City life. It's the epicenter of culture, progress, and opportunity in America. And, with 82 percent of the U.S. population now urbanized, it's what most of us aspire to be a part of. But between vigilantly monitoring various social media, texting, email, work, crosstown traffic, and smartphones, modern city life often feels inescapable if not downright exhausting. If only Thoreau or Emerson could see us now, their poor brains would almost certainly spontaneously combust. While there may not be room in your five-year plan to denounce civilization altogether, there's at least one place in Georgia where you can channel that transcendental inner peace, even if it's only for a few days. A place to turn off your cell phone and get down with Mother Nature; a place to unplug.
Just less than five hours south of Atlanta, in the unlikely coastal town of Brunswick, Ga, your own Walden adventure awaits at the Hostel in the Forest. Jump on I-16 East near Macon, then head south on I-95 and you're there. The cluster of geodesic domes and stilted tree houses with names like Dragon's Lair. Elmo's, and the Screen Hut is set on 133 acres of forest and wetlands just a short drive from Georgia's Golden Isles. (Travel tip: Bring a flashlight. Several tree houses come with electricity, others come with candles. None of them have heating or cooling.) Founded by Tom Dennard in 1975, the Hostel continues to be a retreat for weary travelers, free spirits, and even careworn city slickers in need of a break. Once you turn off the obscure stretch of Georgia highway, it may feel as though you've stumbled into an Ewok village on Endor, or a kitschy summer camp. Either way, it's the perfect place to ditch your phone (cell phone use is actually prohibited in common areas) and let the restorative powers of the forest wash away any remnants of bustling city life.
The property is anchored by several domes nestled beneath a dense subtropical canopy of cedar, pine, and live oaks draped with Spanish moss. Here you'll find the necessary communal spaces: the kitchen, laundry room, an outdoor shower that backs up to nothing but trees (they ask that you only use biodegradable soap and keep a bottle of Dr. Bronner's on hand if you left yours at home), and, with sustainability the guiding principle throughout all of the Hostel's facilities, toilets that utilize a sawdust composting method.
Beyond the main dome area, the grounds are connected by paths, some dirt, and some beautifully crafted winding boardwalks, and speckled with several sites worthy of any spiritual retreat. There's a pool (with a rope swing), a clear, emerald swimming hole with a small island in the middle about 60 yards from the shore. Both swimming areas are clothing-optional.
The Glass House is a sight to behold. Deep in the forest, the walls of this circular structure are comprised of large glass panes and sliding doors. You're surrounded by the green glow of the forest on all sides. It's impossible not to feel the tranquil vibes quieting your soul from within. Guided mediations are often held here, too. One night, the vibrations of a crystal bowl meditation session complete with burning frankincense and myrrh filled the air. Have you ever made music by rubbing a moist finger around the rim of a wine glass? It's kind of like that. On full moons, there's also a sweat lodge ceremony held on the premises, so plan your trip accordingly.
After a one-time membership fee of $5, your tree house getaway will only set you back $25 per person per night. And while they can't guarantee the tree house of your choosing, the price does include a vegetarian, family-style meal served each night. Most of the produce comes straight from the Hostel's on-site vegetable garden, herb garden, and mushroom colony.
Like most "organized" activities at the Hostel, dinner is announced by the crisp clang of a large bell rung at 15-minute intervals prior. One ring means you're 30 minutes out, two rings, 15 minutes. Dinner usually takes place around 7 p.m., but schedules and time are more or less relative in this place, so just go with it. Everyone is asked to join hands in the Circle of Gratitude. Together, you'll share a moment of silence to reflect on the wonders of the day and then, one by one, asked to introduce yourself, state your place of origin (acceptable answers range from "here," "the road," or "insert your hometown here"), and share something you're thankful for.
One night, the impressive spread included a green salad with juicy mango, curried red cabbage, a spicy mix of stringy rice noodles and roasted beets, creamy mashed sweet potatoes with ginger and almond milk, chewy pressed tofu seasoned with tamari, and a hearty mushroom gravy. Feel free to jump in the buffet-style line and dig in, but remember that there is no room for extra waste. You're expected to clean your plate and scrape any remaining morsels into a compost bucket built into the kitchen countertop. You're also expected to help with the dishes, which, accompanied by some groovy tunes, turns out to be more like an assembly line dance party of washing and drying plates and pans in the kitchen. You know, whistle while you work.
If you've skinny-dipped and mediated your heart out, the Hostel is strategically located 15 minutes away from the haunting beauty of Driftwood Beach on Jekyll Island. A $6 daily parking pass gets you in at the gate. Low tide transforms this two-mile stretch of sand into an eerie driftwood graveyard. Huge trees stand upright, on their sides, or partially buried in the sand — their waterlogged roots and branches turned black and shiny from underwater journeys of untold lengths. Like twisted sculptures in the sand, their stark beauty is breathtaking.
As your trip comes to an inevitable close, you may start to feel as though you could stay in this place forever. Maybe it's waking up to forest sounds and greenery each morning, or the camaraderie you develop with staff members or fellow hostellers. Maybe it's the feeling of ultimate acceptance that permeates the air and lingers over every social interaction or solitary moment. Or maybe you're tired of the dirt and vegetarian food and can't wait to get back to the Internet. Make a pit stop at Gary Lee's Grocery about a half-mile back toward the interstate on your way out and pick up an epic pulled pork sandwich. Half a pound of tender and smoky pulled pork dripping with sweet barbecue sauce for a cool $4.49 should hold you over till you get back to reality.