“Welcome to the humble abode,” Mary Stephens says as I walk in to Metcalf House, also known as Phoenix Hostel.
The building, near Ninth Street and Portland Avenue in downtown Phoenix, has been used as a hostel since 1981, and was bought by Stephens’ mother and turned into a non-profit business in 1991.
“I’ve lived in a hostel for most of my childhood,” says Stephens, a 32-year-old Ph.D candidate in Theater at ASU and prolific traveler herself. When her mother decided to retire after 20 years, Stephens returned to Phoenix to manage Metcalf House after studying in New York and traveling in Europe.
“It’s for sure the right decision, but hard,” she says of studying and running a business at the same time. “What it came down to was, ‘Do we want to sell it, or do we want to keep it as a family business?’”
Now, Metcalf House can continue to operate on its own terms. Stephens says she employs only ASU students and/or local artists, and that the design of the 36-bunk quarters is more colorful and social than most hostels.
The hostel closes July and August to do remodels and dodge the summer heat; the official grand reopening was September 30, with music and special guests.
The front yard of Metcalf House looks like an entryway to a small, privately maintained desert botanical garden. The backyard seems a cross between outdoor artists’ lounge and children’s tree fort. Metcalf House gets its unique feel from artifacts created or left behind by past guests.
Everything about the 3,000 square-foot grounds seems to have a story. The living room ceiling, dubbed “Rogue’s Gallery,” is papered with realist sketches of hostellers done by a former guest; the furniture out front, masonry near the door and musical instruments inside are almost all donated; the bathroom shower was built by a tile worker who ended up staying several months just to complete it.
“There’s definitely a communal atmosphere around here,” she says. This goes along with “hostel culture,” something Stephens defines as an environment supporting adventurous, often international, travelers who want to learn about the communities they pass through.
“It’s not destination travel,” she says. “It’s movement-oriented.”
Metcalf House is the only desert hostel in the United States, and the only hostel in Arizona accredited through Hostel International. There are more than 4,000 accredited hostels worldwide, according to HI’s website, only 60 of which (1.5 percent) are in the United States. Nearly a third are located in the state of California alone, averaging less than one accredited hostel per state for the rest of the country and suggesting that the hostel is an endangered species in The Land of the Free.
Stephens says this has more to do with American culture than the economic downturn. Here, people travel in cars, sleep in hotels and don’t travel to other countries, while those from other cultures tend to be more hostel-friendly. Perhaps it’s a difference between self-focused and community-focused ideals of what “vacation” means.
However, this may change as more people turn to cheaper forms of travel, and young Americans warm to similar modes of grassroots, DIY travel, like Couchsurfing.com and WWOOFing.
Other trends aside, Stephens says it’s always hard to attract people to Phoenix because of its negative stereotype as culture-less. Often, travelers simply pass through on their way to California and Texas — or skip this city altogether.
But to many international travelers, the desert is as exotic and intriguing a destination as forest or beach, Stephens says. That’s why she promotes the beauty of the desert in the xeriscaping, or water-saving landscaping, of the front- and backyard.
“Most of the people staying here have never seen a cactus,” she says. “They have never seen an orange. These things we take so for granted.”
Running a hostel allows Metcalf House employees to see the region through another’s eyes, and promote the aspects of the city they like best. The hostel and local businesses such as the Lost Leaf, FilmBar and Jobot form a mutually supportive community in downtown Phoenix.
“I think Phoenix has a lot to offer, but it has a lot to offer in a not-obvious way,” Stephens says. “You have to kind of ‘know it.”
The same may be said of Metcalf House itself, and enough people “know it” for the hostel to have an underground sort of name recognition. Take, for example, the fact that globally renowned musician Manu Chao stayed here three days leading up to his free protest concert in downtown Phoenix on Sept. 21.
“It was just a really high point for us this early in the season, because it’s like, ‘We’re starting up here, instead of where we left off,” says Kathleen Gordon, a manager at Metcalf House and 24-year-old ASU student.
Phoenix Hostel is finally “manifesting its vision” this year, she says: cleanliness, interaction with travelers and promotion for local Phoenix culture.
“In order for this energy to work, it has to stay grounded,” Gordon says. “And we’re rooted, quite physically, in downtown Phoenix.” This means fostering partnerships with local businesses, which allows hostellers to have a real sense of traveling to a distinct and memorable city.
Many hostellers ask for directions to local landmarks or suggestions on places to visit. Gordon helps them plan their days to maximize their experience, even to the point of driving them places. She says guiding hostellers to destinations like the Desert Botanical Gardens, Heard Museum and Hotel San Carlos is not only part of her job, but a way to enrich the cultural experiences of those who pass through Phoenix.
“The hostel dictates our job,” she says. “Sometimes we refer to the hostel as its own person, just because the energy, and the group dynamic, will determine what our job is that day.”
Community responsibility aside, the Mathematics and English (Creative Writing) senior says working at the hostel is a college student’s dream job.
She explains that Metcalf House would like to think of itself as a “chill think tank” that “enhances the studies” of anything from philosophy to social sciences to international relations one might get in school. (In fact, the hostel hosts a think tank on local arts development at least once a month.)
“With every hosteller, I learn something,” Gordon says. “Whether it’s about the people I want in my life, or about something I learn in terms of politics or the way to live … I think every person can teach you a new way to live.”
Gordon breaks conversation to help two French hostellers call a cab, and 15 minutes later in a broken English/broken French staccato bids them bon voyage. After they leave, she says that the grungy travelers are both doing graduate-level research at the moment — a pretty typical sight around here.
“It’s funny, but a hostel typically attracts a lot of high-level thinkers,” Gordon says, then quotes Rumi to explain why positive energy is the most important ingredient to Phoenix Hostel’s homebrewed desert recipe.
“The idea of a hostel is that everybody is on their own path, and they converge on this one location … and they are able to create a sense of community,” she says. “The hostel allows that to grow, and everybody gets together and has either an adventure or a really good night, or even just a shared meal and lovely conversation.”
Creative and artistic types are especially drawn to the hostel, says Stephens, the owner. Many nights here dissolve into acoustic jam sessions on world instruments, or all-night talks in the backyard about everything under the Sonoran sun.
“Nine out of 10 people who walk through that door are mind-blowingly interesting,” she says. “Not just, like, a little interesting, but where you actually have to re-evaluate how you live [your] life because of the way they live theirs. It’s incredible, the type of people we get in here.”
People such as Aki, who is traveling across the world for two years: first destination, America. The Kobe, Japan native arrived in Phoenix via Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas, finding Metcalf House through an internet search.
She has seen many American hostels in her travels already, but says Phoenix’s desert hostel has a different feel: Metcalf house has an intimate and personal atmosphere, kind people, a clean kitchen and a beautiful sunset view from the backyard.
Aki will only stay a couple nights before she begins a journey to Guadalajara, Mexico. (Stephens, who speaks Spanish, helped plan bus routes earlier in the afternoon.) Aki is hostelling to save money, but says she has come to enjoy the experience as well because of all the new people she’s been able to talk to.
“It is my dream [to travel],” Aki says. “I worked as a midwife, saved money, and quit my job. I’m 24, and young. Now is the best time, I thought, to make my dream come true.”
As she sits in the globally decked-out living room of the hostel she grew up in, owner Stephens suggests that Aki’s story is just one example of the extraordinary human beings who pass through the distinctive desert confines of Metcalf House.
“This is the level of discourse you get here all the time,” she says. “And it’s unscripted. And it’s why people hostel.”
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via Twitter @TheRabens