By Laura Weyman, Travel Editor
As usual, I almost missed the obscured entrance of the Hostel in the Forest. The white and green wooden sign, slightly obstructed by branches is hard to spot while driving down US-82 E. The bumpy and winding dirt road still felt just as long to drive through as the last time, and the leaves of the trees still shimmered from the rays of light passing through the foliage, giving the forest a mystical quality. So far, the experience felt the same as the last three times I had come to this off-grid vacation spot, but I knew this expedition wouldn’t be a repetition of my last few visits since this time, no one sat in my passenger seat. I was alone.
Each time I had gone to the hostel, I had always taken a companion with me. Exploring the trails and swimming in the lake with friends or a significant other is an effective way to strengthen a bond and forget about the millions of responsibilities that await you at home. But each time I canoed around the lake or wandered underneath the water tower sized trees down the dirt paths, with someone by my side, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would feel like to spend time here free of another’s expectations and free of distracting conversations.
I always imagined myself sitting on the swinging bench facing the lake, journaling and writing poetry as groups of strangers threw themselves from the pentagonal floating dock into the clear water beneath. I suspect the desire for introspection is something that arises within most hostel guests while frequenting the premises. After all, what better location to do that than in a place that merges the peacefulness of nature with the comfort of one’s own home?
Though I came to the hostel on a quest for introspection, the fruition of spending time alone did not match the script I had played over and over in my head.
“Hi! have you been here before?” The hefty bearded man behind the desk asked me.
I fumbled through my wallet in search of my membership card. “Yep, I’m already a member” I said with a smile as I raised the recycled paper card towards the wooden counter that separated us.
“Ok, great so it’ll be 30 dollars flat and looks like you’ll be staying in the Coral.”
I tried to hide my disappointment when he announced the name of my room, but I knew I would end up there.The community dorm room is where most lone travelers end up sleeping in. I don’t have the choice to sleep alone, but at least I can do everything else alone, I told myself without speaking aloud.
It was about 4pm and I thought I better hurry if I want to enjoy the last couple hours of sunshine so I walked back to my car, quickly grabbed my belongings, and took them to the dorm room.
I stuffed my small back pack with my Eno hammock, my journal, a couple of books, and a bag of dried mangos and left the dorm to find my way towards the wooden pathway leading to the lake. On my way there, I crossed paths with the beloved house roosters, Pico de Gallo and Dr. Broners. Pico de Gallo was on a mission to steal the avocado toast a hostel guest was enjoying on the patio. He jumped onto the wooden bench the man was sitting on and relentlessly picked at the empty space, aiming his beak towards his plate.
At the lake, I found two trees with trunks of the perfect width and at a distance from one another which appeared to have been made to hang my hammock on. The afternoon sun caused the lake water to glisten. The light wind blowing through the leaves generated a rustling sound, as if the trees were whispering secrets to one another.
I pulled out my journal and began writing. Stream of consciousness. I did not worry how eloquent the structures of my sentences were. I simply let the pen glide across the page, ignoring the judging voices inside my head. As I wrote, the weight of my thoughts began to lighten. The content of the pages was only as valuable as a soaked paper napkin, but the act of purging the chatter in my mind was what held true value.
For a split second I thought, wow, everything is just as it should be. It’s perfect. But as most of us know, the spurts of contentment we encounter in our day to day life often come to an end almost as soon we become conscious of them. This time, the mosquitos were the ones who decided I had had experienced enough bliss for one day, though their intrusion was not welcomed, their timing was impeccable. A gong like sound resonated through the forest, signaling guests to gather in the dining room for dinner.
“Tonight, It’s cold bean salad, collard greens from the garden, and cornbread!”
Once the food, plates, and utensils had been set on the back table, the rest of the hostel guests flooded into the dining room area.
“Alright, before we get the chance to dig into Jonah’s delicious food, I want us to gather in a circle, hold hands, and share what we are thankful for.” The voice came from a tall, blonde, bearded man who was playing ping pong earlier.
This is a pre-meal tradition at the hostel, and no matter how uncomfortable holding hands with strangers or acts that are reminiscent of spiritual traditions make you feel, you are expected to make yourself vulnerable inside this circle of complete strangers.
The circle formed and the blonde man spoke again. “First I want to make an announcement. My name is Cary and this is my last weekend as Hostel manager. I want to thank the current staff for the great amount of effort and love they have poured into this place. I truly feel like the core values of this place have been reflected these past three months. We have made so much positive change and I am glad to hand the managing position over to someone like Brandon.” He turned his head to smile at the Italian looking man holding his right hand. “I know you’ll do a great job.” He added, tightening his grip around Brandon’s hand and nodding his head just once. He ended his speech by sharing what he was thankful for tonight. “I’m thankful for unbreakable bonds, love, and connection…oh and Jonah’s food, of course.” He let out a chuckle. The rest of the faces around the circle seemed to all have similar answers. Most people alluded to the importance of community and forming strong bonds with others and they all certainly mentioned food. When my turn came to introduce myself, and share what I was thankful for I said, “Hi, my name is Laura, I live in Savannah and tonight I am thankful for the opportunity to do some introspection this weekend.” I was the last one to speak, so it was time to eat.
We formed a line and helped ourselves to the wide variety of plant based dishes.
I placed a piece of cornbread next to the mound of collard greens on my plate and turned around to scout the room for a seat. For a split second, I was flooded with the same anxiety that had flooded me at lunchtime on my first day of high school. Everyone in the room had already claimed their seat next to a familiar face, because most did not come unaccompanied like I did. I looked over at the staff table, and thought, why don’t I just sit with them?
I was intimidated at first. The communication between staff members was the kind of communication only longtime friends experienced with one another. The kind that had left small talk behind long ago and made me and my surface level questions feel like intruders. The staff was too wrapped up in their own inside jokes to fully engage with me. For the first time that day I wondered what this moment would be like if I had brought a friend along.
That thought was quickly swept away when a tall ginger man plopped down on the seat across from me. “Hey, I’m Chris.” He said, reaching his right hand towards my plate. The mala beads hanging from his neck hinted he was into yoga. I was relieved at the sight of evidence we held common ground.
“You practice yoga?” I asked with an eagerness in my voice.
It turned out Chris was a Yoga teacher from Atlanta and had also journeyed to the hostel alone. Him and his boyfriend had recently hit a few bumps in their relationship, so Chris decided to venture down to Jekyll Island and stumbled upon this place by accident. Though our motivation to reserve a room in a tree house in the middle of nowhere in Brunswick was different, we were on a similar quest. We were both in search for answers and we had both traveled here alone to find them.
Our common interests did not stop at yoga. Conversation flowed easily between us and we even found out we had unintentionally picked the same bunk bed in the Coral dorms.
“Are you going to the eye gazing workshop?” he asked me.
“I saw that written on the board, but I don’t know if it’s really my thing. Staring into a stranger’s eyes for a prolonged period of time sounds scary.” I replied hesitantly.
“Oh, well if that’s how you feel, you have to do it!” he announced with a punchiness in his tone.
I had every right and desire to deny his command, but something deep inside me wouldn’t let me. I complied.
During the eye gazing workshop, the soon to be manager, Brandon was assigned to be my partner. I didn’t feel particularly drawn to him, at least on a first instinct basis. There was something about him I didn’t trust and he was not someone I would have naturally gravitated towards. We sat cross legged facing each other. We exchanged a smile and greeted one another but did not make intense eye contact until it was required by the facilitator. The workshop consisted of 20 sets of questions we had to ask our partner and we were expected to maintain eye contact for the duration of the workshop. The questions became more and more personal. We shared with each other our dreams, aspirations, fears, and what makes us feel the most alive.
Eventually Brandon and I found out we had both experienced the loss of a parent and that both of our sibling struggled with a mental illness. I couldn’t explain why but as time passed and I continued holding eye contact with my partner, his face began to morph physically. His angular jaw seemed to soften by the minutes. The alarming intensity and obscurity I had once read in his eyes had been replaced by a clarity and tenderness I trusted. I was cultivating a deep sense of love and empathy for this stranger I had originally written off at first sight. At the end of the workshop, I made my way across the wooden geodesic dome to find Chris.
“Thank you for forcing me to do this with you.” I said to him.
To this day, the eye gazing workshop still remains as one of my most discomforting but memorable experiences.
Chris and I spent more time bonding that night and a friendship formed. He left for Jekyll island in the morning but we decided to stay in touch. Once again, I was left alone with the sole company of my journal and hammock. I decided that since it was mid-day, there was only a slim chance the bugs would bother me again, so I traced my way back to the same two trees by the lake and tied my hammock to them once more. I sat inside the piece of parachute fabric, with my feet dangling from the side, and my toes lightly digging and dragging the soil. I pulled out my journal from my backpack and my pen began gliding across the page again. Only this time, the outcome on paper appeared less like empty words. I reflected on the previous night. I laughed at myself for coming here alone with a slight Whitman or Emerson attitude. I traveled to this place in hopes to cultivate a relationship with solitude, and instead was taught the importance of community, compassion for others, and friendship.