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.

 

Tuesday Photos: Oceans Soothe the Soul; Giant Iguana Attacks Caribbean Bathers

As much as the visual aesthetic of the water itself, the sound of breaking waves soothes the soul.  The ocean does two things that are paradoxical.  Like the grandeur of the mountains, it reminds us of our insignificance.  In spite of this depressing truth–or rather, because of it– the ocean in its vastness fills the heart with hope and wonder.  I see again and confirm again the existence of eternity and infinity and recall the unlimited possibilities that saturate the universe.  Yes, infinity reveals itself in all things, but for my primitive human mind, few natural phenomena convey the infinite like the ocean.

Maybe it’s best that I don’t live near the ocean and can only view it for days at a time when I travel.  If I walked along it every day, maybe I would forget to fear it and I would only love it.  Then again, maybe the ocean is too immense and too erratic to forget that in the end it thwarts even our best efforts to hold it in our minds, to understand it and to tame it.

On a serious note: Please beware giant man eating iguanas.  (Read the previous sentence however you like. 😉 )

Iguana scampering among the Maya ruins of Tulúm, Yucatán, México; also snacking on unsuspecting Caribbean bathers?

Western shore of Cozumel, México.

My favorite stretch of coastline: Big Sur, California.

Pacific City, Oregon Coast (my other favorite stretch of coastline!)

Cannon Beach, Oregon Coast. The beach is so flat that as the tide recedes it leaves a thin film of standing water that turns the beach into a mirror, so that you feel like you're walking on top of another plane of reality that is an inverted version of our own.

Cannon Beach, Oregon, at night. Note he Big Dipper in the sky!

Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica.

The above picture was included in a post I published in April titled, “The Many Worlds Theory of Travel: A Week in Costa Rica”.

Mendocino, California, where I saw my first huge waves (~20 ft.) when I was younger.

Seattle as seen from a ferry docking at Bainbridge Island, across the sound from Seattle.

Arctic Ocean, Barrow, Alaska. Sooner or later I'll write a post about the eccentricities and beauty of Alaska. It still dazzles me that in July of 2006 the ocean near the coast remained frozen.

Fatal Wanderings: Thoughts on Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild”

Ruth Glacier, Denali National Park, Alaska

*I wrote this in 2006.

Recently I read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild.  Therein Krakauer tells the story of a young man named Chris McCandless who upon graduating from college leaves his family and friends, hits the road in his old Datsun and severs all contact with his origins.  His parents don’t even know he has left until they try to visit him at his former home weeks later.

Into the Wild is that story we all know so well of the youthful vagabond who wanders off into the unknown in search of himself and those old clichés: truth, beauty, and meaning.  And as in every other similar tale, the desperate wanderer believes in his core that his quest is original and that his path is untrodden, that his journey will yield the answers he’s looking for and that solitude will set him free.  He doesn’t know that others have already been where he’s going and that many have not returned.

Chris’s naiveté and youthful enthusiasm fuel a two year trek on foot through the western United States.  He camps in deserts, hops trains and sustains himself on little more than small portions of rice.  Human contact consists primarily of hanging out with vagrants in shanty towns or pausing briefly to earn money at menial jobs.  Chris’s ultimate goal is to hitchhike to Alaska and survive on his own in the bush.  In the end, he makes it to Alaska, and after living for months on berries, roots, birds and squirrels, he dies of starvation–alone.

Somehow, despite how perfect this book is for me and my personality, I managed not to read it until yesterday.  Why “perfect”?  First of all, because I love tragedy; second of all, because for more than a decade I believed, like Chris McCandless, that solitude was the answer to my questions and the salve for my pain.  Only within the last two years did I finally realize that solitude was in fact the source of my problems.  Let me qualify that.  I’ve learned a lot by avoiding people and in many ways have grown as a result.  But in the broader analysis my misanthropy only deepened my wounds and heightened my discontent.  As a direct consequence of my worsening condition, I came to believe even more firmly than ever that distance from others was the solution, so that avoidance became self-perpetuating.  “The farther I go,” I believed, “the closer I’ll come to finding the answers I seek.”  You see, you know you’re in trouble when you believe that the solution to your problem is actually its very cause.

To highlight the pervasiveness of this self-destructive mentality, Krakauer lists a number of other vagabonds who disappeared and eventually destroyed themselves following what they believed was their calling.  In 1981 Carl McCunn, a Texan, starved and froze to death in the Yukon Territory in his attempt to become intimate with nature.  John Mallon Waterman, a skilled climber, was swallowed by Alaska’s Ruth Glacier in April of 1981.  Gene Roselline’s death came later in life.  In 1991, at the age of 49, he stabbed himself in the heart a full thirty years after beginning his experiment with life outside of modernity in Alaska.  And to demonstrate that these personality types have always been with us, Krakauer tells us of Everett Ruess, who forsook society and in November of 1934 ventured into Utah’s Davis Gulch, never to return.

Alaska, between Anchorage and Denali

Certainly, only a minority of such people die, but many of those who remain and who never shake their habits end up miserable and alone.  In short, they don’t find that thing we’re all looking for: happiness.  Happiness has no residence in the desert, nor does it exist in lasting from atop a mountain.  Isolation has its benefits, but only if he who embraces it returns to society after a time and integrates whatever he has gained from his experience into a lifestyle that includes other human beings.

To put it bluntly, people like Chris McCandless may learn a lot from their recklessness, but they do so at the expense of a full and happy life.   Ever notice how people who have a lot of friends and who don’t turn their backs on love are less likely to dwell on those burning questions that often lead to such misery for the loners among us?  It’s no coincidence.  Human contact engenders security and well-being.  It reduces the need to know all the answers.  To most people, that probably sounds like common knowledge.  But whatever some may say, we aren’t all made of the same stuff—at the very least, that “stuff” is arranged differently in each of us, so that what is “common knowledge” to some is foreign to others.

Edward Whymper writes:

Still, the last sad memory hovers round, and sometimes drifts across like floating mist, cutting off sunshine and chilling the remembrance of happier times.  There have been joys too great to be described in words, and there have been griefs upon which I have not dared to dwell; and with these in mind I say: Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are naught without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime.  Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end (Krakauer, p. 200).

Whymper was a mountaineer.  Like most climbers I’ve known, he uses climbing as a metaphor for everything.  His message?  Yes, take risks in life.  Take on dangerous challenges and expose yourself to the elements, but do not do so blindly without an eye toward what may come next.  Pause and consider alternative paths that entail adventure and hold mystery also, yet that are less likely to annihilate you.  Climbing Everest is a legitimate goal for the well prepared, but make the ascent knowing that rock and ice alone never cured anyone of depression.  Try talking to someone first.  Besides, there are other ways to seek transcendence.  Everest isn’t the only mountain out there; it’s just the tallest.

*I was a little more didactic in my writing back when I wrote this… College wasn’t far behind me and I think I was still strongly influenced by writing essays and long analytical papers.  It’s fun to see how your writing and thought process change over time.  Anyway, I thought this post was appropriate since I’m moving tomorrow.