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Had Backpack, Did Travel

Every once in awhile, we take note of the death of an interesting person you've probably never heard of. Marty Knowlton, who died March 13 at age 88, was such a person.

Generations of young Americans have headed to Europe, especially, and to other places around the world to, as they might say, bum around for awhile, meet people of different cultures, and learn a bit of history. Few young travelers have large enough bankrolls to stay at hotels and pensions, so they congregate at inexpensive youth hostels. There, the rooms are typically shared, as are community shower facilities, kitchens if there are any, and even reading materials.

In 1975, Marty Knowlton ran such a hostel at the University of New Hampshire in the northeastern United States. He was 55 years old, and like his young guests, he and his friends enjoyed treks to new places. He had spent several years backpacking throughout Europe, where a simple question began to dawn on him: Shouldn't there also be cheap hostel accommodations for older people like him? And not only that, shouldn't there perhaps be structured learning programs attached to these facilities?

So he and a friend, David Bianco, began what is now a worldwide Elderhostel program. An Associated Press article described Elderhostel's aim as erasing the idea the elderly are 'all used up.'

Each year these days, more than 100,000 people age 55 and older - sometimes with younger traveling companions - participate in Elderhostel programs in every U.S. state and most countries. In addition to affordable nights' stays, these programs offer meals, lectures, language immersion programs, guided excursions, even medical coverage.

We don't know what Marty Knowlton would think about this, though: Backpacks are optional.

Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.