Storyteller-in-Chief: A Respite in the Desert

Jalet Farrell writes about what inspired her to create the Spoke’n Hostel in Mitchell, Ore.

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I had an inspired moment in the spring of 2015 while traveling through Mitchell, a remote Eastern Oregon town of 125 people located near Oregon’s fabled Painted HIlls.

The idea? Open a hostel.

The inspiration came from somewhere other than experience, because I’ve never owned a hospitality business and, at nearly 55 years of age at the time of this moment, I’d never even stayed in a hostel.

Inspiration isn’t always based on what you know.

I inquired about a closed church on Highway 26 at the western edge of Mitchell as a possible candidate for a hostel. The recently closed church belonged to the Assemblies of God denomination, the same as our home church in Monmouth, Ore.

Stepping wildly out of my comfort zone, I introduced the idea of reopening the church for locals and hosting overnight travelers on a donation basis to our local pastor and regional directors. I knew if I built it, travelers would come. My own version of the movie Field of Dreams, I suppose.

I connected with Travel Oregon and started attending every meeting I could travel to, and talking about my vision to whomever would ask or listen. I networked shamelessly. Everywhere I went, I’d tell listeners I was opening a hostel in the middle of nowhere.

During the process of sharing my vision, I discovered bicycle tourers on the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail — a 3,500-mile bike touring route stretching from Astoria, Ore., to Yorktown, Va. —had been riding within feet of the front door of the old church since 1976.

In February of 2016, our home church in Monmouth acquired the deed to the church in Mitchell and handed me the keys to the closed building. I packed up my blue heeler, some Harbor Freight tools, a sleeping bag and a backpack, and set off to begin renovations while living in the basement of the church, which was constructed in 1943. As I began renovating and updating, waves of willing volunteers — both local to Mitchell and from our family of Praise churches in the Willamette Valley — came to support the vision. I would work all week getting ready for volunteers to arrive on their weekends off to strip floors, remove carpet, build beds, paint and handle general construction.

Just three months after starting renovations, my husband was standing outside consulting with an electrician when a cyclist appeared on the horizon. With a tinge of a Scottish accent, the traveler inquired, “Is this the hostel?” as he came to a stop in front of the building. My husband looked at the building and back at the traveler and said, “Yes. Yes, it is.”

We didn’t even have beds yet. My husband immediately called me in Bend, where I was on a supply run, and told me to buy bedding, because we had our first guest. I thought he was joking. He was not.

Now, seven seasons later, we’ve hosted more than 5,000 travelers of all kinds from around the globe.

The vision of opening a hostel is bigger than providing a bed or a shower to a traveler, though.

Spoke’n Hostel is unique in that the hostel operates on a suggested-donation basis. The goal is to ensure travelers have a safe, welcoming environment while still having enough money to shop at one of our local merchants.

We do not serve food. Instead, we encourage guests to support local businesses. Almost every single guest we host makes the five-minute walk downtown and leaves a minimum of $20 — often leaving additional money in several locations.

With only 120 full-time residents in Mitchell, local merchants rely on each other — and tourism — to hit our bottom line, to keep a fully stocked grocery/feed/hardware store in business or to keep the doors of a restaurant open. Tourism is now one of our main industries, and we are interdependent on having places to eat, shop, explore and stay.

Many aspects of opening the hostel were well thought out. Perhaps just as many were moments of faith. I don’t know how to tell someone to just go on faith, but what I can say without hesitation is this: You do not always need to be trained, you need to start where you are. Be willing to work hard and to learn. Trust. Say yes more times than you say no to offers of help. Desire to serve the best you have to offer and build on that.

I learned you have to believe in the dream more than anyone else. There were a lot of placating smiles from people. I had to pretend I didn’t notice their doubt and hold fast to my vision and enthusiastic belief that this would be a success. I knew it was crazy, but I believed there was a need and that I could fulfill the need if I just kept at it. I wanted to succeed so others could follow and do something similar in other towns along the route.

I learned that mistakes were the currency of growth and that pursuing a passion is not without sacrifice from yourself but those around you, too. I also learned that mistakes can be road markers for finding another route. Believe in what could be, even if it seems an unlikely or a dimly lit path.

Surround yourself with those who believe in the vision you hold. That can be family, friends and the associates of your local Chamber of Commerce. Make people feel valued, and help those you meet believe in themselves.

Caring doesn’t cost a cent but adds to your bottom line every time.

Jalet Farrell is the owner of the Spoke’n Hostel in Mitchell, Ore.