(This column was first published in the May 27, 2002 Buffalo News.)
Hostelling has long been a highly regarded holiday activity for young adults. Traveling by bus, train or bicycle, college students and others of similar age visit foreign countries or distant parts of their own country. There they stay in reasonably priced hostels where they usually join comrades to cook meals and to visit local museums, art galleries, zoos and other points of interest.
Buffalo has a 50-bed hostel at 667 Main Street in the heart of the theater district. During summers it is filled to capacity with young travelers, many of them (despite 9-11 worries) from foreign countries. Cliff Madell, the volunteer director of the Niagara Frontier Council of American Youth Hostels, tells me that at mealtimes their kitchen often resonates with dozens of languages. I visited this hostel last week and found it remarkably clean and well maintained, a far cry from my earlier belief that staying at hostels involved sleeping in haylofts.
For boys and girls aged 13-18 interested in such travel, the local Council offers an intermediate activity called Teen Treks. Groups of about a dozen youngsters embark on one to three week cycling trips under the guidance of two adult leaders. On some nights they camp out, on others they stay at hostels. This summer's regional destinations include the Thousand Islands and Toronto. Trips farther afield target Montreal, Cape Cod, Ottawa, the Pacific Northwest, the Canadian Rockies, France and England.
Like Outward Bound, Teen Treks are team activities. Each morning several of the bikers organize breakfast while others clean their hostel or campsite and pack their bikes. The group then plans the day's itinerary, seeing to it that all cyclers know the route and arranging stops along the way for lunch and activities like swimming and visits to local points of interest.
While on the road the bikers proceed at their own pace, one of the leaders bringing up the rear to see that all are progressing well and to provide assistance if needed.
Once they arrive at their day's destination, the bikers regroup to divide responsibilities for grocery shopping and dinner preparation. As the trip progresses, the leaders' role diminishes as the youngsters take over the activities.
Trip leaders are carefully selected for their warmth and strength of character. Many are teachers, most recent college graduates. They are given special training that includes a practice expedition. And there is much to be learned: such things as first aid, bike repair, camping skills, hostel customs, meal planning and involvement activities. But their role is not to do things for the participants; rather, it is to help their charges to tackle tasks on their own and to work as a coordinated group.
I cannot imagine a finer way to gain independence and at the same time to develop responsibility than hostelling. And these Teen Treks offer an opportunity to learn the ropes under guidance. Once they have traveled in one or more of these programs, the youngsters should be better prepared to undertake trips on their own or with friends.
Having participated in and led both kinds of activities, I believe that there is a very important difference between programs like Teen Treks and camps where youngsters learn baseball, soccer, football or other sports skills. Team sports are highly organized and exact conformity. The strong message is: "Do as your coach says." Activities like Teen Treks are just the opposite. The whole point of the program is to increase the independence, initiative and cooperation of the participants.