A story about a remarkable backpacker whose seventy-four years were no deterrent to a youthful zest for life.
Introduction:*A few years ago I operated a youth hostel in Albany, Western Australia (W.A.) under a management contract with the Youth Hostel Association of Western Australia (YHAWA). I did that for almost six years. During that time I dealt with a variety of people from all over the world. Most of them were members of the Youth Hostel Association (YHA) in their own countries and connected to our operation in Albany through the International Youth Hostel Federation (IYHF). This international hostelling federation is the largest supplier of budget accommodation in the world.* In our capacity as mangers/operators of a tourist facility, part of a worldwide network, my wife and I were often asked if there was an age limit on membership. Our answer was always "no" because the YHA philosophy was (and is) that membership should not be denied to anyone on the grounds of chronological age: it is open to the young and the young at heart.Whenever anyone raised the issue of age I quite often recollected a conversation I once had with a chap in the south-west town of Bridgetown back in 1985 when I managed the Associate YHA Hostel in that pristine part of W.A.Let’s call him Bill, Bill from Bridgetown. I’d never met him before, but, you know, in Australian country towns it’s not unusual to get into conversation with a stranger, particularly if the weather is cosily warm and comfortable and the venue is a shady park.We got to talk about tourism and the importance of the backpacker section of the market for the Australian economy. In the course of the discussion I mentioned that I was the manager of the local Youth Hostel. Bill’s eyes rested fleetingly on my bundle of salt and pepper hair and returned to mine. "You’re the manager of the Bridgetown YHA Hostel? I thought you had to be a member to get a job like that.""I am a member. Have been for umpteen years. There’s no age limit."Bill leaned forward, body language displaying interest: "Is that right? I’m forty-five. Ever get anyone my age staying at the hostel?""More often than you might think", I replied. "Just recently I played host to a man of seventy-four. Came from Canada.""Seventy-four!" Bill exclaimed in a tone of disbelief. "Seventy-four! That IS old! What brought him to this part of the world, a superannuated dinosaurs’ convention?""Look, Bill, the YHA exists to provide inexpensive, comfortable accommodation for all travellers who are YHA members. There is no age limit. This Canadian feller was a life member of YHA and he had quite an interesting reason for coming to Bridgetown."Bill settled back on the park bench as I continued."His name was Roland B. Blennerhasset, but he preferred to be called Blen. Anyway, a couple of years ago Blen visited his son, a high school teacher, in Victoria. He happened to see Bridgetown on a W.A. map and decided on a visit there as the motivation for a return trip to Australia."Bill interrupted me: "But why Bridgetown?""Because his home town in Canada is Bridgetown, Nova Scotia. He decided to visit OUR Bridgetown as an official ambassador from their council to ours.""How’d he get his council to agree to that?""Blen is a self-appointed ombudsman and council watcher in his home town. Although he has never stood for office he’s taken an active interest in local government affairs for many years. He attends and monitors all their meetings to make sure that the ratepayers get good value for their money. It seems that the councillors have come to regard him as an arm of local government and take him to task if he should ever have to miss a meeting."Bill chuckled. "Need a few like him in Canberra!""I agree! Blen’d give ‘em a bit of stick all right!""How did he organise the visit here?" Bill’s eyes now gleamed with curiosity."After he returned to Canada he got the local councillors to agree for him to return to our town as a sort of ambassador, carrying gifts and messages of goodwill and a suggestion for the two towns to set up a sister –town relationship. So he wrote to our local Tourist Bureau asking for information about the district. He also arranged an invitation from our Shire Council to attend a council meeting. The council kindly forwarded copies of the relevant correspondence to me to forewarn me that I would be playing host to a most interesting and unusual hosteller. Some weeks later Blen arrived by tourist coach complete with the hosteller's trademark: his backpack. He certainly turned out to be a most unusual seventy-four year old backpacker!"Bill interjected: "Sounds like that should be seventy-four year young.""Right! While he was here -he stayed a little over two weeks- he got involved in a whole range of activities: guest speaking dates with Rotary and Lions clubs; interviews with ABC radio, commercial radio and local newspapers; a question and answer session with a group of social studies students at the local senior high school; visits to various locations of interest around the district; a great deal of interaction with many sections of the local community; and, of course, the highlight: attendance as a special guest at a Shire Council meeting and luncheon during which he presented gifts and badges from the mayor and councillors of Bridgetown, Nova Scotia to the local Shire President and councillors. He, in turn, received gifts to take back with him as goodwill tokens from our town to his."Bill whistled with admiration. "Sounds like quite a bloke!""Dead right," I replied, "and a living example of the old saying that ‘you’re never too old’. "Bill looked at me with a thoughtful expression."Listen," he said, "how do I get to join the Youth Hostel Association?"I got up from the park bench and pointed myself in the direction of the pub across the street."Let’s hop over to the pub," I said, "and I’ll explain it to you over a cold ale or two." ©2002 Patrick Talty