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Journal of a hut-builder

HAVING witnessed the skinning of a freshly killed moose, Henry David Thoreau went into a dark literary tirade on ``how ... coarse are the motives which commonly carry men into the wilderness....'' I don't know what sights the ``Troll'' witnessed as a paratrooper in Vietnam and I don't know what drove him into the woods, but this summer I had opportunity to visit the Troll's domain, on a Colorado mountainside west of Boulder, and the word ``coarse'' never entered my mind. High on Tennessee Mountain, on Forest Service land leased by a local ski area, the Troll has built a magnificent sanctuary for skiers and hikers.

Can the grand adjective ``magnificent'' modify the common brown-sparrow noun ``hut''? The Troll's domain is a 12-by-15-foot log hut, approximately, for we backpackers carry no measuring tape (although we carry too much of everything else). The hut is approached through 2 miles of trails winding upward in a green-cathedral woods, approximately, for our pedometer is out of whack. The trail includes a hill that demands a rest stop every 15 feet or so. Then we attain a level spot just below the mountain's crest and pad along a shadowy pine-needle path, imagining ourselves deer, which also walk just below a hill's crest, and suddenly find ourselves entering a sunny meadow whose northwest corner contains a log building overlooking tapestries of wildflowers, a hazy valley, and distant lavender tree-studded hills rolling on and on and on.

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We have a key to the hut, for which we have paid rent, and the door swings open with a creak. Inside are foam-padded benches along three walls, a small wood stove in the center, a cabinet and counter along the south wall. Oil lamps await evening. A single log with notched steps gives access to a sleeping loft. There are books: Robert Frost, the New Testament, handwritten journals.

From the letter we learn a little about the Troll.

The Troll - self-named, self-proclaimed - built this place during 1979-80. He apparently received a small stipend from the ski area, but not enough, for in one entry he talks about building the hut during the day and late at night skiing down the steepest hill to go to work grooming snow.

He cut and peeled the logs during the summer and left them to dry until fall. Upon returning in the autumn, he found that ``bad humans'' had stolen half the wood. He then cut more wood during the bitterly cold winter, boiled water to make concrete pilings, and lived in a tent that eventually collapsed under heavy wet April snows. The journals leave many questions unanswered, because they aren't the Troll's journals. They are the hut's journals, a few entries made by the Troll, but most by people who have visited the hut, including the Troll's parents, who claim their son had a normal background (disclaiming concurrently that any troll is ``normal'').

That the Troll brought his out-of-state parents to this isolated hut speaks highly about the strength of their relationship. That the parents thoughtfully made extensive journal entries about their son says even more. In an incident reminiscent of Thoreau's moose, the parents were taken out by their son into a snowy meadow one morning where they observed a newborn elk wobbling to his feet, coat still damp from birth. Realizing that their presence would keep the mother away, the Troll and his parents discreetly withdrew until the next day, when they returned to the spot and found hoofprints - two pairs, mother's and child's - returning to the woods.

We spend two summer nights in the Troll's domain, oil lamp burning as the sun goes down, a mountain spring captured to provide water, containers of kerosene, salt, pepper, syrup, peanut butter all in the cabinet. We read the journals for more clues about the clever man who built this forest sanctuary. Most of the entries are from visitors: ``Good work, Troll!'' ``The fireweed is gorgeous....'' ``We skied up a cliff to get here....''

There are just a few sporadic entries from Troll as he visits the place: references to the ravens who became his friends, to bad humans who ``dinged'' his ax blade, an entry from his parents relating Troll's wanderings after he left the university. Thoreau, who fits in my backpack, asked rhetorically, ``Is it the lumberman who is the friend and lover of the pine, stands nearest to it, and understands its nature best? The tanner? He who has boxed it for turpentine? No! No! It is the poet; he who makes the truest use of the pine, who does not fondle it with a saw, nor stroke it with a plane....''

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Clearly the incident with the moose rendered Thoreau overexcited during his visit to the Maine woods, although I understand what he meant. I'd argue, however, that a man like Troll finds a balance. He lovingly crafts the cabin from pine and lights it with oil lamps to provide comfortable shelter for those who rhapsodize over nature. The hut itself is a joyful hymn to its surrounding pine forest. The hut's journals contain many attempts at poetry as visitors find themselves moved beyond prose.

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