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I Couch-Surfed Across America—and Lived to Tell

How I used CouchSurfing.org to crash with perfect strangers and see the country on the cheap (without getting killed by an ax murderer).

| Fri Feb. 17, 2012 7:00 AM EST

sweens308/Flickrsweens308/FlickrFor the last two years, Jeffery-James Halvorson, a 33-year-old used-car salesman, has been preparing his property outside Arlee, Montana, for the end of America as we know it. "Progressive taxation has failed," he says, and when the dollar finally collapses, and the shelves at the Piggly Wiggly sit empty, and the oil companies sell every last drop of sweet American crude to China, people will migrate to the Big Sky en masse—and Halvorson believes his compound, where he lives with his cat, 4 dogs, 9 goats, 18 chickens, and an assault rifle, will be perfectly positioned for a new role as a refugee camp.

Fears of impending societal collapse are nothing new in northwest Montana. But Halvorson's home is noteworthy for what it has become in the interim: the Orange Acres Dharma Station, a safe house, inspired in part by the television series Lost, where travelers passing through—or looking for work, or sightseeing, or just killing time before their Social Security check comes in—can find a soft bed, a warm shower, and some mini-golf, at no cost for three days. Longer, if they're willing to put in a little work.

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When I stayed at Orange Acres more than a year ago, at the tail end of a cross-country road trip, the place was bustling, filled with that perfectly blended cocktail of humanity otherwise found only at the DMV. Among the guests: a twentysomething guy from Wisconsin, scouting out real estate in Idaho because Israel just bought a ton of military-grade jet fuel, and, as he put it, "things are about to get hairy"; a family of four from Kalispell, way up north by Glacier, looking for work—and a home—in nearby Missoula; a dreadlocked musician (more on that in a second); and an on-again, off-again gold prospector named Carl, perfectly bald with a beard like a badly singed Brillo pad and just one tooth on top that wiggled like a light switch when he got excited. If we could stick around for a few days until his pension came in, Carl said, maybe he could come with us to California.

Orange Acres takes all kinds, provided you follow a few simple rules:

• No alcoholics, crackheads, or members of the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, or PETA
• "[O]n the subject of hippies and rainbow people," please don't wear patchouli oil: "That stuff stinks forever"—and bring your own pillowcase if you have dreadlocks.
• Happy Hour starts at 6:30 p.m.; during that time—and only during that time—you may drink beer or smoke pot. Do not get shitfaced or you will be thrown out of the house. If you drink and try to drive, Jeff will handcuff you to a chair and call the cops.
• Dogs and children must be on leashes. This is non-negotiable.

"The place really is not a commune; it is a dictatorship," Halvorson tells me.

 

I FOUND HALVORSON and Orange Acres through CouchSurfing.org, an online social network that pairs travelers who need a place to stay with total strangers who don't mind putting them up—for free. It's hardly a new concept: Mennonites, Mensa members, and Esperanto speakers all have their own free travel clubs. And since 2002, Hospitality Club has brought a more wide-open approach through the internet. But the former are all confined to niche demographics, and the latter has been slow to take off, owing, perhaps, to its Geocities-chic interface. CouchSurfing is slick, aspirational (its slogan used to be "Creating a Better World, one Couch at a Time"; the current one is "Creating Inspiring Experiences"), and growing fast.

I needed a way to see the country without selling all my baseball cards. Motels were out; campsites charge for Wi-Fi (not to mention the whole Grizzly Man thing).

Since its inception in 2004, the site has swollen to 3.7 million members in 249 territories and countries; it touts 6.6 million "positive experiences," a metric it tracks through a self-reporting survey system. Media reports about travel-networking sites like CouchSurfing—and there have been a few—typically present it as a portal for backpackers and study-abroad types looking to see Europe on a budget, an à la carte youth hostel for the Facebook generation.

And that's more or less why I signed up: I needed a way to see the country without selling all my baseball cards. Motels were out of the question; campsites charged you extra for Wi-Fi and water (not to mention the whole Grizzly Man thing). So I set up an account, paid $25 to have my address verified through a credit card check, and filled out a profile. With prompts like "Types of People You Enjoy," "Current Mission," and "Teach, Learn, Share," CS bios fall somewhere between a personal ad and a summer camp icebreaker. WikiLeaks maestro Julian Assange, who reportedly registered for the site under the pseudonym "Harry Harrison," described himself in his profile simply as a "Grown up enfant terrible" interested in "obscure works produced under difficult circumstances by courageous authors."

The "mission," as my friend Alex and I had conceived of it, was to see as much of the country as we could in three months, charting a westward course, like an out-of-control seismograph, from Boston to New Orleans to Duluth to Austin to Seattle to San Francisco and various points in between. We sent out a handful of couch requests, stating our purpose, a few innocuous interests ("people"), and an open offer to cook breakfast. Then we hit the road.

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