Where Loners, Wanderers and Weirdos Sleep: Thoughts on Hostels

The Hosteling International Hostel in Austin sits on a hill that tapers down to the south shore of Lady Bird Lake, one of a series of narrow lakes that owe their existence to dams built up and down the Colorado River as it flows through Central Texas.  Unlike most hostels, which tend to be in the middle of a large downtown where the sounds of the city never quite fade, even at night, the hostel in Austin neighbors no buildings.  The whoosh of cars, the laughter of late night partiers, and the low hum common to all big cities at night do not disturb it.  Instead, live oak trees wind their limbs around it, waters lap up on the tree-lined shore beneath it, and, at night, crickets and other nocturnal creatures serenade it.   Downtown Austin, about a mile away, rises just a sliver above the tree line across the lake.  A narrow dock extends into the water and affords a solitary place to sit and think, and to squint at the smattering of stars that manage to overcome the glow of the city.  Inside, the hostel is more inviting than most I’ve slept in.  Large round tables fill the dining area.  An upright piano rests in the corner.  I imagine that on busy nights traveling musicians gladden the room with their songs.

Hostels fascinate me.  They come in all varieties and are run by some of the most eccentric characters.  The proprietor of an Anchorage hostel I stayed at in 2006 interrogated me about Austin. He wanted to know where a man goes to cool off on a hot summer’s day. Answer: Barton Springs. “Yes, that’s correct,” he said.  “And where does one go for live music?”  Answer: Sixth Street.  Correct again.  He quizzed me on politics, asked who I voted for in the 2004 presidential election, inveighed against war and big oil.  He ran his hostel out of his own house in the suburbs.

In Minneapolis I stayed in a hostel that felt like an abandoned mansion. I slept alone on one bed among thirty in a large, open room with a vaulted ceiling that rose twenty feet above me. Walls were missing, doors had holes in them, and the November wind whistled through cracks and little gaps in the exterior.  In most hostels strangers from all over the world talk in various heavy accents about where they’ve come from and where they’re going.  These rank among the dreamiest conversations I’ve heard.

Some hostels are musty and cramped. Their whole structure lists slightly and makes you wonder whether they might fall down. They smell of damp towels and bodies salted by the ocean. One in Mexico had a restroom so small that you couldn’t close the door to do your business. Some offer nice, simple breakfasts. In Argentina almost all hostels provide at no charge biscuits and mermelada, orange juice, milk and coffee.

The people who frequent hostels are sometimes weird, sometimes perfectly ordinary, occasionally crazy. A lot of them are lost. A lot of them are staying in a hostel because they don’t know where else to go, and they believe that maybe the simple act of moving will change their lives for the better.  A man at a hostel in Fairbanks told me that he had moved from New York to Alaska on a whim, with no promise of a job and no friends in his new home to help him if he needed it.  He said that he wanted to work for the oil industry, though he had lived in New York his entire life and had never seen a drilling rig.

Maybe I feel at home in hostels because I don’t know who I am and I’ve deluded myself into thinking that I can find what’s missing in me in the outside world, among people who are lost themselves and who, like me, have landed in the liminal reality hostels afford.  In a hostel, everyone is no one and, for a moment, the pressures of being someone lift.

Hostel in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Outside a hostel in Isla Mujeres, Quintana Roo, Mexico

Hostel in Puerto Iguazú, Argentina.

Hostel in Menneapolis, Minnesota.

Exterior of hostel in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Hostels near beaches tend to have this look (Tulúm, Quintana Roo, Mexico).

Hostel in Viejo San Juan, Puerto Rico. Sometimes hostels have better locations than hotels.

Hostel in Austin, Texas.

 

The Geography of Identity; Where Blue Bonnets Paint the Hills

My sister, Becky, and me in a field of Blue Bonnets near Barton Creek Square Mall, on the edge of the Texas Hill Country

I’m returning today from a trip to Texas.  I went to Texas intending to find a job there and to return there permanently.  In other words, I changed my mind.  I no longer wanted to live in Kentucky.  I wanted to live in Texas.  But things didn’t quite work out how I had hoped they would.  So now I find myself in a hotel somewhere in Arkansas, about halfway to Lexington.  Leaving Texas is always hard, because I’m leaving home.  I’m leaving memories and people and places that cling covetously to little pieces of my identity.  I considered writing for my blog a piece titled “The Geography of Identity” in which I would map out where I’ve left different versions of myself.  The child “me” is in Austin.  He still clambers up trees, builds tree houses, catches snakes and frogs, scorpions and spiders.  His hair is still blonde and it still hangs to his shoulders.  I can still see him sitting on a hill of Blue Bonnets next to his little sister, Becky, one Easter weekend when he was four years old; meanwhile his parents are still snapping photos of them both for memory’s sake.

I remember that when my sister and I sat on that hill I was worried about crushing the Blue Bonnets.  Actually, I was more than worried.  I felt terrible.  I also remember feeling silly sitting next to my sister, holding a blue Easter bunny and posing for a picture whose significance I would only understand decades later.  What isn’t clear in the picture is that the hill on which my sister and I are sitting rises up from Loop 360, one of the busiest stretches of highway in Austin.  Even twenty-six years ago cars streamed down that road nonstop.  I was aware at the time that we were posing not only for my parents, but also for hundreds of drivers and passengers as they shot out of town into the folds of the Texas hill country or made their way to Austin’s newest mega-mall: Barton Creek Square.

Everything outside of the picture still exists.  The four lane highway carries more cars today than when I was a boy, but it looks exactly as it did almost three decades ago.  The mall has changed very little on the outside.  A few apartments have risen on nearby hills with glorious views of downtown Austin and the thunderstorms that roll in from the east every Spring.  Everything in the picture, however, has disappeared.  The hill remains, of course, but Lady Bird Johnson and her army of Blue Bonnet enthusiasts stopped seeding that hill soon after my sister and I posed on it for my parents.  It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that, in the interest of public safety, the city itself forbade parking on the shoulder of the highway to take pictures.

So now, at any given time of year, in any season, if you venture to the hill along Loop 360 you will see neither Blue Bonnets nor little children posing for their parents.  Instead, you will see pointy cedar bushes creeping down toward the highway.  But in my mind I see something different.  The blue bonnets still paint the hill azure, my sister and I are still sitting next to each other among the forest of flowers, and my parents still futz around us with their cameras, always just a moment away from taking a picture that today recalls a moment grown more poignant with time.

*I’m going to keep blogging, but I’ll probably post about once a week from now on.  I love sharing the world with anyone who happens to read these miscellany.  I’ll keep commenting on other blogs, of course.  Thank you for your time and conversation.  It means the world to me.

Better Things to Come: On Finding Home and Finding a Job

I like to tell stories.  I used to like writing essays, but I don’t have the same confidence in my thoughts and viewpoints as I used to.  I figure that I’m more often wrong than not.  I can’t see how it could be otherwise in this complicated world.  The blog posts that have brought me the greatest pleasure are the ones I’ve written about people and encounters, the ones in which I get to use the narrative devices of fiction to speak truth and shine light on someone else’s existence and how my brush with their life enriched my own.  I’m never entirely comfortable talking about myself, even though I do it all the time and even though self-reflection is half the purpose of most blogs, including my own.  Lately, though, I’ve told fewer stories about others, and I think that my writing has fallen off a bit.  I write for myself, yes, but I blog because I want people to read what I have to say.  I have to earn your time, and lately I’ve been disappointed in my efforts to do so.

Two weeks ago I left a steady teaching job in Texas to move to Kentucky.  Soon my sister, my brother-in-law, and nephew will join me.  I took a gamble.  I moved to Kentucky with no job lined up and with only the prospect of an interview.  I inhabited this new state but I couldn’t see it as home so long as nothing anchored me here.  Since I arrived, Barnes and Noble has served as my de facto internet service provider, which is a problem because in exchange for use of B&N’s wifi I have felt obligated to gorge myself on scones and sugary coffee drinks.  These new habits may prove fatal ;).

Now for the good news: I got the job for which I interviewed.  I will teach Spanish at a local middle school.  Now I know that I’m staying here in Kentucky, and now I call home what formerly struck me as foreign.  The hills glow greener, the birds sing louder and with more feeling, and the people smile more.  Of course, the hills glowed from the beginning, the birds sang with same zest when I arrived here as they do now, and the people always welcomed me to this land that straddles the mid-west and the south and so contains elements of each region’s temperament and idiosyncrasies.  Kentucky didn’t change: I did.  I see Kentucky differently because finally I see it as home.  I belong here.

So now I feel liberated.  Liberated to write a little better and with a little more care.  Liberated to fly to Chile and vagabond for two weeks in that country’s northern deserts, where volcanoes rise out of the emptiness and lord over their realm as ancient kings who wield fire and ash.  I’ll come back with some good stories.  I promise.

Encounters with Drifters and Prisoners: Thoughts on Manhood

Late one afternoon I was sitting on the curb of Rio Grande Street, near the University of Texas at Austin, waiting for the Number 12 bus to collect me and convey me home.  It was spring, and the purple Texas mountain laurels planted throughout UT’s grounds perfumed the air.  I had just left a Latin American Lit class and was still drunk on discussions of time, infinity, and identity.  A man sat next to me, not a foot away, and asked me for $5.  He told me he was homeless, had recently endured some kind of surgery on his right knee, and pointed to the scar to prove it.  I gave him the money, though it wasn’t mine to give since my parents, loans, and a small scholarship were paying my way through school.  I couldn’t help myself, though.  I’ve always found it difficult to say no to people. 

Once I had given him the $5, he remained seated beside me on the curb.  Everything about him sagged toward the ground.  His body spread over the pavement, his eyes drooped, the corners of his mouth pointed downward as if they were attached to the ground by strings.  Even his words tumbled downward from his lips when he spoke. 

This man told me about an ex-wife and kids whom he never saw and couldn’t support.  He exhorted me to appreciate the quality education I was receiving and to use it to do good things.  Maybe he was lonely.  Maybe he could tell that I was lonely and he derived purpose and satisfaction from keeping me company.  Maybe a man like him, alone, homeless, in his fifties, with bad knees and a broken body, regains some of his youth when he is in the company of the young, to whom men like him are often invisible.  They amble down alley-ways; they sleep in doorways and beneath bridges.  Some of them while away their days in public libraries. Others lie on the green lawns of university campuses and divert foot traffic by their presence.  Do we see them?  Yes.  Do we talk to them?  Do we know them?  No, and so they are invisible in the way plastic bags and newspapers blowing down the street are invisible.  We know they’re there, yet we know nothing of where they come from or where they’re going, of who set them adrift and who forgot about them.

I’ve had so many encounters like this one.  Once, a man with long red hair and a thick moustache, carrying a guitar and wearing bell-bottom jeans cornered me at the back of the bus (again, the Number 12) and mumbled something about what Austin used to be like in the 80s.  I heard him say something about how back then the police didn’t harass people, and you could sleep where you liked, but in all I understood maybe a quarter of what he said to me over the roar of the bus and the wind howling through the opened windows.  I tried my best to listen, but eventually the man grew angry and told me I hadn’t heard a word he had said and that I must not care. 

On two occasions I talked to just-released prisoners, once while I waited for a Greyhound in Fresno, California, and once on that same Number 12 bus in Austin that so reliably served up interesting conversations.  I remember their joy over finally getting out of prison, their eagerness to get things right this time, to see families in Montana or to pursue a talent for art they had only discovered while they were locked up.  What joy could be more real than that of a man who has served his sentence and has just regained his freedom? 

If they could have seen their own faces, naked with the wonder and hope of children, they may have recoiled from themselves and the unmanliness they beheld.  But they could not see what I saw.  They didn’t know that tears glistened in their eyes.  They didn’t know that they giggled like little boys who had stumbled upon some squirmy creature for the first time and were taken with the novelty of their discovery.  They were lost in themselves, lost in the world that was new to them again, forgetful of the manliness society told them they had to project from a young age.  There’s something wonderful about watching a grown man return to himself, seeing him shake off the costume of masculinity and toughness in which he usually clothes himself, and listening to him as he expresses the complex mixture of hope, confusion, and fear that our culture tells us to suppress.

Father and Baby Son On the Edge (of a Cliff…)

Two Saturdays ago I walked by a man and his baby boy sitting on the edge of a cliff that drops four hundred feet to a lake below.  Here is what happened.  Early that morning I made my way to the Loop 360 bridge that spans Lake Austin, a dammed up section of the Colorado River.  The lake is about as wide as the river that once flowed freely through this part of the green Texas Hill Country.  The 360 bridge explodes from a blasted-out wedge of limestone on the north side of the lake.  It shoots from a vertical wall of white cliffs toward the flat south shore, four hundred feet below and a quarter of a mile across.  The bridge hangs from a series of cables suspended from two steel support arches, both red with rust.  On its north side, before flying over Lake Austin, the bridge cuts a five hundred foot gouge through bleached limestone, so that three hundred foot cliffs line both the north and the southbound sides of the four-lane highway as it approaches the lake and the bridge. 

I’ve crossed this bridge hundreds of times in my life.  I always assumed that the cliffs to either side of it were off limits.  But on this day, two weeks ago, I hiked up to the ledge above the southbound side of the highway and found neither signs nor fences barring my way.  Below, cars shot down the bridge, over the lake, and continued south where the hills swallowed them up.  I stumbled upon a black and grey tent set fifteen feet back from the cliff’s edge.  Gusts of wind pounded the cliff and shook a lone sinewy cedar tree that clung to cracks in the limestone cliff face.  Its branches creaked in the wind.  Twigs snapped, flew at me, and bounced off of the tent.  The tent flattened, then sprang upright at regular intervals.  

Loop 360 Bridge

I guessed that a climber or backpacker slept inside, but within moments of my arrival a dark-skinned, muscular man in his thirties emerged, wearing only blue jeans.  In his right hand he held a baby carrier, and in the baby carrier slept a baby boy of ten months.  In his left hand the man carried a lawn chair and a blocky 70s era radio.  He walked to the edge of the cliff, set the radio below the cedar tree, unfolded the lawn chair with one hand, and placed the baby carrier to the right of the chair.  He fell into the chair and turned the radio to a contemporary pop music station.  Man, baby, and radio all sat within two feet of the cliff’s edge. 

The man leaned back and turned his head from left to right, taking in the panorama laid out before him.  To the east, far downriver, downtown Austin rose grey from the plains that flow out of the Texas Hill Country.  Below, the 360 Bridge flew over Lake Austin and poured traffic in a straight line south to the edge of the horizon.  To the west, the lake curved southward around a bend at the base of the limestone cliffs that rise from its banks.  Beyond and above the cliffs, hills grown thick with cedars and oak trees rose and fell in swells of light and dark greens.  Houses bobbed on the crests of some swells and larger buildings plied through the troughs in between them.

Father and Son on the Edge

The lake, the hills, and the clouds gliding overhead all took on liquid qualities.  Cars flowed along Loop 360 toward a dot that vanished on the horizon.  Music oozed like liquid sound from the old blocky radio, and the tent and the trees swayed like seaweed in time with the currents of the humming wind. 

It occurred to me that every hour some five thousand cars passed below this strange man, seated on a cliff ledge beside his baby boy, fighting the gusting wind that threatened to whisk his son and his tent away.  Every hour five thousand drivers passed below him, and not one of them knew of his existence.  Not one knew that he had camped here the night before with his son; that he had slept above the intersection of two rivers, one of water, the other of flesh, metal, and asphalt.  Not one knew that father and son had watched the sun set over the western hills that tumbled into the distance like the lingering ripples of some divine thought propagating itself through the tissue of the earth.

Water and Air: A Day Swimming in Barton Springs

Last Saturday I drove three and a half hours from Dallas to Austin with the express purpose of swimming in the cool waters of Barton Springs.  I swam for about an hour in the morning, then lay in the shade of sprawling oak trees on the hillside above the pool.  The smell of cedar, the splashing of swimmers, the regular rattle of the diving board as one kid after another leapt skyward and belly flopped into the turquoise water—all of it, every sound, every sensation massaged my troubled mind and smoothed out the kinks left there by working and living.

Barton Springs Pool--68 degrees year round

For two hours I lay on that hillside.  I slept.  I woke.  I listened to grackles posing their long drawn-out question, “Huuuuuuuuh?  Huuuuuuuuuh?  Huuuuuuuuuh?” with the persistence of small children.  I laughed at squirrels scampering up and down tree trunks in a game of hide-and-go-seek that to them may not have been a game.  When I grew hungry I walked a half mile to the Green Mesquite and gorged myself on beef brisket, turkey, chicken, rice and pinto beans, all drenched in barbecue sauce.  For dessert, I savored peach cobbler in the smallest bites possible.

Barton Springs Pool

After strolling around the hundreds of acres of parkland that surround the springs, I returned to the pool around 7pm and swam in the soft glow of dusk.  The pool gradually emptied of people.  At 8pm the life guards blew their whistles to announce that they were retiring and that those of us still in the water were on our own.  I floated in deepening darkness.  I heard other swimmers splashing and laughing occasionally, but for long stretches I felt I had the spring and the trees, and even the glowing sky, all to myself; that I existed in a world half water, half air, where all I knew was the sound of the wind jostling the now-invisible trees hanging over me and the leaves answering the wind with a million tiny claps that sounded like rain droplets tapping the ground, where I could hear gentle waves lapping against the concrete edge of the pool, producing a sound like that of a dripping faucet, with the drops alternating from high pitch to low pitch: drip, drop, drip, drop.

I straddled these two worlds, above and below the water.  I was immersed in them both, one cold, one warm, and I felt them both at the same time.  At once I felt warm and cozy yet cool and refreshed.  And for an entire day I thought about nothing but green St. Augustine grass, oak trees, turquoise springs, children flying kites, beef brisket and peach cobbler, the breeze running its fingers through my hair, and the sun warming my skin.  No stress.  No worries.  I thought about saying goodbye to it all, maybe for the last time. I returned to Dallas the next day.

The busy diving board. Unfortunately, the poor guy did not complete his back flip and smacked the water back first.

Squirrel territory.

Austin, Texas: Live Music Capital of the World?

Downtown Austin from Auditorium Shores

Austin sits at the center of Travis County like a radiant sun that illuminates all around it.  It tugs people into its orbit and, as massive stellar objects are wont to do, the city alters the fabric of reality and bends perceptions.  Are you sad?  Go to Austin, dance in a club or sway to the beat of an outdoor concert and you’ll find happiness again.  Are you angry?  Go to Austin, swim in its soothing springs and you’ll emerge cleansed and eager to forgive whoever wronged you.  Are you lost?  Austin will help you find yourself.  Do you want to get lost?  Austin can help with that, too. 

Music courses through Austin’s streets, reverberates off of its sky scrapers, and saturates most anything that passes through the “Live Music Capital of the World”.  On a loud Friday night even the Austin hills seem to resonate with the music that wafts in the air from Sixth Street, the pulsating heart of the music scene.  I used to read Austin’s boast that it was the “Live Music Capital of the World” as a joke that everyone was in on.  We natives repeated it with an implicit wink and a knowing smile.  To be sure, Austin has long been an incubator of musical talent, and for decades musicians and their fans have flocked to the city for its unique scene.  But capital?  Of the world?  That struck me as hyperbole. 

How things have changed.  Now Austin hosts two of the biggest, coolest, and most tweeted music festivals in the U.S..  More than 70,000 people attend the Austin City Limits (ACL) Festival on each of three days in mid-September.  200,000 people from all over the world flood Austin each Spring for South by Southwest (SXSW) to witness an entire city transform itself into one gigantic concert venue, where bands are as likely to perform in grocery stores as on big stages to big crowds.  The SXSW music festival grew to be so large that it spawned an accompanying film festival and, later, an interactive festival featuring social networking technology.  According to TIME Magazine, the film festival threatens to eclipse Sundance, long the hotspot of the indie film scene.  The Interactive Festival is one of the few of its kind.  The story goes that Twitter went mainstream when attendees at SXSW tweeted en masse about what was happening there.   

Stevie Ray Vaughn Statue

Yes, music has long been in Austin’s blood, but when I was growing up here, in the 80s and 90s, you could wander most parts of downtown outside of Sixth Street and miss that fact.  Austin’s music scene contributed to its eclecticism and confirmed it as a bizarre kind of place where dreamers fought against the odds and strived to live off of their art, playing in whatever venues would book them, and in some cases living on the streets with little more than their guitar cases to accompany them.  Now, wandering the streets of downtown on a Friday night, everywhere I go I hear at least the faintest echo of a song.  A country performance at Threadgills, south of downtown on Riverside Drive, floats over to me more than a mile away, on the far western end of Auditorium shores.  Loose melodies and muted drum beats rise from the city.  A drawn out guitar chord resonates in the wind.  For a moment I imagine the city itself is the instrument and that 800,000 people strum one of its 800,000 strings. 

Austin’s rise in the national consciousness thrills me.  I’m glad to see it grow and thrive.  Better than to shrink and stagnate.  Austin has changed, but at the center of the new people and buildings, subdivisions, restaurants, and festivals that accrue to the city, Austin retains its core identity.  At the center of the bigger and richer Austin lies the city’s soul, a seed crystal that alters everything it touches.  Everything new conforms in its own way to the best of what is old.  True, more people share in certain finite resources, and if you told me that on some busy days there is more skin than water in Barton Springs Pool, I might believe you. 

Barton Springs Pool

Nevertheless new blood injects vitality into this complex ecosystem, and public spaces set aside when the city was 1/10th its current size accommodate a metropolitan population of nearly 2 million with admirable ease.  By all means, come to Austin.  Austin will welcome you with open arms.  Whoever you are, wherever you’re from, Austin wants to get to know you.  Are you a hippie?  A suburbanite?  A hip professional?  Austin has a place for you, yet wherever you end up, you won’t be far from people who are entirely unlike you, and unlike in most cities I’ve come to know, you’ll be glad of that fact.  That is the essence of Austin: contradictions coexist side by side in harmony. 

 

I’ll post another essay or two about Austin soon.  I’d like to focus more on the recreational side of the town: its springs, its green belt, its parks and cliffs.  To be continued…

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