In the front yard the group may be playing duck-duck- goose; in the back, sitting around a bonfire exchanging stories; and before the day ends, some of these strangers may become friends.
These travelers are hostelers exploring the American countryside, discovering places others only dream about. They com in all ages and backgrounds, families or singles, from every part of the world.
They may be in the Rockies for the weekend, bicycling across the US, or walking the Florida beaches. But all have one thing in common -- the desire to get out and see what's over the next hill.
At night they converge on hostels -- safe, clean places to spend the night without spending a fortune. Overnight fees average $3.50 per person, slightly more during the winter due to heating costs. Hostelers bring their own food and cook their own meals.
On the outside, these American hostels may be farmhouses, mansions, barns, or private homes; on the inside they are converted into dormitory-style sleeping accommodations with kitchen facilities and a common living-room.
Simplicity is the rule. There are no servants, so hostelers share in domestic duties, washing dishes and sweeping floors. They are supervised by resident houseparents who are volunteers or hired at small salaries.
Hostels, open to all who carry a valid American Youth Hostel membership pass, are usually closed during the day and have some type of curfew varying from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. Maximum stay is usually three nights. Many of them are open year round; most encourage reservations.
In the US, hosteling means traveling under your own steam -- biking, hiking, canoeing, skiing, or by horseback -- by since many hostels are located in isolated areas, public transportation or private cars can be used as long as travelers plan to engage in outdoor activities during their stay at a hostel.
"Hostels bring people together," explains Art Olson, a cohouseparent with his wife Lucy, in Durango, Colo. "It's like organizing a family. Even the chores -- especially dishwashing -- become a good time."
Hostelers usually arrive in Durango by bus, but participate in outdoor activities during their stay, visiting prehistoric cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park, the melodramatic Abbey Theater, or they go snow-skiing, hiking, rafting, or fishing. Discount coupons are available through the hostel for many activities.
The Durango hostel has already had visitors from 36 countries and 45 states so far this year. Art Olson says it's like "bringing the world to us."
Star of the Sea Hostel in Nantucket, Mass., an island off Cape Cod, was originally a lifesaving station built in 1883. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Nantucket houseparents Becky Buck-Leaman and Jeff Leaman first became enthused about hosteling during their travels in Europe and were tour leaders for many AYH-sponsored trips in the United States.
"We enjoy interacting with people who share our interest in the out-of-doors, " says Jeff Leaman. "I can't think of another way I'd rather spend my time." Star of the Sea, with accommodations for 70, is booked for 90 percent of the summer, an indication of the way hosteling in the US is skyrocketing.
At this hostel, rise and shine is 7 a.m., allowing two hours for wakeup and breakfast. From 9 to 9:30 a.m., everyone does chores and then hits the road.
Hostelers start arriving for the night at 5 p.m. and spend a few minutes registering and settling in. The rest of the evening may be spent at the beach, playing volleyball or horseshoes, but mostly just getting to know everyone. Lights are out by 10:30 p.m.
Hostels can be owned privately or by AYH councils and other groups such as the YMCA and church and outdoor organizations.
In Carnation, Wash., Darcy and Don Newman have opened their private home to hostelers. "It doesn't tie us down," says Darcy Newman. 'It's really a neighborhood hostel. It we're booked up or out when a hosteler arrives, they can just go next door."
Most Carnation hostelers arrive by car or bus. The area is a great bike riding, swimming, and hiking area, with four ski resorts only 30 minutes away.
"We have had many hostelers from Australia and Germany," says Mrs. Newman. "House parenting has been great. It's like traveling without going anywhere."
The first US hostel was opened in 1934 by two American schoolteachers, Isabel and Monroe Smith, in Northfield, Mass. Today, there are 250 hostels in 40 states and the District of Columbia and more than 82,000 AYH members.
AYH is part of the worldwide International Youth Hostel Federation. Memberships cost $7 to $14 annually, depending on age. Special discount rates are available for families and nonprofit organizations. Introductory cards for joining.
Members receive the "American Youth Hostel Guide" listing all US hostel locations, prices, maps, and suggestions for tours including the popular "chains" in California, Colorado, and the New England states where many hostels are clustered together.
AYH hopes to add coastal chains on the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf shores; the area of western Montana between Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks; and the Great Lakes area.
Because the US is so vast, youth hostels have not yet developed in all areas of the country. "We need a hostel in Concord or Manchester, N.H., to fill in achain between Boston and Montreal," explains Ron Gallagher, office manager for the Greater Boston AYH Council."
He emphasizes that hostels try to promote international goodwill. "It's one of the biggest reasons I'm involved with AYH. People on international travels get to know and make friends with people in other countries, so we're less likely to go to war with each other."
For information contact: American Youth Hostels, Inc., Delaplane, Va. 22025.