Tom's Letter 1/2006

Letter from Tom January 2006

2005 at the hostel marked the year of change. Matthew “Machu” from Utah started the year in his second term as manager, which he relinquished in June. We then had the first son of a former manager take over the helm, Jeremy Wilson, son of Murray, reputedly conceived there. But even if he wasn’t, he spent much of his years from infancy to manhood right there in the forest. So, it was natural for him to follow in his father’s footsteps.

As Machu was leaving and Jeremy was about to take over, there were painful decisions that needed to be made for the hostel to be able to continue into the future. I had always wanted the hostel to be open to anyone at anytime so that the hostel could be shared with everyone. My dream, however, had become totally impractical. We were having more visitors to the hostel than we’d ever had before. The kitchen manager never knew whether to prepare dinner for 12 or 35. Can you imagine having that dilemma every night, seven nights a week? Enough to drive anyone mad.

The fact that we were having so many guests, most of whom were unannounced, also made for a manager’s nightmare. For the first time ever, we had reached the point where no one wanted to manage the hostel anymore. Jeremy would only take over if we made changes, so that the hostel could be operated in a manner that would keep the manager and staff from completely losing it. The final decision to make the changes resulted from a collaborative of opinions from a lot of the hostel faithfuls.

One of the changes was to have a “reservations only” policy – a thought unimaginable from years past. On a more conservative note, we have been requiring all guests to drink alcoholic beverages from a cup or glass, but not from the container. While I never thought that would lessen the amount a person consumed, I was proved wrong. It did. And furthermore, it changed the appearance of the hostel. No beer cans or wine bottles sitting around on the tables inside and out. Some of the old timers would swear that the hostel must not be much fun anymore, but on the contrary, the people who have been coming there have been singing its praises more than ever.

The other painful decision was to limit the number of guests per night to 15 and to limit the number of staff to 5. This certainly caused a lot of discussion, but what the old timers don’t understand is that we were getting 40 to 50 people showing up at the hostel wanting to stay there. It had just gotten entirely too popular and thus out of hand.

And another new change that will take effect on February 1, 2006 is to increase the overnight to $20. While this may seem a bit high to some of you, as well as me, they are really putting a great deal more money into the evening meal to make sure that we have all natural, wholesome foods. The comments from the hostellers are all positive about the good meals we’ve been having. Just the use of all biodegradable soaps for dish washing is a significant increase in costs. So it seems necessary that we increase the overnight to justify the extra costs to the hostel. Believe me every penny that comes into the hostel is used by the hostel to make it a better place for all of our visitors.

What we have found is that the guests really do appreciate all of the new regulations. They now know when they arrive at the hostel not only will they have a place to sleep, but they’ll know in advance where they will be sleeping. And furthermore, having only 15 people makes it a cozier atmosphere. The guests get to know each other, and the staff, believe it or not, gets to know all of the guests. And it is a far less impact on the hostel grounds and the environment. The guests get more attention and a much better experience than in the past when they had to share it with such large numbers of people.

While all of this seems foreign to veteran hostellers, we are all convinced, after having implemented these rules over the past 8 months, that we have re-created that little piece of heaven that the people in the very early years of the hostel found when they came there.

We have had two educational workshops in the past six months (July 4th and Labor Day) which were a rousing success. Everyone went away from those weekends talking about what a wonderful experience it was. We plan to continue doing these retreats at least quarterly. And we increase the number who can attend to 35 on these special weekends.

We are attempting to move toward becoming more self-sufficient in all areas. We’ve enlarged the secret garden, so that more vegetables can be grown. We’re presently having fresh salad greens out of our garden each night. It is our intention in the future to grow even more vegetables, which can be canned, put up in jars, frozen or de-hydrated, so that each night all food served will be grown at the hostel, or exchanged with the local fruit & veggie market for produce we are unable to grow.

In clearing the trees to enlarge the garden, a subject that was deeply painful to my heart, we hired a man with a portable sawmill to saw all of the trees into usable lumber. Murray donated a planer so that the boards were planed, and I was astounded at how beautiful the lumber was. And to know that it was grown at the hostel made it even nicer. That’s one of our plans for the future – to use home-grown lumber as much as possible in new construction.

Having a lesser number of people has also made a positive impact for the compost piles. Prior to last June, it seemed we were adding new compost piles constantly. Our composting is much more efficient now.

We are in the process of tackling the gray water that comes from the kitchen sink and the washing machine. Most of you know that our former system stunk, both literally and figuratively. We are hiring an expert to come in and install a gray water system that will be state of the art. This is a matter we have put off for a long time that really needed addressing. We’ve talked about having our expert conduct one of the workshops on gray water so that those who have an interest can see how it is done.

Many of our guests, most of whom live in urban areas, are telling us that they didn’t realize until coming to the hostel that people can actually live and be somewhat comfortably self-sufficient. That is really what we want to promote. We want to teach people to become more self-sufficient, and we want to continue to move the hostel in that direction.

On a sad note, Essie Mae, had a stroke during mid-summer and is presently in a nursing home in Jacksonville near her daughter. The Juke Joint has been closed ever since. It is sad to ride by it, as I did today, and see that it is forsaken. We have been taking hostellers there for so many years on Friday nights, and all of us have so many good memories of that place. I almost feel we should make it into a shrine. If you would like to write her and wish her well, please send it to me here and I will see that the messages are delivered to her.

On a more personal note, I have built myself a little writing studio next to my tree house and am going there after work each day for a couple of hours of writing. It is exactly what I’ve wanted for a long time. If you haven’t seen it, I’d like to show it to you. It has a living roof of ferns, and the interior has a Tibetan motif.

Now to start off the 2006 year, we’re making another manager change. Jeremy is moving out of his position as manager of the hostel, and we are creating a new position for him as manager of the gardens – vegetable, herb and flower. There is no way that a manager of the hostel can also handle all the gardens, and that is really where Jeremy’s interests lie. So, we are about to install a new manager of the hostel – Mark Garner from Athens. Mark, a regular at the hostel for several years, has been on the staff for the past couple of months, and I can’t think of anyone who I’d like to see manage the place more than Mark. He is a great guy and is well-liked by all the staff and the hostellers as well. Nikki, who has been on the staff for 14 months, Tannis and Noemie will lend the female energy which the hostel so desperately needs at all times. Former manager Travis will be there through January in charge of recycling; Nikki, as kitchen manager; Tannis as compost technician; and we’re hoping Machu will return the first of February, after Travis and Noemie leave, to help us achieve our goals we have set for this year. What a lineup! A lot of major league hitters! I expect the hostel to take off and evolve into the place it was destined to become.

MAY THE FOREST BE WITH YOU

Tom