The Zen of Hostels, Hotels, and Homes and the Power of Protein Bars

Some of you may recall the 1974 book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values, by Robert M. Pirsig. If not, the play on my title will be completely lost on you, but the story will sound familiar: A man sets out on a cross-country journey with his young son. According to Pirsig, who passed away earlier this year at the age of 88, its protagonist “set out to resolve the conflict between classic values that create machinery, such as a motorcycle, and romantic values, such as experiencing the beauty of a country road.”

Having just booked a room for my finish date that came with a hefty three-digit price point, after staying in places for the past 1900-plus miles where the cost of a bed only set me back two digits per night, I can attest that satisfaction is not necessarily contingent on perceived quality. Or cost. To make a hiker happy, value can boil down to things as elemental as a bunk and a shower. However, I will readily admit that I am looking forward to a high-thread count sheet and bedside chocolates commemorating my last night.

Besides shelters and the homes of friends and strangers, hostels and hotels form the trifecta of hiker refuges. Each hostel and hotel found along the Appalachian Trail is as different as the ingredients found in a protein bar. Some are basic, others more decadent. All usually satisfying on some level.

During the course of this adventure, I’ve stayed at a ginormous variety of accommodations. In addition to contributing to the economy of a trail town, hotels and hostels can be a mecca, an oasis to hikers—offering such simple luxuries as hot water and chairs. Some are well-loved institutions and others have only just arrived on the scene. Some are well-known and others known only through trail gossip. The most basic and least expensive might only offer a few old mattresses, an outhouse and access to running water. The more elaborate and expensive include linens, WiFi and often breakfast. And homes, well that’s just someone showing you a whole bunch of love.

All of them become highly desirable during periods of heavy rain (or even just the threat of rain), and other weather extremes.

Each hostel (and state) runs things differently. One might have you sign away the rights to your first born if you so much as make noise past 9 p.m. Another might not even take your real name and operate on a cash-only basis.

Some have the guest amenities turn-key: One price—you arrive, shower, change into loaner clothes, get your laundry done, have scheduled town runs, sleep on fresh linens, include breakfast and a shuttle back to the trail head. Others might be a la carte and can become money pits. Many offer pizza, ice-cream, drinks, resupply items and slack-packing options—that is getting shuttled along the trail and walking without your fully-loaded pack, so you might very well find yourself staying an additional night or two. Your initial $20 bunk could easily turn into a $50 or more stay.

Sure there may have been some cleanliness issues in some of my more budget-conscious choices. But I ask you—has a little dirt ever killed anyone? And crunchy plastic covered mattresses are more hygienic, right? The nasty remains of partially dissolved vitamins—or supplements—or whatever there were—left behind in a ziplock bag on a bathroom shelf probably should have been discarded by someone. At some point. But heck, I had a bed. I got a shower. My clothes were usually able to have been washed.

On the other hand, I’ve slept in more than one lovingly maintained historic home. I’ve eaten filling breakfasts with locally-grown produce and eggs. I’ve paid to stay in a tiny house, a tree house and my personal favorite, The Farmhouse Inn in Rangeley, Maine where the décor runs decidedly industrial rustic with its weathered barn wood, vintage lighting and whimsical repurposed farm fixtures. I slept in a shared loft space, accessible by a hay ladder, in an iron bed under a hand-stitched quilt. Bliss.

I always, ALWAYS, appreciate the ability to take a shower. You might not think that taking a shower could be full of aesthetic implications, but you’d be wrong. It’s no secret that taking a shower at the end of a hike, for me, ranks right up there with one of life’s best things ever. While taking a shower in a motel with moldy grout and offering only a paper bath mat is fine, taking one outdoors, under LED fairy lights with water artistically raining down through a galvanized steel basin is positively glorious.

So. Like Zen, there is a value-based balance. Generally speaking, you get what you pay for in your trail hostel and hotel choices. Quality plus service equals costs. And vice-versa. I’ve stayed at fifty-one unique hostels, thirty hotels and two homes in the more than 170 days hiking the Appalachian Trail since last April.

Here’s a checklist of the differences you might expect to find among the B&Bs, former thru-hiker-turned-hostel-owner and/or mom-and-pop hotel franchise accommodation options. I’ll make no assumptions or demands regarding the homes of family and friends. Or of the kindness of strangers who open their doors to you. It just might be very important for you to know, for example, that there are private room options and not just an open bunkhouse, so you don’t have to share a room with someone who snores like a freight train all night. Or for you, if you are that freight train.

1) Quality (Physical Accommodations and Aesthetics)

  • Old mattress
  • Vinyl mattress, no linens
  • Bed, with linens
  • Shower, cold water
  • Shower, hot water
  • Outdoor porta-potty
  • Indoor bathroom
    – One shower
    – Multiple showers/bathrooms
  • Shed, garage or other outbuilding only
  • Bunkhouse only
  • Variety of room options
  • Cleanliness
  • Décor

2) Services

  • Breakfast, included
  • Breakfast, extra
  • Dinner, included
  • Dinner, extra
  • Basic resupply
  • Full resupply
  • Ice cream, pizza, sodas
  • Alcohol allowed
  • Laundry, included
  • Laundry, extra
  • Loaner clothes
    • regular t-shirts/shorts/pants
    • scrubs
    • costumes like vintage smoking jackets or out-of-date dresses
  • Free grooming amenities like razors, clippers, feminine hygiene items, a variety of hair care products
  • Scheduled rides to town and/or trailhead
  • Ride to trail head, free
  • Ride to trail head, charge
  • Slack packing or shuttle options

3) Price

  • Work for stay option
  • Donation-based
  • Inexpensive ($15-$30)
  • More expensive ($30 or more)

I’m well past 2000 miles as of this post and staying at what I assume to be my final hostel. In Glasgow, Virginia. Stanimal’s opened a second location here this year. It’s very clean, homey and has ten bunks with a stocked fridge and home-cooked breakfast and dinner options. I took advantage of the free shuttle from the trail head, five miles distant and downed two pints of frozen yogurt upon arrival.

I know I missed a few good hostels, stayed at a few sketchy hotels and was fine with my decisions in most cases. They were there when I needed them.

And what about the power of protein bars? I just needed something to say that would tie into my featured visual. But yes, I do consume them and they make me powerful. In a most zen-like way, of course.


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Comments 1

  • Cindy : Feb 11th

    I enjoyed this post! Would appreciate lists of more of your favorites including your take on amenities at each. Im only 800 miles into section hikes and many stays to go. Thanks!


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