I quickly discovered the allure of hostels as I began my new bicycling life… and this one is one of the finest of the breed. If you ever pass through Brunswick, Georgia, take some time to savor this complete non-sequitur. A more detailed version of this is a chapter in the Computing Across America book; this was in my Online Today column. The photo above is from a visit many years later.
by Steven K. Roberts
They lie beyond the glitter of the Hiltons, the multicolored neon of the Holiday Inns, and the faded signs of countless rural motels. They appear in odd places, like Red Lodge, Turtle Lake, Ohiopyle, and Jack’s Reef. They take many forms, from musty suburban basements to exquisitely fashioned domes nestled in the Georgia woods. They are the American Youth Hostels (AYH).
As I wander America in search of tailwinds and modular phone jacks, I occasionally find these havens of the true traveler, tucked safely away from airports and interstates. No little strips of paper labeled “Sanitized For Your Protection” will be found here. Nor will you find machine-generated wake-up calls, plastic key fobs that you can drop in any mailbox, or tacky postcards with aerial views of a motel. Hostels have character.
Much of the magic is attributable to their clientele — travelers as varied as the far-flung lands of their origins. Here may be found a lone Japanese cyclist, a New York couple hitchiking to New Orleans, an expatriate female Buckeye exploring the East coast, and a startling pair of Swedish ladies learning English by plunging headlong into a three-month American adventure. Next week, the faces change but the hostel remains; its character deepened by those who have passed through.
The organization behind all this is American Youth Hostels Inc., which licenses these low-budget establishments and publishes a directory. Spending the night at a hostel can cost upwards of $2 a night, more commonly around $4-5. Staggering. But far from degenerating into cheap flophouses, they have become the preferred overnight stops of a unique breed of tourists. For this we can thank the “houseparents,” almost invariably cyclists or world travelers themselves.
I arrived at the Hostel in the Forest, located near Brunswick, Ga., with the intent of stopping overnight and pressing on for Jacksonville, a scant 90-odd miles away via a circuitous route down the coast. (It’s not Jacksonville I’m after, it’s Florida, but CB friends in the JAX node make it a good stopover.)
The Hostel in the Forest, however, isn’t the kind of place where you can spend just one night. Those who do are either missing something or are in a mighty serious hurry, for this hostel lays a gentle hand on your shoulder and bids you stay and relax.
Perhaps it’s the twin domes, one a community building and the other a dormitory; perhaps it’s the treehouse, a lofty bedroom that sways slightly in the breeze and treats the early riser to an unparalleled forest sunrise. Or maybe it’s the quiet, the clear sky, or the pond, or Leroy and the other goofy chickens. It’s all of this, I think, but it’s mostly the people, people on journeys instead of trips.
I’m sitting by the fire, my feet propped up on a coffee table, the Model 100 on my lap. Work gets done, slowly and with a refreshing languor. Sean, the Australian manager, speaks:
‘That would be fine, yes,” answers one of the three German Thomases, and I nod as well. Thomas is a classical music buff, a teacher. Now he travels the United States on the proceeds of an occasional profitable car deal. “In my garage stands a Mercedes,” he explains in careful English. “It must change its owner next year.” A single import can net $6-7,000 — enough to support months of hosteling and touring in this endless land. He daily checks the business section of the paper for the mark’s exchange rate.
Headlights appear through the trees, winding slowly along the bumpy road that links this small cluster of buildings with the outside world. A few minutes later, a middle-aged couple appears at the door. “Do you accept late-night drop-ins?” they ask pleasantly.
Before long, they have joined us in the main dome, bringing a plate of cheese and homemade bread to the table. We talk lazily: I relate the tale of tracking down my biological parents and meeting newfound kin; they speak of international bloodlines; Thomas the German attorney and Thomas the German teacher swap tales of their adventures. Sean and George throw darts, and the fire crackles into the night.
The beauty of all this lies not in luxury. At the Whitehall in Chicago, for a mere $135 a night, you can have not one, but two chocolate mints on your pillow — and a nifty little linen cover on the lemon for your morning tea. Here, you make your own bed, tolerate whatever temperature the night offers, and help with the morning chores. But a night here is a night in a community; a night there is solitary luxury. The choice is so easy.