(Dan Goncalves, oftentimes writing under the name D.C. Gonk, is an emerging author of fictional and nonfictional prose from New Jersey. Most of his work is inspired by travel-related experiences and relationships with close friends and family. He has previously had fiction and nonfiction short stories included in the publications Burnt Pine Magazine and Wanderlust Journal. Currently, he is working on a family farm in Portugal and is seeking representation for his completed manuscript, “Don’t Forget To Write”.)
A fifty-year-old male nude model had told me about a hostel in the middle of the forest somewhere near the Florida-Georgia line.
“It’s great, man. It’ll be one of the best parts of this road trip of yours. Definitely up your alley,” he assured me as I left his Airbnb.
So, I drove out of the beautiful gem that is Savannah and made my way to the address he gave me. I was on a highway when the GPS, a temperamental app on my phone known for freezing, spazzing, and getting directions wrong, announced the we had arrived at my destination, but there were no exits. At the last second, I saw a tiny dirt path, barely large enough for a car, with a simple wooden sign that read “HOSTEL”. I slammed the brake and downshifted into second gear to make it into the opening.
I called the number posted on a second sign and told the woman who answered, Heather, that I was coming in.
“Oh, thanks for calling! Most people don’t even read the sign. They just barge right in.”
The dirt path had craters and holes steeper than a battleground. I successfully made it into a dirt parking lot, locked my car, and continued down the path on foot. A wooden sign, worn down by years of weather, read “come through The Portal” in drippy, multi-colored paint.
A low sitting hut was the first building that showed itself through the trees. Then, I noticed a walkway of suspended wooden boards connecting it to several other wooden huts, some of them suspended over swampy water. A barefoot woman with long frizzy hair as wide as her shoulders waved to me.
“Go into that building.”
I walked in and a large girl in footy pajamas greeted me. “Dan?”
“Yeah, you’re Heather?”
“I am,” she hugged me very tightly for a bit too long, rubbing my back as she did so. I guess she was a friendly girl, or maybe it was just Southern Hospitality.
“We usually don’t get lots of folks here in the winter time, so you’re in luck,” Heather said. “Practically everybody here works and lives here! Anyways, where was I? Oh yes. So, let me tell ya a bit about the hostel. Our founder, and kind of our leader here, Tim, bought 90 acres of land on a handshake deal with a dream to create a place where he could start a community. He had no money at the time, but the person who sold it to him simply believed that Tim was onto something. After buying the land, Tim came out to…” Heather closed her eyes and put her hands up by her ears in the ‘ok’ symbols before saying, nearly in a whisper, “… meditate … a bit.” She opened her eyes and seemed to come back to realm of reality. “He chose a spot right on the edge of his newly acquired property. And when he came back to the world, after communicating with the universe and his inner-self through his solo mediation, the first thing he saw was this tree.” She pointed to a thick, old pine tree right in front of the main hut/office we were standing in. “He felt the energy from that tree.” She closed her eyes again, putting her hands into fists and moving them passionately as she said, “And he felt the love of the tree. He felt the spirit of the tree. The tree could almost talk to him.” She opened her eyes. “You know?”
I certainly did not know, but I nodded and pretended I did.
“But the tree was just outside of his property line. He knew he had to build the community around the tree, he knew that the tree and everything around it was sacred. So, he bought ten more acres to get the land around it.”
“I thought he didn’t have any money?”
When I saw that she didn’t have anything to add, I said “Oh. Huh.”
Another girl came into the room. “Hiiii I’m Erin,” she was attractive, thin, and tall. Before I could finish saying hello, she already had her arms wrapped around me in a hug, pressing her whole body against me and holding on way too long for two people who had just met.
“I’m Dan,” I said with a smile when she finally let go of me, and she smiled back.
Heather walked me around the living room area of the main hut, past a bookshelf filled only with writing by the founder, Tim. Then we went behind the front desk and into the kitchen. Here she introduced me to Janette, who was absolutely beautiful. Tall and curvy and blonde, and she hugged me too! She pressed her hips deep into mine and let out a breath on my neck and a low moan. I didn’t know how to react to the blatant sexuality of it, but I was suddenly feeling confident, as if for one day and one day alone I had been blessed to become attractive to all women. Maybe I was having a skinny day? Or a good hair day? A large amount of pheromones pouring out of my system? But before I could linger too much on myself, a tall, fat man wearing a t-shirt that was completely darkened by sweat, with muddy bare feet and some kind of paint on his face came and embraced me deeply, practically forcing my cheek into his hefty bosom. I kept patting his back, indicating that I was done with this hug, but he kept hanging on. Eventually he let out a low moan, much like the one that hot Janette had let out when she hugged me, before pulling away. He kept a firm grip on my shoulder and gave me a big innocent smile as he said, “Welcome, traveler. We hug here.”
“Ah, yeah, I’m starting to see that,” I said, internally mad at myself for being cocky enough to think that women just happened to find me irresistible to hug today.
Heather offered me a drink, and looked offended when I rejected kombucha for water instead. “Oh, uhmm, okay. Sure. Yeah. We have water.” She seemed so hurt by my choice that I said I changed my mind and would have the kombucha.
“Anyway, this is the GLORY KITCHEN,” Janette said. Then Heather threw the kombucha up in the air and yelled “GLORY KITCHEN!” Then, behind me, the fat sweaty man (let’s call him Luke) popped into the room and yelled “GLORY KITCHEN!” and somewhere in the distance outside I heard the muffled yell of somebody else calling “GLORY KITCHEN!”
Heather gave me the cup of kombucha. Everybody went back to their conversations and Janette went back to her cooking. Nobody offered a single explanation as to what the hell had just happened. Heather either ignored or didn’t notice the confused look on my face when she took me by the hand and walked me outside of the kitchen hut, down the stairs to the fire pit.
There was a short man with long blond hair, also barefooted and muddy, with a blindfold around his eyes. He was swinging a stick around his body. “That’s Simms,” Heather whispered. “He’s working on his fire routines. Better not to bother him while he’s focusing.”
Across from the kitchen (Glory Kitchen?) was the Screen Room, where we would have dinner. It was a wooden hut with screens instead of walls, and the floors were painted purple and white. Then she showed me the outhouses. “There’s no running water, so after you do your number two, just scoop from the bucket of wood shavings over there and cover up the poo-poo. Helps keep the smell away.”
Then, Heather led me up to my room. It was a bit of a walk through the woods and completely isolated from all of the main huts. My hut was suspended about 12 feet up from the ground, and the walls were made almost entirely of large windows. I could see all around, into the deep pine tree woods and brown swamps of South Georgia. Completely immersed in nature. The spaces of wall that weren’t glass were painted with a trippy Native American-themed artwork – animals drooping into a psychedelic kaleidoscope of purples and yellows, and dark faces staring into my soul with black eyes from every angle.
“I stayed here myself when I started my work trade. I wasn’t allowed to stay in the staff huts until I proved myself,” she shared.
“You proved yourself then?”
“Yes I did! Once I started showing my commitment to my personal trade of crystal healing they knew I was a keeper, and they moved me in with the rest of the staff! Happiest day of my life!”
“Thanks, I’ll do some work on you if you stick around. You seem like you could use some healing.”
“I feel pretty fine.”
“Not your body, silly. Your soul. Your aura is confused, like you don’t know what you want to do or where you want to be.” She nodded for a while, staring at the air around me. “Anyway, I gotta go back to the desk. Go check out the glass house when you get a chance. It’s the most mystical magical thing in the world. Center of pure energy and beauty. Just follow the signs. and join the rest of us at the campfire later.”
I set my backpack down in the hut and took a minute to look back into the black eyes of the Native Americans painted on the wall. They looked… angry.
I followed the signs for the Glass House through dirt paths and over planks of wood that acted as long walking bridges over the bogs and swampy water. It was in the middle of the forest, isolated from everything. Not a single other building, or even the sound of the people living in this community, could reach the Glass Castle. Inside, the floor had a circle of twelve gods from every religion: Jesus (spelled out Yeshua), Thor, Krishna, etc. Yoga mats were all over the floor, and hammocks for suspended aerial exercises hung from the ceiling. The house was, as the name suggested, completely made of glass. While the paintings on the floor and the 360-degree view of the forest did have a special feeling of tranquility, it also felt a bit frightening, like I was being watched from every bush and tree.
I went to my car, got a case of beer, went back to the campfire, and cracked one open. Alcohol seemed like more of a necessity than a luxury tonight. I was alone at the campfire, but within five seconds of opening the beer somebody came out of a hut and said, “We don’t believe in labels here.”
“Yeah, so put the liquid in a cup, and do something to hide the rest of your… beer.” It seemed like it hurt him to say the word beer, that disgusting vice of normal, mortal men.
“Sure, sure.” I put the beer cans in my drawstring bag and poured the open can into a mason jar. More and more people emerged from the surrounding huts, and all of them hugged me in a forceful way. I had received more gross hugs from complete strangers in one day than I had from both my parents in the past decade.
There was a man tending to the fire. His name was Baloo. He seemed like the only person here with some reason. Granted, he also was one of the oldest people here. Everybody else seemed to have a veil of ignorant bliss around their consciousness. Worse yet, it seemed to be a veil that they willingly placed in front of their eyes. The young people here weren’t the woke, spiritual, humble people that they thought themselves to be. They thought living in huts in the woods as part of a community made them wiser than the rest of humanity. Better, in a way. But they were children. Children who had taken money from mommy and daddy and then ran away to stay in a friend’s treehouse for a while. Children afraid of reality and humanity, and hiding in a fantasy world where things like work, money, and reason didn’t exist, but crystals, auras, and past lives did. Baloo (which, I realized, probably wasn’t his real name) was different. You could tell in the look in his eyes, and in the way that he spoke that he had seen and experienced too much to have the same blissful veil as the rest of them. He shared that he served 5 years in the infantry, somewhere in the Middle East, but didn’t go into details. Maybe that’s why he was different. Once you’ve seen enough bad, enough of the primal instincts in all people, you can’t go back to joy. You can’t pretend not to see the world around you. It’s a curse of knowledge. The kids here, though I’m giving them a bad rap, were at least smart enough to see that the real world had a thick layer of bullshit caked on top of it. They understood that civilization was a creation with the potential to be great, but had been riddled with faults, ugliness, deceptiveness, shadows of oppression and hate and power. But, unlike Baloo, and unlike myself, they weren’t jaded enough to understand that civilization had always been that way, and that it always would be, and we just have to go with it and fix what we can while we’re here. Living in a fantasy world doesn’t fix the problem, it just temporarily tricks you into thinking you have been removed from it.
A girl with purple hair was also there at the fire. She was angry, rugged, bitter. She had seen shit too. She was in some sort of transition, and she was fucking pissed about it. I asked for a cigarette and promised her a gold coin later. She gave me the stink eye, sized me up, but gave me the cigarette.
I drank more beer and shot the shit for a few hours, eventually going back to my hut to retrieve a golden dollar coin from my bag to give to Teddy, but she wasn’t at the campfire when I returned.
There was a loud ringing of a bell. “Chomp time,” Baloo said.
“CHOMP” yelled someone in the distance.
“What the fuck,” I said under my breath. I followed the others into the Screen Room and we all stood in a circle around a table. Misty, an older woman who introduced herself as the camp manager, opened a book written by their founder, Tim. It was a book with 365 passages, one for each day of the year. The first thought I had was that this man had written his own version of the gospel. Misty read the passage for the day, something about angst towards parents and authority figures. “Do you ever feel like you’re not good enough?” I remember her saying with a crack in her voice that said she might tear up. It was truly awful writing. It sounded like the ramblings of a semi-literate adolescent more than the passage of some great and wise leader.
Misty finished reading, closed the book, and put it on the table. Unexpectedly, Baloo took my hand which, though sweet in some respects, was a little unprecedented. I didn’t think we had grown nearly close enough for that much physical contact. Then the person on my other side took my other hand. When I looked around we were all standing in a circle holding hands like old people saying the Lord’s Prayer.
“Make sure your thumbs are pointing to the left,” Misty said, “so all of our energy is going in the same way. I’ll start with the daily gratitudes. My name is Misty. I’m from here. I am thankful for all of your smiling faces around me today, and for the words of Tim.”
The person to her left said their name, where they were from, what they were thankful for, and on it went in a circle of lame sentiment. Some people were thankful for each other, some were thankful for new grip tape to wrap around their fire-staffs, some were thankful for healing crystals and bath salts. The man next to me was wearing a crystal around his head. He was thankful for his lover, Luke. I thought that his was the least lame and most sweet of all of the statements, but then he went on to say he was thankful for wild plants and vegetation, and the forest that allowed him to forage them. Foraged them? I thought. They don’t grow or farm these plants… they forage for them?
Before I could think about it too much, all eyes were on me. It was my turn to talk. What I really wanted to say was “pass,” but I figured that wouldn’t fly over well, so I said some lame shit too. “My name is Dan. I’m from the road. I’m thankful for kind strangers, and for a comfortable place to sleep.”
After our extremely long version of grace was done, hot Janette described the food to us. One was a vegan dish, the other vegetarian. Then the man-boy with the crystal on his head described in detail the plants and ingredients used in his side salad. We were all still holding hands, which was making me disgustingly uncomfortable. I can only hold hands for about thirty seconds before my hands get fidgety and sweaty, much to the chagrin of girlfriends in the past. Yet, here I was linked in a circle of hand holds with complete strangers for what must have been at least seven minutes. One or two of them started swaying arms, which meant all of us were swinging our arm in some weird mega-organism kind of motion, and Janette was saying some rehearsed little thing, talking about “moving and growing and cleaning after CHOMP to return everything to the perfect, tip-top shape of a GLORY KITCHEN” and everybody repeated “GLORY KITCHEN!” “glory kitchen?” I whispered. And then they all said “CHOMP”… which was cult speak for food, I think, and released hands.
The food tasted like mud. All of it. The pasta, the tofu, the salad…every damn thing tasted like it had been mixed in with a powder of dirt. I ate it all anyway, I hadn’t eaten since I left Savannah that morning. To wash the muddy taste out of my mouth, I drank lots of beer.
Somehow, after eating, I got roped into sweeping the floor and cleaning dishes with the rest of them, even though I was the only one paying money to be there. After sweeping, I found myself in the screen room with angry Teddy (the girl with purple hair) and a young girl wearing a fedora who called herself a blues guitarist. Teddy was sizing me up with her stink eye. I gave her the gold coin and she smiled, surprised that I kept my word. She offered me another cigarette, which I took to mean that she was starting to accept me. The musician guessed my zodiac sign, then so did Teddy, and they were both wrong.
“What are you, then?” Teddy asked.
“That doesn’t make sense. You don’t seem like an Aries. You need to learn your rising sign and my moon sign, because your whole aura, you’re whole personality, just doesn’t seem fiery enough for an Aries. Unless of course, the fire is deep in you. Maybe you know how to suppress it when you meet people…” she was looking at me like I was way more interesting than I actually was.
“I’m pretty sure the reason I don’t ‘seem like Aries has less to do with where the moon was when I was born, and more to do with the fact that astrology is nonsense.”
“Ha, a nonbeliever,” Teddy said. “Don’t be so closed-minded. You really think the measurements and timing of the universe, the great Cosmos, at the exact moment of your entrance into this universe, this web of existence, has no effect upon your interaction with the very cosmos from which you came? Come on, think a little bit.”
She said all of this so fast there were hardly any spaces between the words. Finally she breathed in, then said, “Also, you should get a full aura reading. I can’t really read auras… but yours seems a bit lost and confused.”
“Heather actually said that this morning.”
“The aura doesn’t lie. Oh and you absolutely MUST have somebody check your past lives.”
“Yes,” the blues guitarist chimed in, “if you can find somebody to tell you about your past lives, you will understand yourself so much better.”
Shortly after we all went our separate ways. I went to my hut to check my phone, which was plugged into an outlet to charge, but was still dead. The outlet was broken.
Earlier, Heather had told me to join their jam session in Narnia without offering any explanation as to where Narnia was. But, leaving the outhouse (with saw dust on my pants), I heard music. I followed it into a hut, climbed up a ladder from a bunk bed up to a tiny loft where a dozen people sat in a circle on mattresses or cushions. A new guest, Kenny, introduced himself. He was funny, older than everybody else by at least fifteen years, with long hair underneath a fedora.
“Okay, this is a song by our founder, Tim,” said fat Luke as he strummed a set of chords. Every person there knew every word (except me and Kenny) and sang it with passion, eyes closed, fists clenched, screaming the words. It was a song about spiders being stuck in the singer’s head, and Tim wondering if they (the spiders) can keep a secret, then the spiders all die while still trapped inside of his skull. Something about the words had a strong ring of schizophrenia to me. Between this song and the passage that was read to me at “chomp” time, and the general attitude of his followers, I got the vibe that Tim was unhealthy in some way or another.
I left shortly after this and made my way to the campfire and drank more beers. New-guy Kenny followed me out and sat across from me.
“This place is great, ain’t it?”
“First time I came here was so long ago. September 12th, 2001. I saw what was happening on the news, saw the terrorism and the fucking hate and the evil in the world, and I ran here. Stayed here for seven months without a TV or a phone or a radio or a single damn care in the world. Completely detached from everything that was happening.”
“But,” I said, “it still all happened. Even if you didn’t know about it, it was still going on.”
“Yes, but if I can hide that kind of negativity from myself, then it almost feels like it doesn’t exist.”
Just then a handful of new people walked in, all greeted with kind hugs.
“How was dumpster diving?” Teddy asked a tall long-haired man, named Jay.
“Oh it was amazing. I found an entire jar of pickles, unopened, and a bunch of unopened muffins and cakes that had just expired. It was a damn feast.”
We all went back to the fire pit outside where old man Kenny was preparing to put on a fire show. He had three torches, lit each of them, and started juggling the flaming sticks. He was throwing them behind his back and catching them between his legs and all sorts of fancy maneuvers, all while going through a comedy routine. At one point Heather said “This is friggin awesome.”
“When you say friggin’…” Kenny said, speaking slowly so as not to lose focus on the three separate flames he was tossing into the air, “Jesus can hear you… and he thinks … you’re a big ‘ol puss.”
After the flames wore out old Kenny sat next to me. He was a road man, doing flame and comedy shows in every state, and struggling his way through the whole damn nation.
“You’re like a one-man circus,” I said.
“No, no,” he said, very seriously. “I was in the circus. Biggest load of corrupted bullshit I have ever seen. I’ll never join one of those crackpot societies again.”
“Oh, sorry for bringing it up.” He didn’t respond, and seemed to be lost in his dark carnie past. I listened to some of the other stories going on around the campfire. Heather was telling a new girl who was considering joining the hostel (cult) full time about her past life.
“It was a long time ago, before cars and electricity, and I was the oldest of eight in a foster home. The parents of the foster home were abusing us, sexually. Me the most, because I was the oldest. The woman who told me about this past life said I was probably about 16 years old at this time. Anyway, one day, the foster dad got drunk, and I knew he was going to try to abuse one of the youngest girls, who couldn’t have been older than 8. When he passed out drunk, I gathered all of the girls and we escaped late at night. There was an infant there, and I carried her in my arms. But, a blizzard hit as we were walking to the next town. It would take all night to get there, but we had already committed to leaving. So we trudged through the snow, huddling to stay warm. Anyway, I got all of the girls to safety, but the infant died in my arms on the way,” Heather’s voice cracked. “And that past life, that trauma of the infant dying in my arms, is why I am such a caring and humble and empathetic person today. I want to make up for it, because I feel like it’s my fault that the baby died, so I try to take care of everybody.”
“Aw, no. it wasn’t your fault,” said the young potential member, clearly entranced by the story. “You didn’t know there was a blizzard! And you saved all of those other girls!”
“I know, I know,” Heather said, wiping a tear from her eye.
I resisted the urge to say of COURSE it wasn’t your fault, it’s not even a real thing! The death of the baby in that story is no more your fault than it is my fault that Cedric Diggory died in Goblet of Fire. But I didn’t say any of that. Instead I just drank my beer and scanned the campground to the next conversation.
“Have you heard about the Native Americans?” Jan asked.
“The people who lived in the Americas before colonization? Yeah, I’ve heard of ‘em,” I replied.
“No, I mean the Native Americans that are here.”
Everybody else at the campfire got quiet.
“Apparently, Jay went out in the woods the other morning, while it was misty and foggy, still tripping a bit off of some acid he took, and he said he saw the ghosts of two Native American tribes having a war in these woods.”
“Holy shit! That must be why Tim said the place was sacred! The place beyond the pine tree!” Heather said. “He knew that a great, mystical battle was held here!”
“Exactly,” Jan said. “And they are still fighting, their ghosts anyway, for eternity. Jay says it’s the forces of good and evil. And I thought, of course it is. Where else would the forces of good and evil fight except for right here, on Tim’s land?”
Everybody nodded, as if this made perfect logical sense.
Eventually, once all of my alcohol was gone, I went to my hut to go to sleep. I stared for a long time at the paintings of Native American faces on the wall, and wondered if people like them had lived here once long ago, and if they had fought here once long ago. The faces stared back at me angrily. I thought, if that story is true, then this is definitely a depiction of one of the evil Natives.
I barely slept, rising with the first rays of sunlight coming through the windows surrounding the hut. It wasn’t even 6AM yet. I strapped my bag, snuck out, and went towards the trail that would bring me to the parking lot. None of the lights or fires were on in the main area, so I figured I might be able to sneak out without anybody noticing. Just as I crossed the “sacred” pine tree, I turned to look back one last time.
One of them was standing in the distance with a black sweatshirt on, hoodie covering the top of their head. I couldn’t tell who it was because it was a bit far, I didn’t have my glasses on, and there was a thick mist through all of the woods, but it was definitely a man. Maybe Jay or Luke. The man raised his hand up high and said, in a high-pitched voice that was carried by the wind through the forest, “Bye, Dan. We’ll be seeing you soon.”