Tom's Letter 4/2007

Posted April 24th, 2007

The Hostel has significantly changed over the past few years, much for the better. In a word, we have become “greener.” In our formative years, we operated very successfully as a youth hostel for backpackers, mostly international visitors. In fact, for the first fifteen years of our existence, practically every manager was from a foreign country. After being booted out of the American Youth Hostel Association for our inability to furnish a two million dollar liability insurance policy, our international visitors dropped off to a trickle. We then became a destination for Americans, who used the Hostel as a place to party. The Hostel safely maneuvered itself through its adolescent years; and with the advent of the twenty-first century, there was a noticeable process of maturing. Having matured a bit myself, I’m happy to see the Hostel take on this new mantle. Our present staff is the most conscientious one I’ve ever seen here, and our guests now come to the Hostel looking for an eco-tourism experience.

In the past year, we have installed a major improvement in disposing of the gray-water from our kitchen. We purchased a state of the art filtering system that has cleaned up the smelly water that used to collect in back of Elmo’s. Our new system produces “waste water” into a pool that is theoretical pure enough to drink. I want to give special thanks and appreciation to our manager the first half of last year, Mark Garner, who pushed this idea through to fruition. Because of him, we now have cutting-edge technology at the hostel to dispose of our gray-water. A great deal of appreciation must be given to former manager, Macchu, and other members of the staff, who put in sweat-time and long hours getting the system installed. Believe me, it was not easy. But now we have something to be proud of. We can show our guests the progress we’re making in doing our part not to spoil the earth.

In the past year, we have had the best and prettiest organic garden I’ve ever seen anywhere, bar none. A bevy of mixed salad greens, broccoli, beets, carrots, onion, garlic, mustard greens, turnips, dicon, bok choy, and a lot of other vegetables are served every night at dinner for our guests. This work of pride is due to a lot of hard work by Jeremy, Nikki, Mike-Joe and Joey. They are all kick-butt gardeners who are out there early each morning raking, weeding, planting new stuff and just, in general, spreading a lot of love to the plants that show their appreciation in return by bearing good fruits.

Three female goats were added to assist the chicken tractor in clearing weeds, vines, and briars and any other kind of greenery surrounding the garden that we want to get rid of. The goats are enclosed in a portable electric fence charged by a battery that is powered by a solar panel. One of the females bore two little babies recently that were about as cute and lovable as anything I’ve ever seen. They’re growing up now, but, unfortunately, both of the babies are males. We’ll eventually have to get rid of them when they become too boisterous to keep around. For now, however, they are one of the main attractions for our guests to enjoy.

Thanks to Luke, we ordered 250 mushroom spores that were planted in various oak logs surrounding the garden. There are several varieties like shitakes, oyster and chicken of the wood, setc. – the kind you’d normally buy at your neighborhood grocery. We also now have a beehive in the garden to aid with pollination as well as to provide us with sweet honey.

Our two miles of “T Trails” have been cleared and marked for winter hikes with new bridges built across the ditches. The Saturdays that I’m in town, I’ve led hikes for the guests to walk the trails with my commentary. The staff has billed it on the website as “T Time with Tom,” which ends with having tea in my new writing studio next to my treehouse. This has been a lot of fun for me.

The blueberries have been pruned for the first time in their 25 year-plus history. The entire patch has been mulched with wood chips that we get from the end of Mister Road where the electric company dumps it. I’ve never seen the blueberry patch look as good as it does now. The herb garden and flower garden have been given a lot of love and improvements and both look good, with flowers popping up all over.

We continually have to add new composting piles to take care of the vast amount of humanure we produce. After it cooks for two years, the cured piles, free of all pathogens, are placed around the shrubs, flowers, trees, etc – but not the veggie garden. The best indication of the good work that compost produces is the roof of my writing studio. We mixed humanure and peat moss to plant Boston ferns on the roof. It has produced a display that could easily make the cover of Homes and Gardens.

One of our latest improvements is the clearing around the mystic oak. For years, we’ve talked of cutting the trees around it to let in more sunlight. This best of all climbing trees has been dwarfed all these years from lack of sun. Chris, Joey, Dennis, Mattchew, Dirt and some staff members chopped down 38 good-sized pine trees and stacked them on the firebreak for future milling into boards. They moved “Louise’s Porch” next to the revered oak, re-roofed the porch and placed her own personal rocking chair where it always sat. (If only that porch could talk.) I’ve written a piece about Louise that will be bound in a water-proof book filled with her pictures and kept on the porch for visitors to have the chance to get to know her. I’ve tried my best to think of a way to keep a cooler filled with bottles of Miller High Life and a continuous play of a recording of “Strokin’” by Clarence Carter, and her laughing in the background.

One of our newest installations that we’re very proud of is our solar-powered irrigation system at the lake garden. It’s located in the back corner of the lake on the left if you’re looking at the lake coming from the hostel. This was a gift and an inspiration of Murray’s. Three 55-gallon tanks are sitting on a platform about ten feet above the ground. A PVC pipe dropped into the lake is attached to a pump powered by a solar panel. A float switch turns on the pump when the tanks are empty and, thanks to the sun, they are promptly filled with lake water for the thirsty garden.

Dennis donated a new tipi to the hostel. He cut a number of cypress saplings, skinned them, and placed them on the right side of the lake next to the big oak where the beehives used to be.

The sweat lodge is more popular than ever. Guests now have to make reservations in advance since we only permit fifteen to sweat at a time. I suppose I’ve led most all of them since Tony, the Blackfoot manager, left in 1996. Everyone, including me, continues to be blown-away by the sweats.

As for Hostel operations, we definitely made the right decision, even though it was a difficult one for me, to limit the number of guests to fifteen per night during the week and twenty on the weekends, except for retreats. Generally, every weekend is booked solid, and during March practically every weeknight was booked, as well. By limiting the number of guests, they all have a much better chance to get to know each other.

One of the busiest duties at the Hostel is the kitchen manager. Luke, and now Ken, has done a tremendous job serving up delicious vegetarian and vegan meals each night. There is always a large bowl of mixed green salad from the garden, soup, a couple of vegetable casseroles, fruit and a dessert. When food has to be purchased, we usually try to buy organic. One of my favorite treats is the bread. The staff built a cob oven made from clay (gumbo) dug from out back of the domes. This was mixed with straw and molded into an oven. Hot coals are placed in the oven to heat it (usually as hot as 500 degrees) then removed and replaced with trays of bread and sometimes pizza. It tastes wonderful and there has been a noticeable decrease in the amount of energy saved by not using the gas ovens in the kitchen for baking. Typically, I find the kitchen manager preparing kim chi (fermented vegetables or fruits), as well as using the peelings of the vegetables to make stock for soup, and making every effort to have no waste. I’m also pleased to report the hens are happy and doing their job by laying eggs daily.

You may wonder how we get all this accomplished. The answer, of course, is an excellent manager and staff. Our mainstays the last few months that knock it out every day have been: Mikey, from N.Y., Jeremy, Murray’s son, Nikki, from Florida, Mike Joe, from Savannah, Joey, from Pennsylvania, Luke, from Tennessee, Ken, from Michigan, and Anneli, from Sweden. An abundance of thanks goes out to this hard working crew for all the things they continue to do each day to make the hostel run smoothly.

I’m happy to report that all the physical facilities are holding their own, with a couple of exceptions. Our biggest concern relating to buildings is the “big dome,” that houses the library and staff rooms. It is leaking worse than ever, and I’m not sure how much longer we’ll be able to keep it. The representative of the company who sold us the domes said they were guaranteed for twenty years. At that time, I thought twenty years was an eternity, and that I probably wouldn’t even be alive that long. Well, here we are, 32 years later, and the domes are still standing.

Another concern from one of our original purchases is our well. The so-called experts are telling us we should dig another one. The present one has a significant amount of sand in the water. The casing is cracked far enough down (about 30 feet, I’m told) so that it can’t be repaired.

Okay, I’ve saved the worst news ‘til last. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in our Hostel history. We have operated all these years without ever having to ask anyone for money. I was able to purchase all the land, fortunately when it was much cheaper than it is today. We have a serious problem facing the Hostel, and that is development coming at us from all directions at a very rapid pace. A large grocery store is presently being constructed just down the road between the Hostel and the interstate. An elementary school has been built and is already in operation, even strip malls, for God’s sake. The surrounding property owners are hungry to sell out to these developers who are paying huge prices for the land. They are throwing up cracker box houses, all very close together, and selling them like hot cakes.

My first inclination, when this started happening, was to sell the Hostel property and move further out away from all the madness. Then, I thought, how can we move the domes, the treehouses, the glasshouse, but most of all the Hostel spirit we’ve all become acquainted with over the years? She has helped all of us in so many ways, and we can’t just run off and leave her here by herself to be enveloped into a subdivision.

No matter how hard I may try, there is no way I can stop development. That is inevitable. I’ve come to the conclusion that the Hostel will be on an island. We now have 111 acres, but we need our island to be larger. Why is that, you may rightly ask? The answer is that the eastern boundary of our property is but a stone’s throw from the bamboo hut, the labyrinth, the shower house, and the screen hut. In fact, it runs just a few feet east of the parking lot. If you can visualize yourself standing in the shower pleasantly looking out over the pristine forest as you bathe your body in privacy, then fast forward one year from now. Imagine yourself in that same shower looking into the back yard of someone’s house, kids playing on the gym set, Dad barbequing on the grill, dogs barking and chasing the hostellers.

The owner of the property adjacent to us is negotiating with a developer to sell it at $20,000 per acre. (I paid $1,000 an acre in 1974.) He wants to sell 24 acres. The Hostel is presently debt-free, and we make enough money to operate the Hostel and are able to continue to make minor improvements. But the Hostel can’t service a large mortgage payment, and neither can I.

We all sat down and discussed it recently. We decided to turn the hostel into a 501-C-3 Charitable Corporation so that members can make contribution to purchase the land and be able to deduct the contribution from their income tax return. I personally don’t like having to ask our Hostel friends for money, but I’m afraid we’ve reached that point. Our new charitable corporation has been named, “The Hostel In The Forest Land Trust.”

I have agreed to convey all of the present hostel property to the land trust, so that it will be held in perpetuity. That will insure that all of our children and grand children and great grandchildren will have the hostel to enjoy as much as we have.

There are over 6,000 members of the hostel. If we could get just 1,000 of them to pledge only $100 a year for the next ten years, then we would have enough money, not only to buy the 24 acre tract on our eastern boundary, but also enough to buy the property behind the lake, maybe even Cyrus’ house at the end of Mister Road, and that six acres we had to sell next to the highway twenty years ago.

I can absolutely assure all of you that 100% of every gift will be used toward land purchase – not one cent of administrative costs. I’ll do the legal work necessary to prepare the deeds, etc. Murray will continue to help with the administration. No one involved will be compensated out of the money in the land trust. So, very soon, we’re going to be calling on you to help us.

I’m very proud of the Hostel and how far we have progressed. I do so much want it to continue for a long time after I’m gone, and I believe that we’re on the right track.

May The Forest Be With You,