Thursday, June 14, 2007


When I turned fifty, I was a little startled to open a mailed invitation to join AARP, which seemed to suggest that I was turning into a blue-haired little old lady. I mean, really. Just because I clearly remember Howdy Doody and the day Kennedy was shot, doesn't mean I need a rocking chair. I work every day on keeping my image relatively youthful. I have a good relationship with the woman who colors my hair, and the one who removes the brown rust spots from various parts of my chassis. I work out at the gym with an iPod in my ear, but try not to wear my athletic shoes outside the gym or the back yard. I am, perhaps, in denial about my elder status. We won't even consider how my hips an knees feel every day when I roll out of the sack.

But one day while cruising around travel sites, I started looking at Elderhostel trips. I signed up for catalogs, and all winter we drooled over trips around the United States and far away foreign destinations. The catalogs kept coming, and we kept looking. Finally we decided to sign up for two, and see what we thought about touring with a group, something we seldom do. Our thought was to try something near enough that we could drive, something short enough so that if we didn't enjoy it, we wouldn't suffer long. You can see we're not big risk takers.

So, this week we experienced our first Elderhostel trip, a one day cruise on the paddlewheel riverboat The Spirit of Peoria, and a day of hiking at Starved Rock State Park, outside Utica, Illinois. To go on an Elderhostel trip you must be at least fifty-five years old, and that meant that the majority of our fellow travelers were our seniors, many our parents' age. That was the first adjustment we had to make. For a couple (besides us) it was a first Elderhostel trip, but many had been taking these trips for years. One lady had taken twenty-three trips (her Eldhostel Passport was about filled up). Many had been to places like China, Morocco, and the Ukraine. To be fair, these folks were in good physical shape, and were interesting; there were no stragglers. There were former teachers, engineers, architects, all sorts of folks. Another adjustment I had to make was going from being an organizer of groups (as a former teacher I know how to organize and run field trips), to a participant. It's nice not having to shuffle papers, make phone calls, count heads and settle problems, but it felt strange. Since I retired I have gotten really accustomed to making my own decisions about what to do hour to hour. This trip was planned up from breakfast buffet to supper. Which brings me to food. A nice thing about Elderhostel trips is that all meals are included, and no tipping is allowed; think all-inclusive resorts The trade off for that is there were few interesting food choices; the buffets tended to be pretty basic. What can you expect when trying to feed fifty? My understanding is that most groups are smaller than this one. Finally, I had to get used to wearing a name tag, something I was happy to stop doing once I left teaching. Still, it was nice to be able to call strangers by name, and to have folks call me by name as well.

Here's what we did. The first day we checked into the Holiday Inn at Peoria, received our very complete and well organized packet of materials, and had an introductory buffet dinner. A local storyteller did a presentation about the geology and Native American culture of the area.

The second day we boarded the paddlewheeler The Spirit of Peoria, for a one day cruise up the Illinois River to Starved Rock State Park. The boat folks took all our luggage directly to Starved Rock, so all we had to do was don our name tags and get on the boat for breakfast (and lunch, and wine and cheese, and dinner). My husband and I have taken river cruises on the Mississippi Queen, and while this is a much smaller boat with no staterooms, the experience was similar. The main thing you do is sit and watch the shore pass by, look for birds and turtles, comment on bridges and little towns. There is some music, a "riverlorian' to fill passengers in on local landmarks and history, and a bit of entertainment. In this case the entertainment was some storytelling and a sing along. At the end of a relaxing, warm day we arrived at Starved Rock, were trolleyed up to the CCC built log lodge, and treated to a short presentation by a Mark Twain impersonator (sort of Hal Holbrook lite).

The third day started with the usual buffet, and a hike to the actual Starved Rock. That was followed by a couple short introductory films about the park and the CCC at the visitor center. Then it was back to the lodge for a presentation by a show and tell lecture about local Native American culture by an energetic retired botanist. Another buffet. I skipped the second half of the lecture and a Native American dancer to do some sketching and take a longer hike back into a couple of Starved Rock's beautiful green canyons. I felt the need to make some personal choices about my time, and to be briefly away from the large group. We had a nice sit-down dinner, including a cake for a couple celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary and a woman who turned eighty (she didn't look it). After dinner a couple who rehabilitate raptors described their program and showed us an injured bald eagle, a peregrine falcon, and a great horned owl. I found that talk to be fascinating, and I had trouble taking my eyes off the owl, who swiveled its head better than Linda Blair.

Wednesday we took a bus to one of the eight locks on the Illinois River, and saw another film about the development of the lock and dam system on that river. We also watched two sets of barges go through the lock, something about as interesting to me as watching paint dry, but it fascinated many of the men, so I just stared across the water to the beautiful limestone cliffs on the opposite shore.

We drove home yesterday to a pile of mail and a lonely kitty. Our next Elderhostel trip is scheduled for September, to the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington, where my grandmother lived as a child. After that we'll decide if we need to wait a few more years to enjoy what this group has to offer, or if we want to try another excursion further afield.

I'd be interested to hear from other people who have taken Elderhostel trips.


Sharon said...

Except for the food, it sounds like your trip was a lot of fun! And you ended up with that wonderful photo of the red stern wheel.

My parents used to take Elderhostel trips and I’ve looked at their catalogues in the past. The program seems to offer a large selection of diverse excursions to choose from. One of my parent’s favorite trips was to the small, but charming, southern Oregon town of Ashland, home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. They attended lectures, several plays (both contemporary and Shakespearian) and toured the costume shop and backstage area. The plays are professionally staged and the festival has an international reputation for excellence.

The San Juan Islands in September should be gorgeous. I visited Orcas Island a few years ago to attend the wedding of my daughter’s best friend. Island residents were abuzz at the time because Al Gore and his family were vacationing there. If you haven’t yet been to the Pacific NW, you have a real treat in store. It’s an exceptionally beautiful part of our country. Oregon would also be a wonderful vacation destination. It has everything from mountains and high desert to gorgeous coastal areas. And Portland is a truly kickin’ city – great food, progressive populace and many, many interesting sights to see.

Serena said...

It sounds like you had a good time apart from the occasional periods of boredom and the lack of choice in food. The San Juan islands may be more appealing on a sentimental basis being that your grandmother once lived there. :)