Wednesday, February 8, 2006
We hoof the couple of miles from the Harpers Ferry train station to a white-shingled house on a hill in Knoxville, Md., just across the Potomac River. Wet from the rain, we let ourselves in the front door. The sight of a crackling fire in the stone fireplace is a welcome surprise. Women are busy in the kitchen cooking burritos. People read on the living room couches. We wander through, smiling and saying hello.
Never saw these people before in our lives.
My friend Rob and I, in our thirties and forties, respectively, have arrived at a "youth" hostel. Seventeen dollars each gets us bunks in a dormitory that sleeps 12, the run of the house and a temporary membership in a laid-back, if not particularly youthful, travel subculture.
It didn't take long to become enveloped in the friendly communal scene that weekend last fall. Thanks to some bad planning, all we had for dinner was a box of spaghetti, a jar of sauce and a pint of ice cream. Not an exciting dinner for two, but after meeting two other new arrivals who were hungry and car-less, our provisions became a heartily appreciated dinner for four. That's the hostel way. In return, our guests offered dinner conversation and tales of their travels.
We met a family finishing up at the other table in the large, brightly lighted kitchen: Anda Samson, 23, and her parents visiting from Holland. The Samsons are veteran hostelers, drawn, they said, by the friendly atmosphere.
I'd packed a book, but it remained untouched that night. We talked and laughed for hours. I mentioned a favorite Dutch cookie I'd tasted in the Netherlands years ago. Anda left the room and came back with a package of those very cookies brought by her parents.
Funny, this kind of thing just doesn't happen to me at the Hilton.
Hostels, with their rock-bottom prices, were the dime stores of the lodging trade when I was a student. With little to spend on accommodations, if it wasn't a hostel, it was going to be a campground or a fleabag hotel.
For anyone who ever did the shoestring grand tour of Europe, this common-room camaraderie unleashes a cascade of memories. Instantly, I was back at the St. Paul's Cathedral hostel in London, or in Stratford-on-Avon or at the foot of the Matterhorn.
But when paychecks become steady, hosteling tends to stop. You drive. You whip out credit cards and charge the luxuries. Why share a room with someone you don't know? Or five people? Or 11?
Yet, whenever I see the little house-shaped road signs for hostels, nostalgia sets in. I decided they were worth a revisit.
I found that what I loved about hosteling then remains true today: Personal walls melt; people strike up conversations, offer food, let slip interesting tidbits.