Nobody was up at five. Or at six. Barely, at seven.
I’d been up since four, and had already cleaned my room such as I could without using the vacuum cleaner leaning against the hall wall twelve feet outside my door.
I padded barefoot into the kitchen where a few people were moving around sombambulantly. I grabbed the heavy kitchen trash cans and walked gingerly across the asphalt parking lot to dump them in the dumpster. Last night I’d watched my last Santa Fe sunset from tables right on the street.
After dumping and relining the cans, I fried three eggs and helped myself to the Whole Foods bounty that crammed the huge refrigerator. Each day, this pricey grocery store donates scads of bread, salads, not-very-good (to my taste) veggies juices and lots of pre-prepared Yuppie food to this hostel. We eat better here than a great many folks in south Santa Fe, which in many ways is fast becoming a slum. Not what you’d imagine in such a magical place, but there you have it.
The first time I stayed in a hostel I was on my very first international trip in 1984. The Auckland Youth Hostel, which required (as do many hostels) that each of us take on a chore to help maintain the cleanliness of the place for the good of the whole, has- or had- drawings of visitors all over the common room walls. Americans were depicted with loud Hawaiian shirts, four cameras hung around the neck, mouth WIDE open yelling HEY IS THAT A KIWI?????
Some things never change. After I saw that, I told people I was from North America (implying, Canadian). It worked, too.
Back then I was barely 31.
Fast forward 34 years.
These days, hostels are open to just about anyone who travels. Initially begun as a way to provide cheap housing for kids on the move, they have grown to accommodate gray hairs. There’s a great deal to be said for hostels.
The Santa Fe hostel is run by volunteers, and as such, has its share of rude folks. One young man bristled when I questioned the man at the counter about pricing, because I’d either mis-heard or misunderstood. He nearly came out of his skin at me. It was a simple mistake and easily remedied by pointing my eyeballs at a sign behind the counter (which I couldn’t read since I didn’t have my glasses on). I was ushered around and admonished several times that I would have to do my share of the chores.
Since this isn’t my first rodeo, got that, thanks. I usually do at least three rather than my standard one, if for no other reason than I am very grateful to not only stay in a private (and very simple) room for $30 a night, but also eat for free. And eat stupendously well. This morning I had a huge container of fresh fruit and a warm blueberry muffin. Donated.
Told you we ate well.
Hostels are home for many of us on the road. While I have stayed in my fair share of five-star properties when speaking at conferences, I vastly prefer the intimacy of the communal kitchen. There you hear people’s stories, comment on tattoos, encourage laughter, and in a hundred ways care for the shared space that is a usually brief home for those of us wandering the countryside. We laugh at bad food (some of the snack boxes had rotten eggs) and swap spices. The big kitchen is full of humans, humor and hubris, all mixed into one. We are all responsible for the space.
I like that. There’s much to be learned from a small community which shares responsibility for the space, everyone pitches in, and we all get donated food that would otherwise be tossed out. There’s a great deal of that which works extremely well.
Yesterday before I headed south to ride horses in the lovely Northern New Mexico early fall sunshine, I had a chance to eat breakfast with the woman who now manages the hostel.
Once a lawyer, she found herself fundamentally unhappy with her craft. She has also worked with refugees.
She told me about the Iraqi man who had his kidney removed-without his permission and without anaesthesia- by his captors to sell on the black market.
The little girls who sold their bodies in order to pay to cross the Rio Grande and get away from the sex slave trade. The blank expressions on their adolescent faces. The dead eyes. The price of freedom, and then incarceration in the United States, only to be sent right back to hell.
She spoke of how she camped in Santa Fe for a while, then eventually found herself staying in, then managing this hostel. Here, she said, she can welcome people. Hug people. Feed people. Take care of people.
She can see and measure the impact of her efforts.
At the steel-surfaced table where we sat yesterday morning, she described the tornado that is the sum of human suffering. A counselor explained to her that it would be impossible for any one of us to end it all, no matter how hard we tried. Thus it has been for all human time.
“All you can do,” she offered, “Is concentrate on what is immediate to you. This person. This animal. This life. This is all I can do. Otherwise you’re so defeated, so overwhelmed, that you give up.”
We’d been discussing how I had just pulled my profile off Facebook. How seeing photos and videos of animal abuse and human suffering seared MY soul, if for no other reason than I couldn’t do anything about it. That had led to a combination of anger, outrage, pain, and helplessness that is widely shared among those of us who have spent too much time on social media.
She smiled a sweet smile at me.
“Here I can make a difference,” she said. We heard some shouting down the hall. Hard to tell if it was happy or a harangue. She walked to the front office to investigate, then returned with Yvonne —she of the full-body-full-color tattoo. Yvonne and I had spoken at length the day before. She was just feeling energetic.
Yvonne slid open the refrigerator door to help herself to one of twelve cartons of tiny chocolate two-bite cupcakes. I had, too. We grinned at each other.
Later that afternoon I rode for three hours with Chance, a man my age, both of us on handsome seal-colored Quarterhorses. We took our time on clay back roads through cottonwood stands. Loped lazily along the dried-up canals. Spoke of life, of changes, of horses.
We were sad about a lot of things. But we also reveled in the air, the clouds, the blue sky, the whispering leaves of the cottonwoods, the willing energy of our mounts. We remarked about how few folks know how to handle a horse, find a sweet spot on the animal and make him wiggle his chin in happiness.
Three hours later, after putting our tack up, I walked to the fence where a few of the other eleven horses were hopeful for an apple biscuit. They nosed my fanny pack and stuck their warm muzzles into my nose. We both breathed in deeply. A few minutes later, the 17-year-old alpha mare had her head buried in my belly while I scrubbed her ears. She wiggled her chin in contentment.
This animal. This moment. This happiness between us. This I can touch. Nothing on social media can send me home with filthy fingernails, the smell of saddle, horse sweat and the joy of spending time with good people, excellent animals, in the outdoors. Horses heal me. Good company heals me. A hostel heals me.
Getting off social media heals me.
Each of us is healed uniquely, distinctively as per our own unique needs. For me it’s nature, nurture and a sense of shared purpose even if it’s as brief as cleaning up kitchen cans with a bunch of folks a third my age. Their stories are no less valid than mine. Listening to kids discuss their journeys rejuvenates me, just as periodically having a piece of valuable insight or advice for them rejuvenates us both.
As for the horses, well. If you’re a rider, you already know. For that matter, animals in general. Mama Nature knows what she’s doing.
That’s why it’s worth fighting hard to protect what little of Her we have left, so that we can have a place to heal.