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I Couch-Surfed Across America—and Lived to Tell

How I used 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

Graham Reznick/FlickrGraham Reznick/FlickrFor the first few weeks, we largely stayed within our comfort zone of young urban professionals and college students—with a few notable exceptions. Our first host, a city councilman in upstate New York who told us he conducted some of his business in strip clubs, put us in charge of the house to leave on a business trip. He left us a note: Do what you want with the place, but please don't take the television. The next night, we stayed with a retired midwife who passed the time by making oven mitts and who believed she could save squirrels from becoming roadkill by pressing her hands against the windshield while driving and making a noise like a ray gun in a vintage sci-fi flick.

But even in the most familiar of circumstances, it's tough to shake the feeling that you're dropping, Being John Malkovich-style, into someone else's life. Take Sonia, a 30-year-old family practitioner we stayed with in Glasgow, Kentucky, a courthouse town in Barren County ("#1 most livable rural community in America!") about an hour east of Bowling Green. At the time, she was the only active surfer in a town of about 14,000. On the night we arrive, the county courthouse steps have been appropriated by a Last Days Baptist revival. Sonia rolls her eyes when I relay the news.

Glasgow is an unlikely landing spot for a Polish-born liberal with a soft spot for the Red Army Choir. But Sonia hasn't yielded an inch: She's tacked a map of Paris on her living room wall and stocked her bookshelves with back issues of the New Left Review. Her laptop blasts Croatian soft rock, whose dulcet tones might be a contributing factor to her parrot's ongoing refusal to learn English. On her profile, she advertises "the (only) local deep intellectual discourse in close proximity to Mammoth Cave."

It's not just the thrill of taking candy from strangers that makes CouchSurfing radical; it's that the greatest discoveries are built on the day-to-day banalities of someone else's life.

At least once a month, Sonia reconnects with her friends in Louisville, and they partake in what avid CSers call "invasions"—in which dozens of surfers from one city will "invade" another city for a weekend of scavenger hunts, museum tours, picnics, and the odd Roller Derby match. Two days in Indianapolis probably won't make her forget about Paris, but, as Sonia puts it, "it reminds me of what I can go and do if I want to go and drive."

As it happens, Sonia is paged by her hospital just as she's set the risotto to simmer, and she's gone for four hours. We're left to finish the recipe and prevent her 18-month-old neighbor—who's come over with her mother for dinner—from literally biting off more lefty literature than she can chew. It's not just the thrill of taking candy from strangers that makes CouchSurfing radical; it's that the greatest discoveries are built on the day-to-day banalities of someone else's life.


PART OF THE APPEAL of CouchSurfing is that it offers you the luxury of choosing precisely the kind of person you're looking to stay with (provided they'll have you, of course). You can seek out specific hosts—a college senior, a senior citizen, an urban farmer, an actual farmer—with the ease of picking heirlooms at a farmer's market. It's an advantage that hitchhiking never had.

And hosts talk openly about traveling vicariously through their surfers. Bud and Carol, a near-retirement-age LDS couple in Utah, had us sign a guest log articulating (among other things) the scope of our trip, along with a written guide to our hometown. They don't travel much themselves, but their kids do, and so they host as many travelers as they can as a form of karmic insurance. In Mississippi, we stayed with an Air Force vet from Seattle working as a contractor at a Naval air base. He'd given up on meeting new people in Meridian—how could you, unless you joined the Rotary Club or a church? For him, hosting surfers was a way of keeping in contact with folks like himself.

Bill, our host in Duluth, described himself in his profile as a Zamboni operator and freelance detective. In reality, he manned the graveyard shift at an assisted living facility and supplemented his income by donating plasma on the weekends. With the decline of the Iron Range, he explained, blood was now the city's largest export. This was also false.

Greeting us on the front steps of a Victorian apartment building overlooking Leif Erickson Park, he cuts a distinctive figure—aspiring mutton chops and a shock of rusty-brown hair framing a pair of beat-up glasses held together by masking tape. His neck cranes down and then back up when he walks, as if he's ever battling an invisible torrent of sleet; the lazy eye almost seems superfluous.

In anticipation of our arrival, he's sorted through a dumpster for an extra set of couch cushions, bedbugs be damned. But, he warns, "I'm gonna have a rager tonight, kind of. Like it'll be pretty wild, so if you guys just want to stay with someone else, that's cool."

The rager ultimately consists of seven people, clustered in a kitchen. There's a strobe light in the living room, but no dancing. The whole thing, Bill concludes, would have been better if he could have scored some dry ice. Still, he shows us the side of the city you'll never find in a guide book: a Brazilian Laundromat with live parakeets; an abandoned ski jump with a panoramic view of the harbor; and the "graffiti graveyard," an I-35 overpass that's home to the city's finest underground art.

When Bill surfs, he wants a "weird experience" and picks hosts accordingly. Some experiences are weirder than others—when he first passed through Duluth, his host suffered a nervous breakdown and took off. Bill ended up moving in with her roommates.

Because he views it as a form of immersion tourism, he can't stand it when his hosts out him as a surfer to their friends. It makes him feel like a second-class acquaintance. "I made it a thing where I would get people to agree that if we went out and people asked us how we knew each other," he says, "we'd tell them we used to be camp counselors."

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