It wasn't at all what I expected, and in some ways it was ever so much more. A friend and I went on a two-day writer's retreat in the Sierras, close to Donner Lake. It ran for part of Friday, all of Saturday, and part of Sunday. The ad had said something about nature, but I had no clue what I was getting into.
The retreat leader held our gathering in a lodge just off Donner Pass Road. City-born and -bred that I am, I had some difficulty with various parts of the lodge. First, we parked the car just "off the road." There is no parking lot for this lodge the way I'm used to them. There are, instead, wide spots of dirt to either side of the road. At just after 3pm, the spots on the lodge side were already full, so we used the ones a bit further down on the opposite side. After we'd parked, for a moment we stared back up the road, looking at the lodge sign partway up a steep mountainside and wondering where the way to the lodge was. A woman in a small pickup nearby saw our lost looks and came over. It was the retreat leader!
She introduced herself and helped us get our bearings. We took some of our stuff and started across the dirt. Crossing the road was a nervous-making thing. The visibility to the left wasn't very good, so we trusted to sound more than sight for when we could cross. Once across, we rounded the side of the hill and saw the trail up to the lodge.
About four feet wide, it was well-pounded dirt and rock, with railroad ties set crossways into the dirt at about ten foot intervals. These kept the path from washing away during storms, I guess, because the pathway was steep. Along the right side, a rope followed the pathway. I think the rope is meant as an assist during winter when the path could be full of snow or ice.
We trudged uphill, stopping three or four times to try to catch our breaths. Try, I say, because my lungs did not like the altitude and began to hurt in a very short amount of time. I felt like I wasn't getting enough oxygen, and worked at calming my breathing. This became a common occurrence during the whole retreat, especially during our nature walks.
Finally, we crested the top of the path to behold a rustic, huge lodge. Rough-hewn timber graced its outside walls, and a sign proclaimed that we'd arrived. We crossed the grate at the entrance and opened the door...
... to find stairs.
Up the stairs we went, following the signs that said "Office." Up two flights, and no more sign. We wandered around on that floor but found no place that looked like an office or said 'Office' on it. We found the chore sign-up and the accommodation listing. We found a huge room dedicated to Lewis & Clark, and more stairs. We found the Dining Room and the Kitchen. But no office.
The leader came to our rescue once again and pointed us in the right direction. We'd passed the "Office" several times, but the wooden half-door had been closed so we hadn't seen it as the office. As I recall we wondered about it but there were no door knobs so we couldn't open it and look.
The office person, who was apparently in charge of the entire lodge, checked us in and explained where we were to go. We had cubicle 7A and 7B, and briefly I thought how much those sounded like airplane seats.
We dragged our stuff up more stairs. We found the Men's Dorm and the bathrooms, and then the Cubicles. When I saw the "room," I understood why I'd thought of airplane seats. The room was 5 x 8, and the beds took up about half of that. Bunk beds, and a small bench, were all the contents. (Not that anything else would fit.)
I took the top bunk, my friend (C) took the bottom, and we tried to fit our stuff in as best we could. Since the cubicle doors don't lock, lockers were available for things we wanted to secure, so we figured out what we could leave and went back to the car for the rest of our stuff. On the way, we found some lockers we could use, after abandoning the idea of using the ones in the men's area.
My lungs hurt and I was tired, hot, and felt cramped after we'd gotten everything settled. I'd left my computer at home after much internal debate and was glad I had. The only outlets in the place (for guests) were in the Library, down the hall from the Lewis & Clark room. Plus I couldn't leave the computer in my cubicle when we were traipsing across the country, so it worked out well not to have brought it. But oh, how I missed it! My hand doesn't like writing the old way anymore. Every guest is asked to sign up for one chore per day, so we signed up for after-dinner dishes as our daily chore and relaxed and wrote and puttered until dinner.
The call bell rang at 6pm and we went to the Dining Room. Mess hall-style service, but the food was excellent. Vegetarian lasagna, garden salad, garlic bread, bread pudding and cheesecake. The only thing missing was something to drink besides water. Hot tea and coffee were available for a 50-cent donation, but no sodas or anything of the sort that I could see. Several people brought their own wine. Our writing group sat together, except for G, who was running late because of a big accident on the freeway. We saved him some food.
Afterward C and I helped with dishes. The lodge has no garbage disposal, so the guests were asked to scrape all excess food off their plates and then slide them into the kitchen. There was a large opening into it from the Dining Room and the surface was stainless steel. We slid our dishes across the steel into the kitchen area. The main dishwasher person put the scraped dishes into the sink and sprayed them off with a commercial-type sink sprayer. If you've seen one, you know what I mean, but if you haven't think of a kitchen sink with an elephant-trunk spray nozzle and you'd be close. Then the dishes were put into a round plastic thing that you'd think went into a round dishwasher, except it went into the Sanitizer. This stainless steel monster was hissing and gurgling when I entered the kitchen for my part of the chores.
I was quickly taught to empty the Sanitizer by sliding out the plastic tray of dishes, drag it aside to drip-dry a minute, and put another full one in. Close the very hot steel doors, flip the switch, and I was done with it until the Sanitizer quit hissing and the light went out. Then I was to do it again, and if I was nimble I'd have emptied the drip-dried tray in the meantime. After everything was done, the kitchen closed up by dropping a roll-down shutter across that large opening. We had a little bit of time and then the writing group met in the dining room at 7:30pm. We were quite a mix. C and I, S the leader, F the EMT, and G the landscaper. Our ages ranged from 23 to at least 61, but we were linked by the passion and drive of our writing. We began our adventure, learned a little about each other, made some tentative plans for the next day, and did two exercises' worth of writing and sharing. We worked until about 10pm and headed off to bed.
There I found the cubicle did have a light switch, but not much else in the way of convenience. The top bunk was incredibly high to my 45-year-old body which never did like trees much. (For the bottom bunk resident it wasn't high enough; you couldn't sit up in the bottom bunk.) No ladder greeted my eyes when I tried to figure out how to get up there. A handle offered promise of assistance, but I found when I tried to use it that the top screw was halfway out and the handle itself was in the wrong place. When I was halfway up, my hand on the handle was close to my right ear. Not at all a good place for support or leverage. With a grunt and a heave and a prayer, I threw myself into the bunk. Once there, I realized it had no shelf for stuff. I ended up sleeping with my book (what little sleep I got) and hanging my glasses on a nail.
I lay there for awhile in the dark, trying to get comfortable in a strange place, wondering how in the world I'd managed to sign up for the monkey bars in place of a bed. Then, out of the dark, a thin cry.
The cubicle next to ours had a child in it, and she wasn't at all happy. She moaned and wailed, called for a mommy that never seemed to show up, begged for water, and cried for quite a while. I went from feeling sorry for her to being willing to commit murder. And just as I was thinking this, someone finally gave the kid the water she wanted and suddenly I heard the most awful gurgling choking noises.
Oh, my God, I thought. Someone *has* killed her.
An anxious silence, then a gurgle, a sput, a cough, and someone vomiting. Several times. Then tortured crying as the child regained her breath.
And so it went throughout the night. The poor kid was sick, so none of us within earshot (and I heard later that even downstairs her misery could be witnessed) got much sleep. For awhile there'd be silence and then it would start all over again. Two or three times, someone took the kid out for a bit, but it wasn't ever for long and the child came back crying and wailing the same as she'd been doing when they left.
Somewhere in there I realized I had to go to the bathroom, and immediately also realized there was absolutely no way I could do that without breaking my neck in the dark. I was never so grateful for anything as I was for the first peek of the sun's rays illuminating our cubicle so I could see to get down.
The second day was much better than the first. More writing, more good food, no hauling of bags up the slope, and some quiet, slow walking up the nature trail in back of the lodge. The area abounds with Stellar jays and chipmunks, and I enjoyed watching both whenever I had the opportunity. Pine trees contrasted well with the deep blue of a clear sky, wildflowers added fireworks of color, and the freshness of the air made up for the low volume of oxygen in it. I also noticed the "hostel-style" description on the lodge sign, and think maybe if I'd known that up front I wouldn't have been so surprised. The first time I ever heard of elder hostels, I thought it was "hostiles." Now that I've stayed in something similar, I'm not so sure I was wrong.
The writing sessions were incredible, and I was happy to have all talented writers in my group. You never know what you're going to get, and I think the five of us complemented each other well. Our leader gave us enough time to ourselves in the afternoon, which I spent napping in the bottom bunk of the cubicle I moved into; I couldn't
face another night trapped near the ceiling. She kept us busy and thinking when we were all together. She gave us some techniques we can use on our own, and showed consideration for everyone in her flexibility. Day Two offered five writing exercises, and the chance to share the writing for each.
The second night I slept better in the other room, since at least on the bottom bunk I could get up if I needed to and had somewhere to put my book and glasses. I helped with morning food chores since we wouldn't be around for dinner. C and I had to be out of there around noon.
The group met for three hours on Day Three. We stayed around the lodge rather than hiking, and managed to squeeze in three writing exercises and the sharing of them, as well as watch a Stellar jay try to peck its way into G's lunch bag.
Was it worth it? Definitely. Would I do it again? Probably not, if it was held in the same place. Somewhere else, certainly. Would I recommend it to you? Well, that depends on how athletic you are.
Copyright 2014 Michelle Hakala