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For New Hampshire's White Mountain Trail Crew, Comfort Comes Second To Ragged Fun


New Hampshire's White Mountains are home to a lot of things - the highest peak in the Northeast, some of the world's worst weather and, though not many people know of it, a crew of trail workers that's kind of legendary. Sam Evans-Brown of New Hampshire Public Radio's Outside/In podcast takes us to meet with the Appalachian Mountain Club's White Mountain trail crew.

SAM EVANS-BROWN, BYLINE: If you've never given much thought as to how any given trail through the woods came to be, you're not alone.

ALEX MILDE: People think these staircases occur naturally.

EVANS-BROWN: This is Alex Milde. Most of the year, he's a clean-cut engineering student at Cornell, a member of the rowing team. He's working to place an oddly shaped chunk of granite about the size of a woodstove into a stone staircase.

MILDE: We've had people do that. They've been walking down our work, talking to their kid. And we're like clearly putting in a staircase. And they're like, yes, honey, these steps were put here by God.

EVANS-BROWN: But in the summers, Milde adopts a woods name, Nova, and becomes a member of a seldom-seen but kind of legendary crew of trail workers in the White Mountains working for the Appalachian Mountain Club.

Formed in 1919, it's the oldest-paid trail crew in the country and the only professional AMC crew in New Hampshire. You might mistake them for some kind of woodsy, well-muscled punk-rock band, looking grimy and frequently sporting mohawks.

John Lamanna, who was on the crew in the '70s and to this day shows up to visit and give advice to the current team, puts it this way.

JOHN LAMANNA: Any trail crew guy worth a (expletive) - he would rather have mushrooms growing out of his underwear - if, in fact, he wore underwear - than he would ever be caught with his ax dull and not ready to go. You see what I'm saying?

EVANS-BROWN: On trail crew, the team's work comes first. And comforts like fresh, clean clothes are an afterthought. And on this crew, toughness is prized. Early in the season, they hike as much as 20 miles a day while chopping out blown-down trees with axes. A second-year crew member - woods name Aesop - real name Silas Fox - says this fierce work ethic led them to adopt a nickname, TFC.

SILAS FOX: TFC - that came around - no one really knows where it came from. It came around in the '70s sometime. It stands for trail (expletive) crew.

EVANS-BROWN: This is not in any of the AMC's official literature.

FOX: Yeah. We like to say if you're telling - your grandma asks what it stands for. You say trail fixing crew.

EVANS-BROWN: TFC members, who are both men and women, accomplish astonishing physical feats. Since their projects are in the back country, they have to carry in everything they need. That means rock drills...


EVANS-BROWN: ...Hammers and wedges...


MILDE: Try to keep the pitch the same.

EVANS-BROWN: Rock bars and shovels...


EVANS-BROWN: ...Ropes, pulleys...


EVANS-BROWN: And hoists...


EVANS-BROWN: ...Even small generators, along with a week's worth of camping supplies. On the first day of a project, their backpacks often weigh more than 150 pounds.

What's that feel like on your shoulders?

FOX: Crippling.

EVANS-BROWN: Their time off can be just as extreme. Every year, they plan a one-day, 54-mile hike that visits all of AMC's White Mountain huts. They pull pranks. They host famous parties in the woods.

Exploits like these, along with summers of hard physical labor while living together close - intense - bind the crew together, almost like an infantry platoon or fraternity. And Lamanna says some of the crew's stories are just too good for radio.

LAMANNA: We have to maintain a certain mystique about us, right? I mean, we don't want the whole freaking world knowing how good this is 'cause they'll all want to do it.

EVANS-BROWN: So if you really want to hear about them, you might have to come find the crew out on the trails and ask them yourself. For NPR News in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, I'm Sam Evans-Brown. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. His work has won several local broadcast journalism awards, and he was a 2013 Steinbrenner Institute Environmental Media Fellow at Carnegie Mellon University. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.