"Could you and Chub meet me in Nebraska for a week?" It was Betty Bretz calling from El Cajon, Calif. "It’s called Elderhostel," she said. Bretz was an adventuresome woman of few words. We met about 50 years ago when we taught free Red Cross swimming classes in Columbia. She bicycled in Europe, almost 1,000 miles, at the time I led a college group, and we stayed in youth hostels at night. She proposed that we enroll in a five-day study in Nebraska at an Elderhostel.
"Tell me more," I said.
"About 40 people will stay in motel rooms, eat together in a large dining hall and learn about sandhill cranes," Bretz said. "Room, board and tuition, including bus field trips, will cost less than $400 each."
Some Elderhostels offer college credit, but non-credit students have no attendance requirements and no final exam.
"It’s five days of learning about sandhill cranes," Bretz said.
Chub and I had never heard of a sandhill crane, but we met Bretz in Minden, Neb., and for five fascinating days, we watched the sky filled with chevrons of these unusual birds.
They fly nonstop from Mexico and the southwestern United States to the Nebraska cornfields. They rest, court for a couple of weeks and stand in the shallow North Platte River each night, safe from predators.
In daytime, they feed on the corn wasted by mechanical pickers, and pairing off begins.
Sandhill cranes are just one of many things people study in Elderhostels.
At the next hostel Chub and I attended, I was the instructor. I taught "Pottery from the Ground Up." Bretz enrolled and was a great helper with the equipment and pottery displays.
One thing was constant in all of the hostels we’ve attended: People were friendly, happy and eager to teach and learn.
We shared experiences with a fellow whose job required flying through the ash of Mount St. Helen’s volcano, a man who showed slides of swimming with Atlantic sea turtles, a woman from southern Iowa who shared details about the Boone family, not in books and a woman from Kansas who built a tabletop model of an American Indian tepee for her Girl Scouts. She dismantled and rebuilt it in a matter of minutes.
Our next Elderhostel was in Missouri, and I was the instructor of "Clay from the Ground Up" - digging and using local clay and firing pots in a kiln or a cow dung bonfire.
Chub and Bretz unloaded two potter’s wheels, a tabletop kiln and large bags of clay while I was visiting with the program director.
What a view! Every room had a small patio overlooking beautiful Sunnen Lake. A woman was fishing from the dock, and I could hardly wait to get my tackle and join her. She was a button collector from St. Louis, and she had enrolled to make her own buttons in clay.
That afternoon, four women greeted each other with hugs - a family reunion of sisters from four different states.
One fished every day and released the fish. The other three were enrolled in all three classes. They came back my third year there.
Unlimited topics are taught at Elderhostels throughout the country.
Attendees can expect food, freedom to roam, comfortable lodging and students who share their stories with each other.
Lasting friendships might result. One of my students had attended 19 previous hostels.
A man who had taken pottery in three other locations enrolled in Missouri to learn to dig his own clay.
To find complete descriptions of all of this, write for a catalog of next year’s classes from: Elderhostel, 11 Avenue de Lafayette, Boston, Mass., 92111.