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Redlight Illuminates Truckee

Town’s only hostel is a place for new friends and adventures
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Gnomes, by nature, are personable creatures. Triscuits are their snack of choice, and they all speak with a British accent, though they insist they are not in fact British. Regular white lights are too harsh for them, so red is the light frequency they prefer, and which makes them most productive. Hence the name of the Redlight hostel, a nod to the eponymous red lights that fill the basement of the building in the heart of downtown Truckee, where a fleet of friendly gnomes reside.

If this story seems far-fetched to you, don’t feel alone. Even the owners of Redlight are still workshopping the story behind the name of their new hostel. What the creative license taken illustrates most is the eccentricity of Redlight’s owners, and the kind of stay you’ll have if you choose to frequent the hostel.

Chances are, you have driven by the red building, but most likely did not know what it was. That is by design. There is no signage, nothing to advertise the company name or the nature of their business. You can’t just walk in, either. You must be buzzed in, meaning you were deemed worthy to enter. And owners, Zach Cowan and Abby Pulos have no plans to change that.

Cowan and Polus are like the perfect comedic duo. Cowan is the eclectic, and Polus serves as his “straight man,” tempering his wandering thoughts, but never extinguishing them. And to say Polus is the serious one undercuts her contribution to the zany pair. Both are bold dreamers, with their heads in the clouds, but one has her feet a little more firmly on the ground.

After seeing the building at 10101 W. River St, Cowan knew that it was the perfect layout for a hostel. Yet neither one of them had any experience in starting a hostel from scratch. Neither has a background in construction. Revitalizing the historic building, purchased by Cowan in 2012, was a lesson in how to “build your own hostel through YouTube,” Polus said. Neither had a background in hotel management. They caved and let a few hikers stay in the hostel before they were fully ready to launch, a choice they later deemed “unprofessional, even by their standards.” Cowan said that he had once thought of purchasing a hostel in Argentina, where he spent many years as an adventure guide, but thought better of it, saying that at the time he “pretty much decided it would be a bad idea to ever have anything to do with a hostel.”

But in spite of the lack of prior experience, Redlight launched in June, and the reception has been overwhelmingly positive. Its proximity to the train and bus stations is perfect for travelers like Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers, or adventurers without cars.

The hostel offers multiple types of rooms for every type of traveler: shared bunk rooms, private rooms with private or shared baths, and a suite with a kitchenette. They also provide amenities like laundry service — vital for the hikers who frequent the hostel — and even a dry sauna that overlooks Riverside Drive and the Truckee River. The bunk rooms are the most unique. Polus describes Cowan as having an engineering-inclined mind with an incredible artistic side, which is evident from the marvelous and genius way he designed the bunks. It’s clear he has spent a lot of time in hostels, and knows the pitfalls that come with sharing a room with strangers. The bunks have black-out curtains for privacy and a lockable cabinet above the foot of the bed with outlets inside, so people can charge their devices without having to worry about them being left unattended. All rooms are also insulated to provide some soundproofing, and are equipped with white noise machines.

Cowan also knows the importance of the social aspect that comes with staying in a hostel.

“What’s unique about the business here … is the different way to travel and see things and maybe meet people, which I think you get in the hostel experience that I don’t see here,” Cowan said. “Just trying to meet someone to go find a good activity to do, I think that’s the thing that this town is missing, and that’s what we’re trying to provide.”

Cowan and Polus want to create an environment that facilitates those social connections. Redlight has a bar, open to the public from 6 to 11 p.m. on Thursday to Saturday nights. It has a large kitchen with space to cook meals with new friends. The top floor of the building houses a donated library, replete with piles of comfy pillows for seating. There is also a stylish lounge in the back of the house, and the next project is to complete the 70s-themed movie room, which will feature a mustard yellow velour couch, lava lamps, and red curtains.

In the past, the building has been a saloon, a speakeasy, a brothel, and a boarding house, says Polus. The gothic décor and red velvet wallpaper of the front room harkens back to the history of the building, and pays homage to the original wallpaper found when fixing up the place. The floor in the lounge is plastered with turn-of-the-century newspapers and magazines, advertising corsets, and other dated ladies’ fashions. Polus is in the process of making an art installation for the bar that will combine peacock feathers, a mannequin, and gold-painted, molted snakeskin from her python.

Cowan and Polus say they want to create an environment that inspires adventure at every turn. Cowan’s eyes light up when he says the word adventure. As a former outdoors guide, that is one area he doesn’t need a YouTube video to explain. “I really liked bringing people to a place that puts them right at the edge of what they can do, or what they thought they could do,” Cowan said of his time as a guide. “And then you give them the sense of discovery. That was the best part. But that has nothing to do with this.”

“Actually, it has everything to do with this,” Polus said.

“But once I discovered the gnomes …”

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June 14, 2018