group of eight high-end shelters on the Appalachian Trail run by the AMC, an outdoors organization responsible for maintaining most of the trails in the White Mountains. The group’s leader, a loud, dreadlocked, slightly hungover man named Crazy Ed, immediately shouted, “Do you know how I feel about the huts? Do you know that Talking Heads song? The one that goes duh duh duh duh burning down the huts!

This was not the last time I heard someone badmouth the huts, but I had never heard anything bad about them before. I had only stayed in one once, and I thought it was nice. Throughout the summer, you hike up and stay there overnight, breakfast and dinner provided. It’s like camping, but without actually camping. Of course, once you remove the “sleeping outside” part from camping and let people stay in a bed and breakfast instead, the whole point of camping — to remove yourself from your normal life — has been corrupted.

Recently, the AMC announced plans to build a new hut, the first in around 50 years, a nakedly profit-driven gesture from a supposedly non-profit organization. They are defacing public lands (besides the hut, they plan to build a 50-lot parking lot) in order to build what is essentially a hotel that, at $150 a night, is inaccessible for plenty of people. Instead of opening up the outdoors, the AMC is helping keep it a space for those with large disposable incomes only. The AMC defends the hut as an opportunity to introduce people who would not normally go hiking to the outdoors. According to them, people will do the mile or so hike to the hut, stay over and the next day, while eating their bran muffin, decide that they might go to one of the higher huts next time. Eventually, they might even pack their own lunch!

Essentially, the AMC is injecting class stratification into the wilderness, a place that one hopes would be free of the capitalist constructs that restrict life outside of it. The wilderness should be a place where, to paraphrase Marx, people can hike in the day, set up camp in the evening, and reflect after dinner, without having to pay much of anything. This is not to say that everyone who goes outside should do so in the most Spartan way possible. Thoreau walked to town for lunch (and this summer I spilled soft serve ice cream on his cabin), after all. But if you try to live in luxury in nature (see: glamping), you not only restrict nature to the more affluent, you also restrict yourself from ever leaving your role in the modern capitalist system.

This problem extends beyond camping. In daily life, we confine ourselves to only interacting with certain spaces. How many Yale students, for example, interact with any part of New Haven further than a few blocks away? Most of the world is erased, wiped out, ignored in our minds. We do not just mentally ignore these spaces, as they cease to physically exist for us. They are just blank spaces on a map. If we keep these spaces blank, we cannot feel solidarity with those that inhabit them. Our own lives then imprison us within our own privileges and stratifications. If we allow the wilderness to be cut up and stratified like the rest of our life is, we lose a way out of this prison. A wilderness that is open to all is necessary because it creates a space where one can, just for a day, step outside of the confinements that the capitalist system creates.

Image: Highway Patrol Images