The Hostel Stay that Changed My Life

05 November 2018

By Jay Cooke

Jay Cooke is a San Francisco-based travel writer who still wishes he never did sell that funky old Firebird. 

When I first arrived in San Francisco, I had no plans to stay. No way, no thank you, nuh-uh, not me. 

As a full-on global traveler, my path was already laid out. I’d just wrapped a year teaching English in South Korea, and had plans to hang around Northern California for a couple of weeks before making my way down south. Central America was beckoning, Machu Picchu beguiling. My well-thumbed Argentina guidebook was littered with notes. 

San Francisco would be a way station, a temporary pit stop. I knew I’d love the City by the Bay, but was sure I’d bounce right through. 

Little did I know then that my visit to HI San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf would literally change my life. 

the entrance of HI SF Fishermans Wharf Hostel

The day I landed at SFO airport in September 1997 started innocently enough. It was a gorgeous morning, warm and sunny, fall being the best season for weather in SF. After claiming my backpack and bag filled with most of my worldly possessions, I headed to Fort Mason, the former army post-turned-urban national park and home to my hostel for the next two weeks. 

Rolling up to Fort Mason, I wasn’t sure what awaited. I’d booked my stay at HI SF Fisherman’s Wharf from the Internet café back in Seoul, checking that box to ensure my smooth arrival back stateside. I’d known of the hostel’s bayside location, but little else.

What I didn’t expect to find was a full-blown music festival raging right next door: The San Francisco Blues Festival was packing in people on the Great Meadow adjacent to the main hostel building, an elongated old wooden barracks framed by eucalyptus trees and fronting sublime San Francisco Bay. 

Robert Cray was bending strings on his wailing guitar while I was waiting to check in and thinking, “I booked into the right place.” 

the Fort Mason meadow in San Francisco

I scored a lower bunk in a small corner room, and set out to explore all that HI SF Fisherman’s Wharf had to offer: the cozy common room with its couches and traveler’s library; the huge downstairs kitchen; jaw-dropping views from the onsite café. 

Over the next week I dove into activities with other hostellers the world over: a North Beach pub crawl, pick-up games of Frisbee, trips to the Marina Safeway for communal dinners. 

I partnered with an Australian fellow traveler named Dara for explorations around San Francisco, to Haight Street music stores, Mission District taquerias, the Presidio and Golden Gate Bridge. 

haigt street san francisco

My mornings were filled with coffee and pastries at the café, writing in my journal while watching bay boat traffic glide by. 

I spent plenty of time exploring the surrounding Fort Mason grounds, loaded with unexpected, eye-opening history, like old Civil War-era batteries behind the hostel, and the huge piers of Lower Fort Mason, where more than a million sailors shipped out in World War II. 

One day while checking out the “Rides Wanted” postings on the hostel bulletin board I noticed a pivotal sign: 

“Help Wanted.” 

As fate had it, a job had opened up at the hostel itself. They needed front desk help to check in guests, answer questions, and keep the rooms tidy. 

As part of the job, they offered accommodation on-site at the hostel. 

I asked myself, “What about South America, Jay?” But I knew the job was a golden opportunity to spend more time in San Francisco, doing what I loved: working in travel. 

So I threw my hat into the ring, and sure enough, I got the job. 

For the next 11 months I worked at HI SF Fisherman’s Wharf, meeting tons of people and racking up life experiences. I explored hostels up and down the California coast, from Point Reyes to Santa Monica. I learned how to fold dorm bed sheets like a pro. 

the golden gate bridge at dawn

On off days, I worked on my travel writing, honing the skill that would later lead to me getting hired at Lonely Planet and launching my travel publishing career. At night, I started leading those North Beach pub crawls myself. 

One day that spring, I met two Kiwi travelers who were heading home after working at ski resorts in British Columbia. 

They were looking to sell their car, a funky old 1976 Pontiac Firebird, white with a burgundy interior. We test drove it out to Ocean Beach at sundown, and $600 dollars later, that car was mine. 

a white 1976 Pontiac Firebird in California

Not long after, I took a trip to Austin, Texas, to visit friends in my old post-college town. I ran into a woman I’d known a bit back in the day, and worked up the courage to ask her out. She said yes, and we hit it off. On the flight back to San Francisco, I knew I’d fallen for her. 

Over the next couple months we had a long-distance relationship, and I came to realize my new path ahead. So I bid goodbye to the hostel, packed up that Firebird and drove it 1,800 miles to Texas. We spent a year together there, then moved back to the San Francisco Bay Area, where we would settle down, start a family and still live to this day. 

And that’s the story of my two-week HI SF Fisherman’s Wharf vacation that’s now going on 21 years. 


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