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Natural High

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CRAWFORD NOTCH, N.H. // You wake to the pure sound of wind hissing through the trees and air so fresh that you feel cleansed with every breath.

Open your eyes and there's the crisp outline of the White Mountains and the pale blue of Ammonoosuc Lake that seem just beyond the bottom of your quilted bed.

Rise and shine, stretch and shower and think about the hearty breakfast that awaits downstairs at the Highland Center, the Appalachian Mountain Club's three-year-old experiment in combining the awe of nature with the comforts of home.

The AMC, founded in 1876, has long been known for its expertise in providing trail information and lodging northern New England-style: straightforward and without frills. Its hut system for hikers in the White Mountains is a mixture of flinty and funky, an oasis amid the granite, if you don't mind that the guy in the next bunk snores like a 747 at takeoff.

An old wooden hotel the club operated just a stone's throw from the Highland Center was warm and dry and cheap, but came with a greeting committee of mice that overnight would cart off your boot linings for nesting material if you weren't careful.

With the Highland Center, the AMC hasn't abandoned its core services or commitment; it has just decided to expand to include seniors who no longer enjoy sleeping on the ground, families looking for affordable accommodations and activities, and novice adventurers seeking guidance and gear.

"There's something for everybody, whether you're brand new to the outdoors or you've spent years there," says Vinnie Spiotti, who acts sort of as head scoutmaster to the goings-on at the four-season lodge.

Spiotti is sipping coffee in the early-morning hours in the larger of two dining rooms, a soaring space of large timbers and huge panes of glass with views of the mountains and the newly restored Victorian train station at the edge of the center's rolling lawn.

As a light rain begins to mist the windows, Spiotti, a history buff and Revolutionary War re-enactor, talks about the underpinnings of the place.

The Highland Center sits on 26 acres in the mountain pass carved in the foothills of the Presidential Mountains, just four hours north of Boston. Before the turn of the 20th century, it was the site of the Crawford House, a grand old summer resort like the historic Mount Washington Hotel five miles down the road.

But the Crawford was a drafty, barely heated structure that opened in mid-May and closed in mid-October each season. It closed for good in 1975, and the owners auctioned off everything, including the doors, the next year. In November 1977, the old shell burned to the ground.

AMC bought the land in the late 1990s and began planning and fundraising for the $9.5 million Highland Center, which opened in September 2003 to rave reviews.

"It's been a good couple of years," Spiotti says. "People come here with a lot of practical, every-day knowledge, and our programs expand their life experiences."

As the 34-room lodge begins to stir, Spiotti excuses himself to meet with his staff to go over the day's plans.

There are two busloads of school children in the shared rooms taking part in a weeklong Mountain Classroom curriculum. Elderhostel, a group that caters to travelers 55 and older, is here for a few days to learn about geology and history and take in a little sales-tax-free shopping at North Conway's outlet stores about 30 minutes down the road.

Then there's a mother-and-daughter team: a soon-to-be empty-nester in her 50s and the 21-year-old who is posting the vacancy sign because she's taking a job on the other coast. They are here to reconnect with the mountains that Cheryl Lawson taught her daughter, Rachel, to love as a child.

"These mountains were my present to her when she was young, and this trip here is my send-off gift now that she's grown," says Cheryl Lawson, whose eyes grow misty as her daughter grabs her hand.

The Lawsons and the seniors watch in amusement as the students burst in and inhale breakfast on the way to another day of exploration.

Half the pupils head up 2,865-foot Mount Willard, a moderate hike on a former bridle path that begins at the center's front door. The other half race for the three classrooms, where AMC instructors teach team-building and problem-solving skills.

"I look at the center as a vehicle to introduce the outdoors and influence lives," says Eric Jackel, the operations manager. "The best way to get someone to be a proponent is to give them an experience that's meaningful. You take someone up Mount Willard and it's like you've taken off one face and put another on, and you know they've gotten the experience you want them to have."

The calendar of activities, posted near the lodge's front desk, changes with the seasons. There are nature walks, a daily naturalist program and evening movies and lectures.

In August, the lodge offers family camping packages that run for the week or just the weekend. Pre-teens can earn a Junior Naturalist patch by observing nature and filling out a workbook. Families can participate in AMC's Mountain Watch "citizen-science" program, by monitoring climate and air quality. For those looking for something a little more strenuous, there's a package that allows hikers to use the lodge as a mountain base camp as they visit huts in the White Mountains.

In the fall, outdoor excursions are centered on the vibrant foliage. In spring and fall, it revolves around blooming plant and animal life.

In winter, the staff leads snowshoe and Nordic ski tours and animal tracking and habitat exploration field trips. If you prefer your skiing vertical, you can drive down the road and downhill ski at two of Olympic medalist Bode Miller's childhood hangouts: Bretton Woods or Cannon Mountain. For something a little slower, a cross-country ski trail leads from the Highland Center to the 62 miles of groomed trails at Bretton Woods.

Don't worry about whether you have the right gear. L.L. Bean filled a basement room with $500,000 worth of hiking boots, outerwear and backpacks to borrow.

If you want to just sit by the large stone fireplace or settle into a rocking chair in the second-floor library, that's fine, too.

The lodge's rooms are divided up, with 15 private rooms that have private baths and 19 shared rooms with shared baths. Beds are dressed in flannel sheets, down pillows and down comforters supplied by L.L. Bean. Some of the rooms are handicapped accessible and some have been built and equipped for visitors with allergies.

The food - tasty and lots of it - is served family style. Wine and beer are for sale.

Without prompting, youngsters and seniors alike enthusiastically endorse the Earth-friendly side of the Highland Center.

Bea Dorsey smiles as she listens in. The unofficial Highland Center and Crawford Notch historian proudly leads the "Green Tours" twice a day to show off the building's environmental side, which includes recycled materials, heavy-duty insulation, southern-facing windows and a heating system that uses a low-emission wood-burning boiler.

But despite all the high-tech features, there's no TV at the Highland Center.

"I tell people, 'Well, here's your TV,'" says Dorsey, using her arm to sweep around the horizon as she stands on the front porch. "Even when it's raining or cloudy, it's beautiful here."

Or, as the sign inside quotes Henry David Thoreau: "Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE

Drive time from Baltimore is eight to 10 hours. Southwest Airlines flies into Manchester Airport, about two hours south of Crawford Notch, N.H.

LODGING

The Highland Center includes Highland Lodge, with private and shared rooms, and Shapleigh Bunk House, which is similar to a hostel. Packages include a breakfast buffet and four-course dinner.

INFORMATION

Family Adventure Camp is Aug. 20-25, with adult member rates for the week starting at $315; $378 for nonmembers. Child member rates for the week start at $212.50; $255 for nonmembers. Family Camp Weekend is Aug. 4-6, with adult member rates starting at $143; $167 for nonmembers. Child member rates for the weekend start at $93; $107 for nonmembers.

For information, visit outdoors.org or call 03-466-2727.

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