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You can get a cheap taste of Europe this summer — social awkwardness and all — at a Salida hostel

Of odd experiences I've had in hostels, nothing beats being shaved by a Romanian clown.

It was May 1998 in Bologna, Italy, and I was at the mirror of a communal bathroom after a shower. Nose in the air, I was grimacing over a few days of neck stubble when a guy came up behind me and started studying me intently in the mirror.

He wasn't wearing a red nose, big shoes and makeup or anything. Speaking only a few words of English, he pointed to his chest and then gestured as if he was juggling. At first, I thought he was trying to tell me he was a mime, but then I realized he surely would have pretended to be trapped in a box or climb a rope if he were.

When I broke a smile, he interpreted that as a signal to take the razor from my hand, tilt my head upward with a couple fingers to my chin, and begin shaving up my neck.

The moment was so surreal that I couldn't quite grasp that it was happening, and the sandpapery sound of razor edge to stubborn hair elongated each confused second. In the back of my mind, there was the realization that a complete stranger, maybe drunk, was dragging a blade an inch from my carotid artery.

Since I couldn't really risk explaining my deepest thoughts — that, say, I usually do a second pass against the grain after knocking most of the wiry bristle off on down strokes — I just went with it. Surrendered myself to the moment. Stared at the ceiling, breathed deep and thought: only in a hostel.

Vagabonds unite

Given our general dearth of them, most Americans get their first taste of hostels while backpacking through Europe. As the most affordable places to bed down in major tourist destinations, they of course attract international students and people who carry the vagabond, bohemian lifestyle into later years.

Having slept in dozens across Eastern and Western Europe, New Zealand, Costa Rica and Israel, I've endured loud snorers, obnoxious conversationalists and 3 a.m. drunks ruining the reputation of their homelands. And the clown. But I've also made great friends and had those sappy moments of cultural connection.

So when I learned that a hostel had opened in Salida, I felt compelled to see how hostelling in my own backyard would match up.

My girlfriend and I arrived around 10 o'clock on a Friday night and found that in terms of exterior decor, the two-story, white brick Simple Lodge & Hostel of Salida certainly delivers on its name. We met one of the owners, Jon Fritz, on the patio, which offered an outdoor fire pit ringed with lawn chairs and a large bench. Next to a white picket fence, a rack of beater mountain bikes rested in wait for guests' town cruising needs.

Blocks from both the Arkansas River and handfuls of art galleries and pizza places, the year-old venture equals its international counterparts for location. It's a good jumping-off point for fishing, kayaking and rafting on the river, as well as hiking, snowshoeing and skiing in the nearby mountains.

Jon and his wife Julia, both formerly of Minnesota, and Kimberly Kerschke, formerly of New Mexico, chose Salida over other initial considerations like Jackson Hole and Pinedale, Wyo., Boulder and Fort Collins for its proper "ingredients," in Jon's words. Part of the mix: decent real estate prices and access to both summer and winter recreation.

Kimberly and Julia, both in their late 20s now, were backpacking guides prior to hostel hosting, and Jon, now in his early 30s, was a cardiac rehab therapist. Having travelled extensively since 1998, Kimberly says it was in New Zealand that she first got the idea for opening her own hostel. She sent a mass e-mail in 2003 asking, "Does anyone else have this dream?" Jon realized it answered his question, "'How can I make money doing what I do in my free time?"

The trio researched other hostels' amenities online, aiming for a space that's as stylish and clean as a B&B — "to make sure parents would feel comfortable here," says Jon — but laid-back. Their efforts have produced a charming, comfortable common space built around a beautiful rough-hewn-log community dining table. Having remodeled the interior of the 126-year-old building themselves, the Simple crew prides itself on having employed roughly 80 percent reused or salvaged materials.

"A big part of [wanting to own a hostel] has been to offer affordable lodging for travelers," says Jon. "Let's spend our extra money on gear and beer, not stuffy hotel rooms, right?"

Network coverage

We'd reserved one of two private rooms ($52) a day prior; with three community bunkrooms ($22/night) also available, the hostel can sleep around 20 total. Inside, we found necessary hostel amenities: maps, info on where to eat, shop and play, and, of course, an acoustic guitar. We scanned a guestbook to find suggestions and comments by guests from as far away as New Zealand and Europe.

Local paintings of aspens continued from common areas into our tidy room, whose orange walls were illuminated by a bedside lamp. After a quiet, comfortable sleep (thank God, no drunk Aussies), we lounged over coffee and tea early the next morning with Jon and two other guests down from Boulder for area dayhiking. It being a fairly slow weekend, one other Coloradan remained snoozing in one of the bunkrooms.

Reaffirming my theory that no hostel visit is possible or complete without social awkwardness of some sort, one of the otherwise friendly dayhikers, a self proclaimed "peak bagger," launched into an animated account of a route he'd found recently that was littered with gorgeous rock formations. With a metered intensity most folks reserve for toddler story time, he managed to employ the word "spire" roughly a dozen times before failing to help me locate the spot on my topographical map.

It fell far short of a Romanian clown shaving, but enriched my stay more than cable TV.

According to Jon (and a quick Web search), a network seems to be developing iin Colorado, with hostels springing up in towns such as Crested Butte, Leadville, Durango and Grand Junction. So maybe more Americans are ready to embrace community and quirky unknowns on the road. Or maybe they're just excited to spend less to sleep. Either way, the Simple Lodge has the right ingredients down for an authentic hostel experience.

matthew@csindy.com

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